Ask Puneet Anand, 35, how he’s adjusting to a new life in Toronto, and he doesn’t miss a beat.
“I’m still getting used to the cold,” he said. Rapidly dropping temperatures in southern Ontario are a change for Anand, who called San Diego home not too long ago.
“I miss the weather there,” he said. “You just can’t beat it.”
Moving away wasn’t always the plan. A former hardware engineer at Qualcomm, Anand was employed in the United States on an H-1B visa — a temporary status given to highly skilled foreign guest workers. A majority of workers are hired as engineers or computer scientists, with large populations in California.
“It was a great company and they filed for my green card early,” he said. “But then in a few years, reality struck.”
Like other Indian nationals, he was caught in a backlog for permanent residency in the United States. Employment-based green cards are capped at a certain number for every country, resulting in longer lines for nationalities with bigger pools of applicants, such as India and China.
“I couldn’t do anything but wait,” said Anand. The uncertainty of permanent status made it harder to plan a future in America, he added. He began looking for solutions, eventually finding one that lay north of the border.
In 2019, Anand migrated to Canada through a program called the Global Skills Strategy. Implemented by the Canadian government in 2017, it allows expedited processing for a work visa, usually around two weeks.
Faster immigration options for highly skilled workers have been growing in Canada. The Express Entry system was created in 2015 to manage permanent resident applications for skilled workers, awarding the status to qualified applicants.
Four years ago, around 10,000 foreign nationals received permanent residency through the program. In 2018, that number was nine times higher.
Though no data tracks highly-skilled foreign workers moving from the United States to Canada, Indians and Chinese nationals working in tech accounted for the highest number of express entry admissions in 2018.
Immigration experts at the Toronto branch of law firm Fragomen have seen a large number of Indian nationals applying for permanent residency in Canada, a path that eventually leads to citizenship in three years.
Faster processing for immigration status is an advantage to both employees unsure of their status in the United States and employers, who could retain skilled workers in their foreign branches, said David Crawford, a partner at Fragomen’s Toronto office.
“There’s much greater certainty on the outcome,” said Crawford. “It helps your whole decision making.”
Apart from the backlog, other issues make the H1-B a more uncertain prospect than previous years. Denial rates have been steadily climbing, rising from 6% in 2015 to 24% in 2019, according to data reported by Mother Jones. Delays in processing visas prompted concern from more than 20 U.S. senators, who addressed the issues in a letter to USCIS in May.
Shalaka Maind, 29, was a biomedical engineer in Carlsbad, California, working on a student visa valid for only three years.
“My company applied for my visa twice, but I didn’t get picked in the lottery,” said Maind, referring to a computer generated random selection process that awards work visas every year.
Her husband also faced some obstacles finding his own work visa. Eventually, they decided to apply through the express entry system and migrate to Canada.
Saying goodbye to San Diego didn’t come easily, but Maind said they’ve found a sense of stability in Toronto.
“It’s a growing country,” she said. “With the tech sector coming up, there are a lot of opportunities. Looking at our short-term and long-term options, we decided to pick coming here.”
A small, still growing community of former H-1B tech workers has begun to burgeon in Toronto and Vancouver, cities that now host a lineup of companies that rival Silicon Valley. While Google, Netflix and Microsoft have a large presence, startups have also begun to break ground.
Vikram Rangnekar, 36, founded one of them. The lure of starting his own venture drew him to leave behind a life in Silicon Valley.
“On an H-1B, you’re tied to the employer you work for,” he said, adding that a specific visa for entrepreneurs didn’t exist. “And I’d always pursued startups. I had some friends who had begun startups in Toronto and I reached out to them.”
Rangnekar decided to leave for Canada more than two years ago, using his LinkedIn account to document the experience.
“I just started blogging on LinkedIn and that exploded,” he said. “A lot of people were interested in how I’d done it.”
Answering that curiosity resulted in his next startup, a digital platform called MovNorth. A community forum and also a space for employers to seek out talent, the site is geared toward acquainting tech workers with the process of moving to Canada. Hundreds of threads are replied to every day, discussing the initial process of moving to Canada and settling in.
Many are former H1-B workers looking to build a new home up north. Newcomers ask for housing and dining recommendations, if local schools are any good and inquire if anyone in the area would like to meet up.
“People tell me they moved here and found friends on the website,” said Rangnekar.
Anand still speaks wistfully of San Diego’s beaches and hikes to Potato Chip Rock. His new home, however, has been as welcoming.
“There’s a very diverse community,” he said of Canada’s new wave of Indian immigrants. “In Qualcomm, most of the people we knew were engineers, but when people come through express entry, they’re in various fields. I’ve learned a lot from people here.”
Despite some restrictions, the H-1B is still the most sought-out visa in the United States. Over 150,000 petitions are filed every year, predominantly by tech giants who want to ensure that Silicon Valley is kept at the forefront of the tech sector.
But a quieter trend continues to build on forums like Rangnekar’s, growing as Canada pushes itself to expand both immigration and talent in its labor markets.
Though clients who’ve left the U.S. do express a desire to return, Fragomen attorney Audrea Golding says there is concern among U.S. companies that retaining them on work visas may become more difficult. Foreign branches of their offices may be a viable option, she said.
“Companies are doing more to keep the overseas options as a part of their long-term retention planning,” said Golding. “And if you’re in Canada, it’s minimizing the disruption.”