Engineers Are Leaving Trump’s America for the Canadian Dream
The long wait for green cards was bad enough. Antagonism toward immigrants is pushing skilled foreigners across the border.
Vikram Rangnekar grew up in Mumbai, studied computer science at the University of Delaware, and by the waning days of the Obama administration had been working in Silicon Valley for almost six years. Through his job as a software engineer at LinkedIn Corp., Rangnekar secured an H-1B, the temporary visa for high-skilled workers, and the company began the process of sponsoring his green card way back in 2012. But he had dozens of senior colleagues from India who’d been waiting a decade or more for their green cards and still didn’t have them. “Some said it’d take 20 years for my turn,” Rangnekar remembers. “Others calculated 50 years—which is basically never.” As a young man with a global sensibility and an in-demand set of skills, Rangnekar had no reason to let the uncertainty of a green card application define his family’s life. In the early fall of 2016, he, his wife, and their two young boys made the move north, to Canada.
Their first few months in Toronto were mostly spent settling in and scouting out decent tacos. Then Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election. Rangnekar’s inbox blew up with messages from friends and colleagues in the U.S. on H-1Bs asking for advice on how to migrate. Rather than deal with each one individually, he registered a website, MOVNorth.com—a reference to MOV, a classic coding command for copying data from one location to another—and wrote everything down there. He shared the URL on LinkedIn—of course—hoping it would help a few people. Sitting in a light-filled coffee shop in his hip Toronto neighborhood less than a year later, Rangnekar pulls up the website on his MacBook. “That’s me,” he laughs, pointing to a selfie of him in a parka and wool beanie, both dusted with snow, smiling broadly and “freezing away.”
In its first two days online last July, MOVNorth.com got 20,000 views. He quickly set up a forum where people could ask and answer each other’s questions, and early last fall added a paywall to encourage people to commit to the community. Today, the site gets as many as 100,000 views per month—Rangnekar can track Trump’s rhetoric just by the spikes in traffic. Roughly 250 people pay $99 a year for access to the forum, almost all of whom are actively pursuing a move. He knows of at least a dozen other engineers who took his advice and have already arrived in Toronto.
Rangnekar still gets email queries daily, mostly from engineers with Indian surnames, all looking for the same information. Then there are the other emails, the ones Rangnekar calls “nastygrams.” He pulls up a sample with the subject line “Ignorant Idiot.” “You’re going to ruin your own country’s economy by making it harder for Canadians to find jobs, so for that reason we here in the US stopped foreign visas,” he reads. “We are becoming a proud independent nation again.”
There are anti-immigrant and so-called alt-right groups in Canada, but they haven’t gained the same traction as in the U.S. and Europe. The country has historically courted immigrants to propel economic growth. Now, at least 1 in 5 Canadian residents was born abroad; in Toronto, which has a thriving Indian community, more than half are foreign-born. “Canadians don’t send me any of this,” Rangnekar says, waving a hand at the screen. Sometimes Canadians—always polite—write wondering whether an invasion of engineers will hurt the country. He writes back explaining what to him is an obvious, pragmatic reality: that tech is growing in its importance to culture and economies, and the benefits in terms of jobs and wealth are increasingly concentrated in global cities like Toronto. In short, as he sees it, the influx of migrants to Canada helps everyone.
The H-1B was created in 1990, part of an immigration overhaul signed into law by President George H.W. Bush that also created the EB-5 investor visa—the subject of a fracas involving Kushner Cos. seeking Chinese investment—and the diversity lottery, which Trump has attacked. Today, an estimated half a million H-1B holders live in the U.S. No one tracks exactly how many ditch their skilled visas for the permanent residency Canada offers, but during the first year of Trump’s presidency, the number of tech professionals globally who got permanent residency in Canada ticked up almost 40 percent from 2016, to more than 11,000.
Almost from the beginning, the H-1B system had obvious flaws. Outsourcing companies flood the application pool with jobs that barely qualify as high-skill, taking visas that could go to full-time employees at advanced technology companies. The cap on the number of H-1B visas fluctuates, but in the five-day annual application window in early April, about 190,000 people petitioned for just 85,000 spots—in Obama’s last year, 236,000 applied for the same number of visas. The lucky winners are chosen in a lottery. H-1Bs cost employers from $1,710 to $7,700, depending on factors such as their size and how much they depend on foreign staff. A chunk of those fees is earmarked for training U.S. workers in science and technology, but an analysis by the Brookings Institution found that, on balance, the money isn’t going to the areas with the highest demand for tech workers, i.e., where the greatest number of Americans could benefit.
Rangnekar received his H-1B in 2010, but his history with employment visas dates to 2005, when he graduated from the University of Delaware and wanted to start a company with two of his former classmates. The U.S. didn’t have an entrepreneur visa, so they moved to Singapore, returning four years later to present their product—Socialwok, a pre-Slack social platform for professional collaboration—to investors at the TechCrunch50 startup conference in San Francisco. They didn’t attract new cash, but all three walked away with the next best thing: a promising job offer.
Rangnekar had met his wife, Deepa Chaudhary, in Mumbai, and they married before moving to Singapore. Once they settled near San Jose, “I was seduced by the Californian lifestyle,” Rangnekar says. “The work environment, the free food, the state-of-the-art gym, a home in the Santa Cruz mountains.” Yet there were things preventing them from committing for the long haul. In Singapore, Chaudhary worked for Salesforce.com Inc.’s philanthropic foundation, but the spousal visa that comes with the H-1B, the H-4, at the time forbade her from holding a job. (Guidelines issued in early 2015 allowed certain H-4 holders to apply for work permits, but the Trump administration is reconsidering that policy.) Immigration law limits how many people from any given country can be granted green cards, and because Indians get about three-quarters of all H-1Bs, their backlog has grown. The couple began considering where they might go: to Singapore, to a European tech hub such as Berlin, or even to India. Then a friend of a friend mentioned Toronto.
In 1967, Canada became the first country to adopt a points-based immigration system. The country regularly tweaks how it rates applicants based on national goals and research into what makes for successful integration: A job offer used to come with 600 points, but now it’s worth just 200. Other factors like speaking fluent English or French—or, even better, both—have been given more weight over the years. Country of origin is irrelevant.
In 2016, Canada increased national immigration levels to 300,000 new permanent residents annually. Last year, in consultation with trade groups, it created a program called the Global Skills Strategy to issue temporary work permits to people with job offers in certain categories, including senior software engineers, in as little as two weeks. Since the program started in June, more than 5,600 people have been granted permits, from the U.S., India, Pakistan, Brazil, and elsewhere.
When he and Chaudhary decided to move, Rangnekar had an idea for a startup aimed at helping developers use advanced programming interfaces, or APIs, to build apps, but neither of them had a job offer. Still, for Canada at least, they were desirable applicants. Standing in the bright kitchen of their rented row house, their 3-year-old son slurping strawberry ice cream, they explain how simple it was to go online back in San Jose and, using a calculator provided by the Canadian government, determine with relative certainty that they would qualify for permanent residency. The hardest part about applying was taking a photo that met Canada’s specifications. “She sent them to me, and I was like, ‘This looks OK,’ ” Rangnekar says. Chaudhary cuts him off: “I was like, ‘No! It has to be centered like this!’ ”
Once Trump was elected, Canadians would cautiously ask Rangnekar, “What do you think about him?” “I make it clear what side I’m on,” he says. Rangnekar watched as the travel ban triggered sweeping protests, legal challenges, and, among many in Trump’s base, red-blooded exultation. The nationalist wave hit home for many H-1B workers that February when a white man walked into a bar in Olathe, Kansas, shouted “Get out of my country!” and shot two Indian engineers.
Trump has since called for broad cuts to legal immigration and accused the H-1B system in particular of stealing jobs from American workers. He’s also advocated adopting a points-based system similar to Canada’s, but since Congress has to approve any changes to immigration law, it’s hard to see the U.S. replicating the flexibility of the Canadian system.
At first, after Rangnekar started MOV North, “People’s questions were like, ‘Tell us about Canada,’ ” he says. “That was really it.” They wanted to know the basics—jobs, schools, snow. Over time, as people began seriously considering a move, they asked detailed questions about the immigration process. “I was like one of them on the other side,” he says. Topics of interest now range from how to get fingerprinted for the FBI background check Canada requires to tips for getting letters from former employers detailing work experience.
Anand Iyer was living near San Jose when he stumbled on a post about MOV North that Rangnekar had put on the Q&A platform Quora. Iyer had an H-1B visa through his work for a cloud-services company and a house in Silicon Valley where he lived with his wife, but the uncertainty of waiting in the green card line was getting to him. “Friends in the same boat would constantly remind us that we might have to leave the country in weeks if our H-1B extension did not come through,” he says.
The couple eventually sold their home and moved to Mississauga, outside of Toronto, with their 2-year-old. Iyer still works remotely for the same company, but he took a pay cut to reflect the lower cost of living. Taxes are higher, but the government provides more, including health care and preschool. List prices for single-family homes in Iyer’s suburb and row houses in Rangnekar’s hipper neighborhood have risen to around $900,000 (roughly C$1.1 million)—not cheap, but not Bay Area. All told, Iyer finds his quality of life has improved. “Silicon Valley is way more competitive,” he says. He’s remained active on the MOV North forums, answering questions rather than asking them. His responses have already persuaded some friends of his wife’s who were caught in green card paralysis to apply for passage into Canada.
In MOV North’s early days, Rangnekar tended to the site at night after working on his startup all day. But as the volume of questions coming in increased, so did the amount of time the site demanded. People would email to thank him—then ask for more help. “That motivated me because it tells you you’re kinda doing something right,” he says. “Very few people wrote to me about my APIs.” He began wondering if MOV North could became his primary business.
As recently as a few years ago, the kind of jobs that might interest a top engineer weren’t plentiful in Toronto, but that’s changing. Google, Uber, and Amazon are expanding their engineering outposts, and the Canadian government is pouring money into artificial intelligence research and facilities such as the MaRS Discovery District, a tech incubator whose startups have employed more than 6,000 people as of the end of 2016. There’s work to be found in other Canadian cities, too. Montreal is home to Google’s AI research lab, the e-commerce giant Shopify Inc. is based in Ottawa, and the social media manager Hootsuite Inc. is Vancouver’s hometown darling, though most people Rangnekar talks with are interested in Toronto.
For now, the differences between U.S. and Canadian immigration policies are creating major opportunities for Canadian entrepreneurs to lure workers who otherwise would have looked south. Bob Vaez was raised in Toronto, and in the 2000s, Vaez worked for Silicon Valley chipmaker Nvidia Corp. on a TN work permit, a provision under the North American Free Trade Agreement that makes it easy for Canadian professionals to work in the U.S. The TN, like the H-1B, is tied to employment, so when Vaez decided to start his own company, that was that. “To me it was, ‘This is the land of opportunity,’ ” he says. “And the next thing, I got a call from the company’s lawyers, like, ‘You know, you have to leave the U.S. in five days.’ ” He knew Canada could be more welcoming. Vaez’s engineer parents immigrated from Iran, but his aunts came over as refugees during the Cultural Revolution. “We’ve got the point system, but there is also a different situation when there is humanity at stake,” he says.
Vaez returned to Toronto and co-founded EventMobi, which builds apps for conventions and corporate training sessions. He hopes to take advantage of the uncertainty in the U.S., in part, by working with MOV North on a new hiring platform Rangnekar is building. Once it’s up and running, companies will be able to search for applicants, which his algorithm ranks based on their relevant skills and experience. “I’m a software guy. I just look for any excuse to automate something,” Rangnekar says. He knows the business well—after all, he spent years at LinkedIn. One advantage he has over traditional recruiters, as he sees it, is that people who sign up for his site have already expressed interest in Canada. So far thousands of people have registered, all saying they want to move.
Source: Karen Weise and Saritha Rai / Bloomberg