A defining image of Donald Trump’s presidency is the United States-Mexico border wall.
The chant “build that wall” propelled his campaign to the White House, and while very little has actually been built – only three miles of previously unbarricaded land is newly walled – the raise-the-drawbridge mentality remains a central plank of his administration’s philosophy.
Last week, with a stroke of the pen, Mr. Trump erected another immigration wall around America. His decision is bad news for the U.S. – but good news for Canada.
Citing the virus-waylaid domestic job market, Mr. Trump suspended new work visas, including the H-1B visas often used by Silicon Valley companies to hire skilled workers from abroad. The move follows an April decision to suspend the granting of new green cards for permanent residency, a prohibition that was extended last week. The measures combined could keep half-a-million people out of the U.S. over the next six months, many with in-demand skills and advanced degrees.
Mr. Trump’s new bureaucratic wall was decried by industry, from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to the heads of Apple, Google and Microsoft. Meanwhile, Canadian companies looked to capitalize. The CEO of Shopify pitched potential hires: “Canada is awesome.” (Finally, some truth in advertising.)
The pandemic has of course slowed immigration to Canada, but this country has not moved to purposefully block highly skilled workers. Throughout the Trump administration, Canada has tacked in the opposite direction.
One example of how Canada has taken a very different approach is a program dubbed the Global Talent Stream, introduced in 2017. In its first two years, it brought 40,000 people to Canada, the majority in jobs such as computer programming, and it allows companies to get a visa decision on highly skilled workers in just two weeks – a critical boost in a global competition for such people.
Making it easier for the most skilled and educated to choose Canada – and then paving the way to permanent residency and citizenship – has long been a core mission of our immigration system, and it needs to become more so.
While Canada can expect the U.S. to somewhat change course if Mr. Trump loses the election in November, some of the U.S. immigration system’s defects are long-standing. Compared with Canadian companies, it has long been harder for American firms to secure work visas for highly skilled foreign hires. What’s more, while Canada can promise that a work visa for a high-tech hire comes with a path to citizenship, that’s less likely in the United States. And the American annual legal immigration rate is about one-third of Canada’s.
All of which is why Canada has an improved reputation compared with the United States. That was not the situation in the early 2000s, when the U.S. – and Silicon Valley in particular – was the unrivalled global magnet for the most ambitious people.
That magnetic pull was soundly felt in Canada. From 2000 through 2010, one study of the immigration and emigration of inventors found that Canada suffered a net loss of about 15,000 people – the biggest brain drain among developed countries. The U.S. was by far the winner, with a gain of about 180,000 inventors. Sharing a border, language and culture with the U.S. made that brain drain not only possible, but easy.
Things are shifting in Canada’s favour, in part thanks to Mr. Trump. If American firms are unable to hire the best and bring them to the U.S., that will benefit their Canadian competitors. It may also motivate some U.S. firms to get around immigration restrictions by offshoring operations to Canada.
Canada already exerts a powerful pull on people from the rest of the world. A global Gallup survey, conducted from 2015 through 2017, shows Canada is one of the most desired destinations for potential immigrants. Among the highly educated, those with at least a bachelor’s degree, more people around the world would, if they could, move to Canada than the United States.
The irony is that Mr. Trump has often said he hopes to transform the U.S. immigration system to make it look more like Canada’s, with a points system that favours highly skilled workers. Instead, he’s moving in the opposite direction, and presenting Canada with a big opportunity to boost our economy, by drawing in the best talent from around the globe.
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