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Skilled, foreign workers are giving up on their American dreams – and turning to Canada


APRIL 1, 2019

  • Tens of thousands of skilled, educated foreign workers are rushing to file their H-1B visa applications when processing opens on April 1.
  • But many of them will be rejected – either by the highly selective lottery, or by delays that lawyers and experts attribute to the Trump administration’s crackdown on legal immigration to the US.
  • Alex, a temporary foreign worker who spent much of his life in the US, told INSIDER he could face rejection for an H-1B visa for the third time.
  • But this time, he says he’ll be moving to Canada if that happens, and he’s already started the immigration process up north and is astonished by how different it is to the US system.

Alex still remembers the gut punch he felt when he was told he might have to leave the country he grew up in.

After nearly a decade in America – first attending a Massachusetts boarding school, then a Connecticut college – Alex walked into an immigration lawyer’s office near the end of his senior year, thinking it might finally be time to inquire about switching from his temporary student visa onto some sort of permanent status.

He thought it would be easy.

He was floored when the lawyer explained to him that it didn’t matter how long he’d lived in the US, how quickly he’d adapted to American life, or even how excellent his grades were in school.

If he couldn’t convince a company to sponsor him for an H-1B visa – a painstaking process that randomly selects winners from a lottery, takes months, and often costs thousands of dollars – there was likely no other alternative for him. At one point she joked that if Alex had a serious girlfriend, he should consider marriage instead.

“Not to be dramatic, but I was honestly completely devastated,” Alex told INSIDER. “I don’t mean it to come across as entitled, or that I thought it would be a guaranteed in. But when she told me that and explained to me how it works, I was completely devastated.”

Alex said the meeting went so poorly that the lawyer took pity on him and waived his entire consultation fee.

“It was a really rough meeting,” he said.

Not long afterwards, he sat down at his computer and Googled how to move to Canada.

‘You have to fight for it’

Alex is one of an untold number of skilled, highly educated foreign workers who have tried to get a coveted H-1B visa in recent years, failed, then turned to Canada as the next-best option.

He asked INSIDER to identify him only by his first name and refrain from publishing identifying details, in case publication negatively affects his case or his ability to cross the border while traveling.

After the disappointing meeting with the immigration lawyer, Alex ended up finding a company willing to sponsor him for the H-1B visa in 2016 – but the US government denied him two years in a row. He was only able to stay in the US by enrolling in an MBA, from which he graduated in December 2018.

In a final Hail Mary pass, Alex will file his third H-1B petition on Monday, joining about 200,000 others in an annual rush to submit paperwork when processing opens on April 1 each year.

Of the tens of thousands of applicants like Alex, only 85,000 will ultimately be drawn in the lottery.

But because of what immigration lawyers and experts call a crackdown on the H-1B process by the Trump administration, even those who win the lottery are guaranteed nothing.

Many workers are ultimately denied an H-1B visa months after they win the lottery, typically on the grounds that their jobs aren’t technically considered “specialty occupations.”

Reaz Jafri, an immigration lawyer at the international law firm Withers, told INSIDER that US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has become much more challenging to work with under the Trump administration.

He estimated that more than half of his H-1B cases nowadays are stalled by “requests for evidence,” or RFEs, a complicated request for additional documents that can take months to resolve and often end in denials. He’s receiving at least twice as many RFEs than he received even just five years ago, he said.

“And not just H-1Bs – I’m talking every single visa case. I’ve been doing this for 26 years,” Jafri said. “Every single case I file it seems to be getting pushback from the government and you have to fight for it, when it should be very straightforward.”

A USCIS spokesperson told INSIDER in a statement that the agency evaluates all H-1B petitions on a “case-by-case basis,” adding that petitioners can file motions for reconsideration or appeal the decisions if they believe they were wrongly rejected.

Alex is bracing himself for another RFE on his H-1B petition – but if it doesn’t work out this time, his backup plan is Canada.

He’s already retained an immigration lawyer there, scoped out Toronto, and begun the application process. His first step is submitting his English-language test results and having his university transcripts evaluated.

Already, Alex said he was astonished by how much easier Canada’s immigration process is.

“It seems like it would be really favorable for someone like me. It seems like the way their system’s designed has common sense,” he said. “Everything that I’m going through in the US is for a 3-year visa that’s tied to a company. In Canada this is a residency to live, permanently. They have a pretty advanced system, in my opinion. It’s basically merit-based. It’s not some blind, computer-generated lottery.”

Unlike in America, skilled immigrants in Canada don’t need jobs before they arrive, nor employers to sponsor them. Under the country’s Express Entry program, prospective immigrants are evaluated under a points-based system. If they earn enough points, they can then apply for permanent residence – the Canadian equivalent of a green card – which sets them on a path to citizenship.

The youngest, most educated, and English-fluent candidates are awarded more points under the system, and then they’re ranked against other candidates. The people who rank above the cut-off score are invited to apply for permanent residency.

Beyond that, processing times for permanent resident cards under the Express Entry program are often speedy, and can take as little as a few weeks, or up to six months.

‘Top global talent will take their skills and ambition to a different country’

Canada has rushed to greet the influx of immigrants America has rejected, taking advantage of Trump’s increasingly strict immigration policies and luring young talent away from the US.

Though it’s unclear exactly how many failed H-1B applicants have also tried their chances in Canada, America’s northern neighbor has accepted an influx of skilled immigrants in recent years, with plans to bring in far more.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has also been vocal about bringing in global talent, and his government is on pace to accept 330,000 immigrants in 2019, and bring Canada’s immigrant population up to 1% of the country’s total population by 2020.

Many American companies, meanwhile, are infuriated that they’ve faced so many bureaucratic hurdles to hire talented workers they’ve sought out, only to see countries like Canada step in and fill the void.

Some US companies are even considering expanding to Canada, in part due to its immigration policies. According to Envoy Global’s 2019 immigration trends report, 65% of American employers believe Canada’s immigration policies are more favorable than America’s.

That’s not just a small setback – it’s a trend that could seriously damage American businesses and decrease the country’s global competitiveness in the long run, according to Peter Leroe Muñoz, the vice president of technology and immigration policy for the Silicon Valley Leadership Group.

A number of Silicon Valley CEOs have spoken up since Trump took office, warning that his administration’s immigration policies, and its changes to the H-1B process in particular, were disrupting businesses and inflicting “substantial harm” on US competitiveness.

“It’s a problem on two levels: You’re denying American companies what they need to compete in a global economy … and you are sending a signal that it is becoming more and more difficult to work as an immigrant in our immigration economy,” Leroe-Muñoz told INSIDER. “That makes our innovation economy less attractive. There is a risk that top global talent will take their skills and ambition to a different country.”

For many, that’s Canada. Alex says his top choice is still America, the country he’s lived in since he was 13. He’s happy at his company, and he loves his friends and their families – many of whom have welcomed him with open arms, knowing he was alone in America and his parents were so far away.

“I really feel like immigrants who are in the same situation as me are really dealt a big injustice, because we invest so much time, we create these entire lives for ourselves, we spend so much time away from our families, we develop all these friendships,” Alex said. “You have all these people and these connections and these relationships, and you start to develop a sense of place … It’s more of my home than my actual home.”

Alex said he’s terrified at the idea that after all his effort, and the years he’s spent here, he’d have to return to his home country, where jobs are scant and opportunities are rare.

“I’ve built my life in the US,” he said, “and I don’t have anything to show for it.”