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H-1B: Bad luck in the skilled-worker visa lottery pushes workers from Silicon Valley and other US regions to Canada

By Ethan Baron, The Mercury News
Published: February 11, 2024, 6:02am

Silicon Valley’s loss, Canada’s gain.

Data analyst Mengfan Cao, a Chinese citizen with a U.S. master’s degree, worked for several years in San Jose under temporary employment permits. But for three years running, she lost the H-1B skilled-worker visa lottery that would have allowed her to stay and work in the country. So she’s taken her talent to Vancouver, British Columbia, and she’s happy as can be. She now sees her failure to obtain the visa — intended to boost America’s companies and economy via workers like her with specialized skills — as a gift.

“I don’t feel sad about not getting it,” said Cao, 28, by phone from her apartment in a leafy neighborhood near the city’s famously beautiful English Bay. “It ended up better that I didn’t get it, actually.”

Cao did not have to leave her job. She works remotely for her San Jose-headquartered employer, shopping-data company RetailNext.

Cao appreciates Canada’s universal health care system, feels safer without America’s rampant gun crime, gets around easily on transit instead of having to drive nearly everywhere as she had in San Jose, and has even found Vancouver’s weather suits her. “I like the rain,” Cao said. “It’s very refreshing.”

In a typical year, hundreds of thousands of applications come in for new H-1B visas. Silicon Valley technology companies have lobbied for years to boost the number of new visas past the annual 85,000. Opponents of an expansion point to cases of U.S. workers replaced by H-1B visa holders, and research suggesting thousands of H-1B workers fill lower-paying technology jobs and are farmed out by staffing firms to tech companies great and small, undercutting tech-industry wages.

In Silicon Valley, the density of opportunities for tech workers, vast investment capital and world-leading companies and industries create a powerful “gravitational pull” for skilled workers, said Sean Randolph, senior director of the Bay Area Council’s Economic Institute. But for many skilled foreign workers and the companies that wish to employ them, bad luck in the H-1B draw — or years-long waits for a green card — mean the potentially valuable employees, often highly educated, take their talents elsewhere.

“We start with an advantage in the region in drawing global talent but we shoot ourselves in the foot at the national level by making it much more difficult than it needs to be to get people to come,” Randolph said. “Canada has been for many years ahead of the U.S. and much more creative in proactively seeking to attract global talent to build their technology industries, and they have consistently benefited from our missteps.”

Canada has for years aggressively pursued U.S.-based foreign workers who fail to obtain an H-1B visa or are stuck in limbo waiting for a green card. A decade ago, the Canadian government paid for a billboard beside Highway 101 in South San Francisco that said, “H-1B problems? Pivot to Canada.”

Last year, America’s neighbor to the north launched a work-permit program designed specifically to poach thousands of H-1B holders. Canada’s consul general in San Francisco, Rana Sarkar, said at the time he expected the majority of the visa holders to come from Silicon Valley, explaining, “This is where we’re coming to attract talent.”

Sarkar said this week that 6,200 work permits have been approved under the program.

Foreign citizens who choose Canada find a plethora of benefits, Sarkar said. “Canada and Canadian cities have a rich tapestry of not just cultural life, but also these are big diverse cities that have a lot of experience and also a lot of depth of welcoming new people and integrating them and ensuring that they’re part of the community,” Sarkar said.

It’s not just Silicon Valley that sees sought-after technology workers stymied in their desire to continue living and working in the United States after receiving higher education here, then ending up in Canada.

Computer engineer and Indian citizen Sudeep Datta received a master’s in business analytics at the University of Florida, and worked three years for a marketing company in Fort Lauderdale. He and his wife, Suchi Bakshi, who has a business analytics master’s from a different Florida university, mapped out career goals and made plans to raise a family.

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“We were totally in love with Florida,” Datta said. “We had no plans to move out of Florida.”

Both were on work permits. Neither got the H-1B — awarded by lottery — the first time their employers applied, in 2021. His wife received the visa on the second go-around, but that meant little without one for him.

“Three times I did not get picked,” Datta said.

His work permit ran out in January last year. The same month, the couple packed up and moved to Toronto, after Canadian authorities gave them high marks for education and work experience in that country’s points-based visa system that prioritizes skilled immigrants.

The couple miss Florida’s sunny days, beautiful beaches, their friends and classmates, even the giant Publix supermarkets. But he has a good job in Toronto and is looking toward career advancements, while his wife is working remotely for the same company that employed her in Florida. The Canadian government already granted them permanent residency, the equivalent of the green card that because of nation-based quotas would have taken them many years to obtain in the United States.

“Right now we are building our family,” Datta said. “We bought a house — it would’ve been in Florida, but now it is in Toronto. But that’s OK. We want to stay in Canada.”

Datta and Cao, like nearly 100 other formerly U.S.-based foreign workers, were helped into Canada by Syndesus, a company founded by former Silicon Valley entrepreneur Marc Pavlopoulos.

Syndesus helps U.S. companies and their noncitizen employees navigate Canada’s immigration bureaucracy so the workers can move across the northern border and continue working for their companies remotely — an employment option that has gained substantial traction since the pandemic.

American employers find great value and little friction in moving a worker unlucky in the H-1B draw to Canada, Pavlopoulos said. The time zone can be the same, or close, unlike the difference if an employee moved to India or China, he said. And the other option, letting a worker go, costs a company that person’s skills and experience, can disrupt collaborative projects, and imposes substantial costs for recruiting and training a replacement, Pavlopoulos said.

It takes about two-and-a-half months to obtain a Canadian work permit for a skilled foreign employee, Pavlopoulos said. The worker usually has permanent residence, the equivalent of a green card, in 18 months or less, and citizenship if they want it in four years, he said.

Syndesus also helped Chinese citizen Fiona Jian, another employee of San Jose’s RetailNext. Jian received a master’s degree in the United States — in business analytics from UC San Diego — and over the next three years of work failed to win the H-1B lottery every year. “The H-1B draw is so unfair,” said Jian, who had planned to stay in San Diego. Like Cao, Jian ended up in Vancouver and found it to her liking. “There’s so much nature, there’s mountains, there’s ocean,” said Jian, 29. “There’s everything you can do here. I’m in the process of getting permanent residency. I plan to stay here long term.”