With H-1B visa rules tightening, Indian workers in U.S. seek greener pastures in Canada

Suman Jaltar with his wife Spandana, and two children at their Houston home. Jaltar, who has a master’s in software engineering from University of Dayton, Ohio says his decision to move to Canada was prompted by the uncertainty and confusions in H-1B visa renewals and getting actual Green Card after years of wait.

Suman Jaltar, who did his master’s in software engineering from University of Dayton, Ohio in 2006, has been working on H-1B visa for a year now for Calumet, a specialty hydrocarbon products company in Houston.

The Hyderabad native has been on H-1B visa since 2008 after completing his Optional Practical Training or OPT and had also worked in Atlanta before moving to Houston with his wife Spandana, who is also an IT professional, and had worked in Houston, on H-4 visa.

The couple has an approved I-140, an immigrant petition for alien workers allowing both of them to work in the U.S. with visa extensions, but with the new proposed rule banning H-4 spouses to work in the U.S., and no Green Card in sight as yet, the Jaltars, who have two U.S-born young children, figured out recently that their American dream may not eventually come true in the U.S. of today.

Early in 2018, the young couple decided they would move to Canada to end the uncertainty about the visa situation and the unbearable wait for the elusive Green card, but really didn’t work hard towards that goal, hoping that the situation might improve soon.

But that has not happened. With more restrictions imposed on H-1B renewals since last year in terms of visa renewal process and seeing the plight of some of their friends who had to go back to India because their visas were not extended even after submitting RFEs to USCIS, the couple made up their mind to apply for a Canadian Green card late last year and are now waiting for final approval of their application made under federal skilled workers program for Canadian permanent residency.

Jaltar said it used to take five to six months to complete the process of getting Canadian Green Card, but now it takes about 10 months or so to complete the process thanks to an increase in the number of Canadian permanent residency applications from the U.S. “But we don’t mind waiting for a few months more for the Canadian Green card in order to get out of this suffocating situation here where visa rules are changing almost every other month and there is no clear-cut information how long we will have to wait for our visa numbers to become current so we can get our Green Card in hand. Everything seems uncertain,” Jaltar told this correspondent.

With H-1B visa rules tightening, Indian workers in U.S. seek greener pastures in Canada

Vinod Kumar, Professor, Technology and Operations and Director of Manufacturing Systems Centre at Carleton University, Ottawa. Kumar says the Canadian government is quietly gearing up its immigration policies to cope up with demand for high-skilled tech workers.

Faced with almost a similar situation in California, Gurpreet Singh, 34, a computer programmer from Kapurthala, Punjab who came to the U.S. on H-1B visa after being recruited by Infosys to work on one of its projects in the Silicon Valley, decided to move to Canada as an intra-company transferee last July even before his H-1B expired. Singh later applied for a Canadian residency and is now a permanent resident of Canada working in IT department of a bank in Toronto.

Singh’s friend Bharat Goli,33, who did his masters in 2006 from Southern Methodist University in Dallas and works on H-1B as a technical manager in Gap Tech In San Francisco Bay area, is toying with the same idea. He said many foreign tech-workers, including Indians, are moving these days from U.S. to Canada thanks to the tightening of guest workers visa program under the Trump administration.

“I think mainly it is the tremendous amount of uncertainty and confusion about the future of H-1B workers that is prompting them to move to Canada, and even to U.K., and in some cases even back to India for want of any viable alternative,” Goli who had briefly worked for Intel before his current job with Gap Tech, told India Abroad.

There are no precise figure available about the number of such Indians who have moved from the U.S. to Canada in the last two years or are planning to move, but some anecdotal evidence suggests that the number may be in thousands. The Canadian immigration authorities ae said to keep record of an immigrant’s citizenship status, but not the country of residence, making it difficult to have the estimate of foreign high-tech workers of Indian origin moving from the U.S. to Canada because they are Indian passport holders.

Jaltar said a few months ago when he appeared for the mandatory ELT (language proficiency) tests in one of the test centers in Houston for applying for Canadian permanent residency, he saw that the majority of some estimated 600/700 test-takers at the venue were all Indian tech-workers in the U.S.

“If just one test center in one U.S. cities can have so many people for the monthly test, you can make a ballpark estimate of the number of people from all over the U.S. seeking to move to Canada these days. I estimate the number would run into a few thousands in the past one or two years,” he told this correspondent.

In a March 2018 article, Axios news website said based on a survey that tech companies in and around Toronto have seen a “surge in international job applications” over the last year, by far mostly from the U.S. It said the number doubled and tripled in some of the companies, the result of a deliberate Canadian campaign to attract tech workers from the U.S. and around the world. It, however, did not give any number specifically for Indian tech-workers from the U.S.

Vinod Kumar, Professor, Technology and Operations and Director of Manufacturing Systems Centre at Carleton University, Ottawa, however, says that while people are moving from the U.S. to Canada, it is difficult to put a figure to how many Indians are coming to Canada.

“Although there is lots of talk but there is no hard data to prove that Indian tech-talents have been moving from U.S. to Canada due to uncertain situation for visa workers caused by Trump administration. Certainly, the flow is not in thousands as is claimed sometimes in new reports; if at all, it is perhaps just a few hundreds,” Kumar, former Director, Sprott School of Business, told India Abroad.

The University of Toronto said in a news release in July that according to Los Angeles-based CBRE, Toronto added more than 82,000 new tech jobs between 2012 and 2017, with nearly 29,000 of those positions being added in 2017 alone.

In a report the Washington Post noted in January that Canadian businesses now sense an opportunity in the current visa situation in the U.S. for foreign workers, adding that the Canadian tech scene has sought for years to compete with Silicon Valley, trying to lure talent north.

It said that in the early days of the Trump administration, “moving to Canada” talk surged among Americans, but most foreign workers waited although the situation is changing now. It said immigration lawyers and recruiters on both sides of the border say the number of inquiries from “nervous H-1B holders” has skyrocketed since 2017.

According to Kumar, Canada introduced a system called “Global Skill Strategies” in 2017 to augment a 2013 program called “Express Entry”. The 2017 program is specifically geared to bring in tech workers under which all applications become open to view by Canadian tech employers. Once an applicant is offered conditional employment, immigration process kicks in at a fast speed. “With time this new program is getting popular since Canadian tech employers are finding it to be useful,” he said.

For many Indian tech workers desperate for job security and stability, there are other factors besides a comparable job opportunity in Canada that is attracting them. People like Singh and Jaltar said Canada’s “excellent healthcare system”, which is far less expensive than the U.S. and its various social welfare programs are an added incentive to move.

“On the downside maybe the less attractive pay package compared to the U.S. and the extreme cold weather, but I think that is a small sacrifice to make in order to have your peace of mind and end this uncertainty here in the U.S. about H1-B extensions and Green Card approval,” Jaltar old this correspondent.

Suma Rao, founder of the Toronto-based Rao law firm Suma Law Office, says on its website that the immigration policy of Canada works, among others, towards maximizing the economic and social benefits of migration to Canada by achieving annual immigration targets and admitting temporary workers who fill skills gaps and transfer occupational skills to Canadian workers.

Some news reports say that the Silicon Valley as the center of new innovation and excellence may lose its importance in future as the best and the brightest workers seek to move elsewhere. Google software engineer Karthik Ravindran, in Silicon Valley on an H-1B, who applied for permanent residence in Canada in 2017 with his wife after the Trump administration first proposed banning foreign spouses from working and received Canadian residence in four months lends some credence to this line of thinking. Ravindran told The Mercury News: “It seems like a lot fairer system than in the U.S., unfortunately.”

Hugo O’Doherty, co-founder of Moving2Canada.com, told the paper in October last year that he believes his country’s government and employers see the U.S. immigration climate as a boon. O’Doherty said he saw U.S.-based traffic to his site more than double so far in 2018.

A Canadian government spokesman in a statement to the paper said: “Immigration will continue to play a crucial role in keeping our country at the forefront of the global economy. Thanks to immigration, Canada is in a strong position to face future labor-force challenges arising from our aging population.”

In the interview with India Abroad, Kumar noted that in Canada, as tech R&D is getting stronger, shortage of tech workers is showing up pretty much in all fields. He said although the Canadian universities and colleges are innovating newer programs to meet industry demand, the gap continue to exist.

“The Canadian government is quietly gearing up its immigration policies to cope up with this demand. In most part of the country the economy is strong, and employment is healthy. Vancouver, B.C. has attracted a significant number of tech companies of U.S. silicon valley to open their R&D centers in Canada since it is easier to bring technology-skilled workers in Canada than in U.S.,” Kumar told India Abroad.

He said while H-1B Visa applications in U.S. are said to have dropped significantly in 2018, applications for Canada immigration have been consistently going up. In Ontario province, he said, at least three places are popular destination for tech immigrants—Waterloo, Toronto and Ottawa.

“In the last three to five years, Ottawa has started becoming once again a high-tech valley of North. R&D in autonomous vehicles, including drones is thriving. BlackBerry’s QNS system, for example, has attracted a significant number of tech-talents from India, U.S., and other countries,’ Kumar said.

According to a University of Toronto news release, Toronto has created a 20-story, 1.5-million-square-foot startup incubator within a dense core of the city across the street from the University of Toronto and crammed among nine research and teaching hospitals.

Stuart Anderson, Executive Director of National Foundation for American Policy, noted that competition is healthy, and governments can compete just like companies, but the U.S. government “unfortunately,” is not competing with the Canadian government since Canada is attempting to attract high-skilled foreign nationals and the policies of the current U.S. administration has been to discourage high-skilled foreign nationals from working in the United States.

He said two examples are the administration’s regulation that would eliminate the ability of the spouses of H-1B visa holders to work and denying H-1B applications for many Indian and other professionals who have worked many years in America.

“America is usually very good at reacting to outside events and adapting its policies and that could eventually happen in the case of competition from Canada. But it’s hard to picture positive changes to employment-based immigration policy in the U.S. in the short-term, given that U.S. immigration policies have become more restrictive over the past two years,” Anderson old India Abroad.

“Whoever is President, Congress would need to fix the per-country limit and increase the number of employment-based green cards if we want to retain more Indian-born scientists and engineers in the United States over the long-term.”

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