As tech sector pines for immigration reform, Canada comes knocking 

click to enlarge A billboard near SFO advises high-skilled tech workers to set their sights on Canada. - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • A billboard near SFO advises high-skilled tech workers to set their sights on Canada.

It’s unclear whether Mark Zuckerberg’s FWD.us campaign to reform U.S. immigration is destined to fail, but it’s certainly a hot mess. Squabbles over red ink have blurred the original message and led to several high-profile defections — including that of Tesla founder Elon Musk. Meanwhile, journalists have pilloried the Facebook founder as a modern-day Rockefeller, a dissolute magnate and a “shady One Percenter,” according to one headline in The Daily Beast. Things look even worse on the ground, as out-of-work techies and underfunded entrepreneurs worry about losing their jobs to foreign workers — and foreign workers worry about being sent home.

If anyone — or rather, any entity — stands to benefit from this disaster, it’s gotta be Canada. And indeed, just as the U.S. began twiddling its thumbs on immigration reform, Canada came knocking.

This weekend, the Canadian government dispatched its minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism to visit the Bay Area, where he enticed the “best and brightest” of Silicon Valley with brochure-worthy images of their northern neighbor. The idea, says Minister Jason Kenney, is to get thousands of young startup founders to immigrate to a country that, he says, is awash in venture capital but also has a functioning immigration system.

“In tech, human capital matters more than financial capital,” Kenney said. “We want to use our big, flexible immigration program to be a magnet for people like that. We’d rather they do it in Toronto or Vancouver than San Jose or Bangalore or San Mateo.”

A billboard near San Francisco International Airport sums up their elevator pitch: “H-1B problems?” it asks, referring to the type of visa typically used by high-skilled tech workers. “Pivot to Canada.”

Kenney’s diplomatic mission — which ends Monday — includes a stop at the TiEcon international conference for entrepreneurs, a guest lecture at Stanford University, cameos at various startups, media spotlights and an appearance at a tech incubator. Everywhere, he encouraged young entrepreneurs to consider courting their first round of investment in Canada.

Under a new startup visa program that the Canadian government launched in April, foreign tech workers will have an easy time snagging permanent residency if they submit an application and attract venture funding. Canada already has one of the most permissive immigration systems in the Western world, Kenney says, so why not use it to create a vibrant tech ecosystem?

That this program coincides with a contentious — and seemingly fruitless — immigration debate in the U.S. certainly isn’t lost on Kenney or any other Canadian government official. He says he’ll happily poach the South Asian guest workers whom Zuckerberg is fighting so hard to retain through various policy proposals.

At least one Silicon Valley booster says he can’t begrudge Kenney or his countrymen. Matt Tanielian, co-founder of the powerful Franklin Square Group — which lobbies for tech companies on Capitol Hill — said Canada could certainly teach the U.S. a thing or two about intelligent reform.

rswan@sfexaminer.com

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