Strictly speaking, America, we Canadians should be quietly thanking you for your self-destructive immigration policies. They benefit Canada immensely. But friends tell you when you make a mistake. And you’re making a giant one by hardening your borders and your hearts to talented newcomers.
Last week, President Trump issued a sweeping order meant to block hundreds of thousands of foreign workers from seeking employment in the United States. The order will keep half-a-million seasonal laborers, students, and skilled professionals out of the country. This comes after nearly four years of anti-immigrant rhetoric and measures: family separations, a visa ban against certain Muslim countries, restrictions on H-1B visas and green cards, and more.
The instinct to protect jobs for American citizens now, at a time of massive unemployment, might be understandable, if harsh. But when you shut out foreign programmers, IT experts, engineers, researchers, doctors, entrepreneurs, and future executives, you’re not just shutting out competitors for employment. You’re shutting out the creators of your economic future.
Canada has some credibility on this topic. Our country has long had a reputation for openness and diversity. I am an immigrant myself; I came to Canada from Taiwan in the 1960s to build a rewarding life. But for the past four years, we have been throwing our doors wide open to court the smart people you’re rejecting, as well as the companies that want to hire them. And it’s working.
When the U.S. started building walls, Canada’s federal government started breaking them down with a program called the Global Talent Stream, which allows innovative companies to demonstrate the need for specialized skills and fast-track the entry of foreign workers. Even as the pandemic slows immigration arriving in Canada, the Global Talent Stream remains open for business. In fact, our federal government has worked hard to keep the program open, and even streamlined it further since COVID-19.
I know Americans think Canadians are nice. But this isn’t about nice. We don’t accept immigrants to make ourselves feel good. We tell smart, hardworking people that we want them. We bring them here, and we encourage them to build wealth and jobs with their ideas. “Becoming the preeminent locus of agglomeration for the world’s plucky up-and-comers has been one of the U.S.’s greatest achievements and most potent advantages,” Patrick Collison, the CEO of digital payments company Stripe, lamented last week in response to Trump’s order. Canada wants that now. It’s picking up the ball you’ve dropped.
Openness to foreign talent has helped to reverse Canada’s traditional southbound talent flow and contributed to our tech sector’s rapid growth. Before the pandemic, domestic and multinational tech companies based here were bingeing on talent. Early in the new year, companies like Amazon, Google, and Shopify announced plans for thousands of hires and new offices. In Toronto, where I work to help a community of 1,400 startup companies, this has doubled local tech employment over the past five years. As things open, we expect this flow to resume or even accelerate.
Canada is richer because of this growth and the newcomers driving it. Like everyone, we still have work to do on integrating and sharing the wealth. But Toronto is one of the most diverse cities on the planet, and there is broad consensus across the political spectrum that Canada benefits from immigration as much as immigrants do from being here. The conservative Globe and Mail and the even more conservative National Post both carried reports in recent days expressing concern about obstacles to immigration under COVID-19. Both understand that our national fortunes are tied to talented newcomers.
Tech leaders get it too. They know good ideas come from everywhere and digital businesses thrive where talent congregates.
“In the digital economy, you hire where the talent is. When you restrict immigration, the jobs still get created, just somewhere else. And later down the road, when those individuals create the next Google, it won’t be here,” Aaron Levie, the CEO of Silicon Valley cloud-storage firm Box, said recently, sounding like a man who had just lost a war.
“If [the visa situation] affects your plans, consider coming to Canada instead. If getting to the U.S. is your main objective, you can still move on south after the H-1B rules change. But Canada is awesome. Give it a try,” said Tobi Lutke, CEO of Ottawa-based e-commerce platform Shopify, sounding like he could scarcely believe that the President of the United States was doing his recruiting for him.
Look, nothing would be easier than to quietly lap up more talented people who no longer feel welcome in America. But as longtime friends invested in your prosperity, we at least owe you this courtesy. If you won’t value talented immigrants, Canada will.
Yung Wu is the CEO of MaRS Discovery District, an innovation hub based in Toronto.