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How Canada is trying to capitalize on Trump’s immigration executive order

15 Feb

By Elizabeth Dwoskin and Craig Timberg

SAN FRANCISCO — Vancouver long has sought a share of Silicon Valley’s magic. With President Trump moving to curb immigration and the U.S. tech industry in open revolt, the friendly, functional Canadian city may finally get its wish.

Tech companies that keep satellite offices in Vancouver, just a two-hour flight from San Francisco, are exploring whether to move more jobs over the border. Immigration lawyers are reporting a steep uptick in inquiries. And a start-up is offering to smooth the way, for $6,000 a person, for foreign-born tech workers worried their U.S. visas may disappear.

“The global implications are dire,” said Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson of the unrest in the United States. “But it may result in more workers coming to Vancouver to be part of the boom here in a city that welcomes immigrants with open arms.”

Vancouver is not the only foreign city that is part of these conversations. Portuguese officials in Lisbon created a fast track for Indian entrepreneurs last month. Intercom, an Irish technology start-up, offered to pay the legal costs of developers who had been impacted by Trump’s immigration policies if they would move to Ireland.

Tech executives say their first choice remains overturning or softening Trump’s temporary ban on travelers from seven majority-Muslim countries as well as a reported plan to cut back the numbers of new work visas. But there is an open search for other options as companies long reliant on highly skilled foreigners move to protect their access to those workers.

In interviews, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists said it was ironic that a business-friendly president would inflict damage on one of the nation’s most lucrative industries.

“If you’re a technologist, then San Francisco right now is Florence in the Renaissance,” said Matthew Prince, chief executive of Cloudflare, a tech company with 400 employees, mostly in San Francisco. “Unfortunately, if we make it harder to bring the best employees here, that runs the risk of changing the center of gravity. And I don’t think that’s in the best interests of this country.”

For the talent-obsessed Silicon Valley, where an estimated one-third of the workforce is foreign-born and people are acutely aware of the fleeting nature of the success, these are much-feared outcomes. In a coordinated move opposing the ban, about 100 technology companies, including Google, Facebook, Netflix and Apple, argued in a legal filing Sunday night that restricting immigration damages U.S. competitiveness.

“Instability and uncertainty” caused by the executive orders “will make it far more difficult and expensive for U.S. companies to hire some of the world’s best talent — and impede them from competing in the global marketplace,” the companies wrote.

Yan-David Erlich, chief executive of Parsable, a 45-person start-up, was on a trip to Mexico with several colleagues last month when Trump announced his travel ban, which has since been tied up in legal challenges.

Erlich — an immigrant from France, where his grandparents moved after fleeing the Holocaust — said he felt like the United States had changed during the few days he was away. One-third of his workforce is comprised of immigrants, and to make matters worse, two workers were carefully questioned at the airport upon their return from Mexico. One of the few bright spots, Erlich said, was that Parsable already had an office in Vancouver and could easily expand it.

“We didn’t create that office as a backup plan,” said Erlich, 38, adding that he opened it last year because of the slow and burdensome U.S. visa process. “We wanted to access worldwide talent, and frankly that is easier to do in Canada than in the U.S. But now we have U.S.-based employees who see it as a safe haven.”

Vancouver, which already has 75,000 tech jobs and one-third of its office space devoted to the industry, has certain unmistakable advantages: It shares a time zone, a similar culture and easy travel links to U.S. tech hubs, with Seattle less than 150 miles away. Vancouver also offers access to skiing, hiking and boating — a combination popular with tech workers in the San Francisco Bay area and Pacific Northwest.

But Vancouver also has drawbacks: Housing is even more expensive than San Francisco. The Canadian city also lacks a sizable ecosystem of venture capitalists that entrepreneurs rely on to back their ideas.

Canadian entrepreneur Michael Tippett teamed up with Silicon Valley venture capitalists to launch True North Ventures, a program to help Bay Area immigrants relocate to Canada. The company will fly high-skilled visa holders to Canada for an exploratory trip and meetings with local immigration lawyers, Tippett said.

He also will help Silicon Valley companies set up Vancouver subsidiaries to which they can transfer employees. Since announcing the initiative last week, which was in the works prior to the announcement of Trump’s travel ban, Tippett said he has fielded more than 100 calls from Silicon Valley workers on temporary H-1B work visas and from the companies that rely on them.

“The Trump administration says it is pro-business, but it’s our business that will benefit,” Tippett said. “This is Vancouver first!”

Richard Kurland, a Vancouver immigration lawyer, said he has fielded dozens of calls and emails from potential immigrants since the announcement of Trump’s travel ban. “These are people voting with their feet,” he said.

Some immigrant entrepreneurs said they were agonizing over the decision to make a Canada move. Baback Elmieh, 42, a serial entrepreneur and Iranian immigrant who, in the past decade, sold tech companies he founded to Google and Facebook, said he would hesitate to start another company in the United States and is considering moving to Vancouver.

As a legal permanent U.S. resident — but not a citizen — Elmieh has lived in Silicon Valley since he was 24 and has a 6-year-old daughter there. His parents, who also were born in Iran but now live in Canada, were forced to cancel a scheduled visit because Trump’s temporary travel ban prevented them from boarding the flight.

“It now feels like there are people on one side of the line and people on the other,” Elmieh said. “That makes it very uncertain for what we should do for our family and where I want my daughter to grow up.”