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Canada regularly poaches US immigrant tech talent: Mexico could be next

From left, first lady Jill Biden, President Joe Biden, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, and his wife Beatriz Gutierrez Muller, stand for national anthems during an arrival ceremony at the National Palace in Mexico City, Mexico, Monday, Jan. 9, 2023. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
From left, first lady Jill Biden, President Joe Biden, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, and his wife Beatriz Gutierrez Muller, stand for national anthems during an arrival ceremony at the National Palace in Mexico City, Mexico, Monday, Jan. 9, 2023. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

In 2013, a billboard was erected in Silicon Valley with a blunt invitation to immigrant STEM workers: “H-1B Problems?” it stated. “Pivot to Canada.”

The billboard was part of a targeted campaign by the Canadian government to attract disaffected immigrant STEM workers to Canada. The argument: U.S. immigration restrictions are too burdensome, and Canada offers more immigrant-friendly policies, a growing tech sector and favorable geography to the U.S. market. 

The campaign worked.

In the last decade, Canada has fostered an influx of new immigrant STEM workers and university students while the U.S. has done the opposite and is increasingly trending towards fewer immigrant STEM professionals working here. Most worrisome: We aren’t growing that talent at home. 

Top U.S. tech companies are eager for immigration reform as the STEM labor shortage persists, but many corporations are hedging their bets by exploring options to nearshore STEM jobs. Canada remains a top destination for immigrant STEM talent, and now south of the U.S. border, Mexico is emerging as another attractive alternative for the tech industry. 

High-skilled immigrant workers are a key source of STEM talent for employers as roughly one-fourth of the STEM workforce in the U.S. is foreign-born. But research by Envoy Global, where one of us is CEO, shows that due to our immigration barriers, employers now view Mexico as a top destination — second only to Canada — for relocating high-skilled immigrant workers who are unable to obtain or renew a work visa in the U.S. 

Mexico’s emergence as a STEM magnet might surprise those who only read of chaos at our border and drug crimes, but Mexico is quite attractive to the new class of digital nomad that populates tech sector employees in particular.   

Mexico benefitted greatly from the remote work revolution during the pandemic. In an effort to capitalize on a growing remote workforce, the Mexican government established a remote work visa program to attract skilled and highly-paid professionals from around the world, including from the U.S. As a result of this visa offering, Mexico saw remote workers flock to urban hubs like Mexico City

This new flow of remote labor to Mexico opened the door for companies to retain high-skilled immigrant STEM workers by employing them south of the border while circumventing the costly and unpredictable U.S. immigration system.

It should be noted that the trend of labor moving into Mexico predates the pandemic. In response to increased immigration restrictions during the Trump administration, many U.S. tech companies expanded their presence in Mexico to secure their access to top talent.  

Like with Canada, Mexico’s geographic proximity to the U.S. and favorable time zones offer advantages that are not accessible in offshoring destinations in Asia and Europe. What’s more, the physical, cultural and academic infrastructure for STEM talent to flourish has slowly developed in the last decade in Mexico. From 2006 to 2012, Mexico opened 120 tuition-free specialist technology universities. Moreover, investment in the Mexican tech sector is accelerating. 

Meanwhile, back in the United States, our generation-long challenges with the immigration system have actively dissuaded employers from hiring foreign talent to fill STEM labor gaps for years — and the barriers are only getting worse.  

The H-1B — the predominant U.S. visa for immigrant STEM workers — is becoming more difficult for employers to secure for their foreign employees. This year, U.S. employers submitted over 483,000 registrations for the H-1B visa. With just 85,000 visas available each year due to a government-enforced cap, there was less than an 18 percent chance to secure an H-1B.  

Furthermore, there are approximately 1.4 million skilled immigrants waiting to receive an employment-based green card according to research from the Cato Institute. Wait times for an employment-based green card can span decades due to outdated restrictions in our country’s immigration policy, leaving skilled immigrants, their employers and their families in limbo. 

American companies would prefer to have their employees based in the United States for a host of reasons. But if the choice means losing out to a foreign competitor, those U.S. firms will continue to place their high-skilled tech talent in Canada and Mexico. Both countries boast a simpler and more efficient immigration process compared to the slow and costly process in the U.S. 

It is well beyond time for Congress and the Biden administration to take decisive action to make American business more competitive in a globalized workspace. Administrative reforms to streamline existing processes within the Citizenship and Immigration Service of the Department of Homeland Security can be undertaken without legislative movement and we urge the administration to do so after the midterm elections.   

More critically, we urge legislators on both sides of the aisle to put aside decades of partisan sniping and undertake the essential task of comprehensive immigration reform that will make our nation safer and more competitive for the 21st century.  

John Feeley is the executive director of the Center for Media Integrity of the Americas and a former U.S. Ambassador and career diplomat.

Dick Burke is the CEO of Envoy Global. 

Tags Canada–United States relations H1B visas Mexico–United States relations Politics of the United States STEM US immigration policy

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