Woe, Canada: U.S. lawmakers lament skilled immigrants moving north

American immigration laws have gathered dust for decades. Reform efforts have stalled amid partisan bickering. And that's why some U.S. politicians cast a jealous glance at Canada on Tuesday.

With reform efforts stalled, U.S. politicians look at Canadian policies

With immigration reform both stalled and long overdue, some U.S. lawmakers on Tuesday cast a jealous eye toward Canada — while warning about the flow of skilled labour to the north. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

American immigration laws have gathered dust for decades. Reform efforts have stalled amid partisan bickering. Businesses warn it's costing the country talent.

And that's why some U.S. politicians cast a jealous glance northward on Tuesday.

A group of lawmakers held a congressional hearing titled, "Oh, Canada! How Outdated U.S. Immigration Policies Push Top Talent to Other Countries," in a misspelled reference to the national anthem.

It was an event ostensibly intended to seek lessons from Canada's experience but wound up casting a spotlight on factors stymying U.S. immigration reform.

Democratic politicians who organized the hearing warned of a reverse brain-drain. They said the U.S. must make it easier to draw skilled workers.

One California lawmaker, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, whose district includes Silicon Valley, shared a news article that said tech employment is growing  slower in her area than in Toronto, Montreal and Edmonton.

California Rep. Zoe Lofgren, seen here at a 2019 hearing, warned Tuesday that tech employment is growing a faster in Canadian cities than in Silicon Valley, in her district. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)

She blamed a confusing American immigration system — defined by lotteries, annual caps on visas and company-driven sponsorships of candidates.

"Is it any wonder why talented workers are moving to Canada?" asked Lofgren.

"We're stuck in a time warp. It's like driving around with a 30-year-old paper map while others easily navigate the road with turn-by-turn directions from their smartphones. And we're falling behind as a result." 

She told a story about a fellow alumnus from her alma mater, Stanford University, with rare computer skills; he spent years in the U.S. as a temporary worker; he paid $4 million in taxes in the U.S.; still, he never managed to get permanent residency.

He eventually moved to Canada.

Another Democrat fumed that some of the ideas Canada uses to attract educated workers are actually American ideas — ones the U.S. never implemented.

U.S. President George W. Bush, seen here at a 2007 event on immigration reform. His effort stalled, as did efforts by Barack Obama and Donald Trump. (Larry Downing/Reuters)

Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York specifically referred to Canada's visa program for startup companies modelled on part of a decade-old U.S. bill that stalled in Congress. 

He also alluded to Canada's express entry visa and two-week visas for coveted workers, and its Global Talent Stream program for companies.

A glimpse into a stalled debate

"Those who have been failed by the U.S. immigration system are now turning to Canada," Nadler said. 

"The results are paying off — with Toronto earning the moniker 'the Silicon Valley of the North.'"

The hearing offered evidence of why American reform efforts have kept stalling — even now. It was apparent in questions raised by the different parties at the meeting, held by the House of Representatives' justice committee. 

The country's political parties have clashing priorities.

Rep. Tom McClintock, a California Republican, said the meeting's focus was a mistake. He also suggested Canada's economy has little to teach the U.S. (Andrew Harnik/The Associated Press)

Republican politicians face pressure from their voters to tighten the southern border and control migration as a first objective. Democrats, meanwhile, prioritize granting a path to citizenship for past migrants.

As a result, the parties have been incapable of reaching an agreement on any plan that could get the supermajority required to pass both chambers of Congress.

Donald Trump also talked about emulating Canada's immigration points system. It went nowhere. Just like it did under Barack Obama and George W. Bush.

With efforts at wide-ranging reform seemingly stuck again, Democrats are hoping to use a budget bill to pass some limited changes, and perhaps grant status to the young migrants known as Dreamers.

At the hearing, Republicans suggested Democrats have their priorities backward. 

Several complained about its focus: instead of Canada, they said, lawmakers should be talking about Mexico and what Republicans characterize as a migration crisis on the southern border.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, seen here last year, says it's frustrating that U.S. ideas for visas haven't been passed, but that Canada has implemented them. (Susan Walsh/Pool via Reuters)

Copy Canada? Why?

One California Republican said the majority party is pursuing the wrong ideas.

Tom McClintock said Democrats are focusing on immigration changes coveted by the corporate community — the chance to bring in more foreign workers whom they can hire at low wages, he said.

"This Congress … places Americans last," McClintock said. "And it places foreign labour and the big corporations … first." 

He also took a dig at the notion that the United States should be relying on Canada for economic lessons: he said the U.S. had higher economic growth than Canada before the pandemic, far higher worker salaries, and a far lower unemployment rate.

"Comparing their economy to ours for some reason doesn't seem terribly appealing to me," McClintock said. "But that may be just me." 

Furthermore, U.S. immigration levels actually remain far higher than Canada's in absolute numbers. The U.S. attracts slightly more immigrants from Canada than Canada attracts from the U.S

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke to tech-sector employees in San Francisco in 2018 about immigrating to Canada. His government, like Stephen Harper's before him, introduced reforms to speed up immigration for skilled workers. (Jeff Chiu/The Associated Press)

On the other side of the ledger, the U.S. immigration rate has slowed significantly in recent years and the country attracts a far lower share of immigrants than Canada as a percentage of overall population.

That trend accelerated during the Trump years as Canada experienced its largest spike in skilled immigration in decades.

What witnesses said

Witnesses at the hearing expressed alarm at the current trajectory.

Stuart Anderson, a former official in the George W. Bush administration and executive director of a Washington-area think-tank on trade and immigration, said the number of Indian students has plunged at U.S. universities and surged in Canada. 

"Canada views immigration as essential for economic growth," said the prepared text of Anderson's remarks.

"The world has changed since [the last major U.S. immigration reform in] 1990. U.S. immigration policy has not."

He warned of potential long-term consequences. He said his own research indicates that immigrants created more than half of the U.S.'s billion-dollar startups.

And all the key players who helped create Moderna's COVID-19 vaccine, he said, were immigrants to the U.S. — including Canadian-born Derrick Rossi of Harvard University.

Another witness lamented that the U.S., of all places, still uses a paper-based system rather than computers to process immigration applications. She said that causes delays.

The mentality of the U.S. system is often based on detecting fraud, rather than seeking talent, said Jennifer Grundy Young, the head of a technology trade organization.

She supplied written testimony that included the story of a colleague and her husband. They spent 18 years in the U.S. on work visas, never managed to get permanent residency, and moved to Toronto where they're recruiting others to come to Canada.

"Make no mistake, the Canadians have come to compete," said the submission from Grundy Young, the CEO of the Technology Councils of North America.


Alexander Panetta is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News who has covered American politics and Canada-U.S. issues since 2013. He previously worked in Ottawa, Quebec City and internationally, reporting on politics, conflict, disaster and the Montreal Expos.