Canada has landed in Silicon Valley with a brazen message: Give us your smart, your restless, your huddled Googleplex workers yearning to breathe life into the high-tech economy up north.
As the U.S. Congress wrestles with a long-sought overhaul of America's immigration system, the Canadian government is trying to poach talented immigrants frustrated by U.S. visa policy. The campaign begins Friday with a four-day visit to the Bay Area by Jason Kenney, Canada's minister of citizenship, immigration and multiculturalism.
"I think everyone knows the American system is pretty dysfunctional," Kenney said Thursday in an interview from Vancouver, B.C. "I'm going to the Bay Area to spread the message that Canada is open for business; we're open for newcomers. If they qualify, we'll give them the Canadian equivalent of a green card as soon as they arrive."
On Tuesday, just days before Kenney was set to tour San Francisco and the South Bay to promote his new visa for startup entrepreneurs, a giant red maple leaf emerged on a billboard off Highway 101 on the route from San Francisco to the heart of Silicon Valley, part of a Canadian advertisement encouraging tech workers here temporarily to migrate north permanently.
Modeled on an idea first introduced but never passed in the U.S. Congress, Canada's new "startup visa" grants permanent residency to entrepreneurs who can raise enough venture capital and start a Canadian business.
"H-1B problems?" asks the South San Francisco billboard, referencing America's temporary visa for skilled foreign workers. "Pivot to Canada."
Kenney, a member of his country's ruling Conservative Party, is meeting with tech executives, speaking to Stanford students and running the Canadian booth at the TiEcon entrepreneurship conference in Santa Clara this weekend.
"The Canadian perspective is they would love to re-create Silicon Valley in Canada," said Irene Bloemraad, a professor who chairs the Canadian studies program at UC Berkeley. "And they recognize that under the current immigration system in the United States ... there are people who are having a hard time getting permanent legal status."
Silicon Valley's thousands of foreign tech workers can stay in the United States on their H-1B visas for no more than six years. In addition, they must stick with the employer who sponsored them -- restrictions that many have argued impedes their upward mobility.
"There's an option," Kenney said, "and it's north of the 49th parallel."
His visit also exposes broader differences between Canadian and U.S. immigration laws and philosophies -- differences that could narrow if Congress passes a bipartisan Senate plan that follows the Canadian model by moving to a more skills-based admissions system.
In the 1960s, Bloemraad said, both the U.S. and Canada dramatically reconfigured how they welcomed immigrants: America ended up with a system where two-thirds of immigrants now gain permanent residency through family connections, while Canada pioneered a points-based ranking that results where two-thirds of immigrants are chosen for their work skills.
The Senate plan would shift to a more Canadian approach in adopting a new "merit visa" to award permanent U.S. residency to the highest scorers in a points system favoring those who are young, highly educated, fluent in English and working in high-demand fields.
Opinion surveys show Canadians are among the most pro-immigrant people in the world, even during economic troubles, in part because they value their points-based system as good for the economy and multicultural nation building -- and because their geographic isolation makes illegal immigration a minor problem, Bloemraad said.
"There's less of a feeling of threat. But beyond that, there's a sense of control," she said. "In Canada, there's more of a sense that the government's on top of things."
Some Republicans have been looking to their Canadian conservative counterparts not just as a model for immigration, but for future political success as the United States grows more diverse. To them, Kenney -- known for his weekly forays to ethnic festivals and his unabashedly pro-immigrant outlook -- has been offering some words of advice.
"The basic strategy has been to appeal to people on the basis of shared values," he said. "We believe most immigrants are natural conservatives in their values and the ways they live their lives, in their work ethic and strong tendency toward entrepreneurship."