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Silicon Valley is making plans to move foreign-born workers to Canada

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For many U.S. startups and their foreign-born employees, a kind of back-up plan may be starting to sound like a good idea right about now.

Yesterday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer confirmed that administration officials have drafted a new executive order aimed at overhauling, among other things, the H-1B work-visa program that U.S.-based tech companies have long relied on to bring top foreign engineering talent into their ranks. Spicer said the possible executive order is “part of a larger immigration effort” related in part to Friday’s hot-button immigration ban targeting immigrants and refugees from seven predominantly Muslim countries.

According to Bloomberg, the draft proposal states that: “Our country’s immigration policies should be designed and implemented to serve, first and foremost, the U.S. national interest. Visa programs for foreign workers … should be administered in a manner that protects the civil rights of American workers and current lawful residents, and that prioritizes the protection of American workers — our forgotten working people — and the jobs they hold.” (The shorter version: companies have to try hiring U.S.-born employees first.)

Whether and when that executive order gets signed is an open question, but at least one small group of cofounders has banded together to make it easier for U.S. companies to create subsidiaries in Canada and to move their U.S.-based employees to a new, Vancouver-based office, and all within what they describe as weeks, not months. They haven’t created a nonprofit. They’ve instead formed a new company called True North that’s right now offering a $6,000 package that includes airfare for one person to Vancouver, two nights of accommodations, and a day with “world-class immigration professionals who will walk you through the process and answer any questions you have.”

The package is somewhat rich. For example, an employee could fly from the Bay Area to Vancouver, land accommodations, and talk with immigration attorneys for far less than what True North is charging. But the broader idea is interesting, and that’s for employees to keep their current jobs with their current employers but to have the option to work via a wholly owned Canadian subsidiary that can provide them with protected status in the event that the U.S. changes its employment regulations.

We talked about the genesis of this project with one of True North’s cofounders, serial entrepreneur Scott Rafer (who founded the API management vendor Mashery and an early blog community and analytics company MyBlogLog, among other companies).

Rafer has been interested in immigration issues for many years, he said, thanks in part to a close friend who was forced to escape from North Korea and eventually found safety with her family in Singapore. More recently, he has focused his financial efforts around helping Syrians refugees resettle on the Greek island of Lesbos. But following the U.S. presidential elections in November, it became clear to both Rafer and several friends, including Vancouver-based serial entrepreneur Michael Tippett, that immigrants in the U.S. would soon need greater attention, too.

Their big aim with True North? “To keep H-1B workers in one place rather than see them scatter. To point them to a more-than-decent city and airport where they can move their work and live happily and access great public schools. We have this community here in Silicon Valley that we want to preserve and if you look at a map, there are few places other than Vancouver that qualify for this kind of move.”

We “aren’t saying to move on spec but to have a ripcord,” adds Rafer.

TrueNorth is working with Ernst & Young, and the firm has advised True North that a subsidiary can be set up fairly quickly.

As Bloomberg noted in its report, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon already have offices in Canada where they often position workers while they wait for them to obtain clearance to live and work in the U.S.

Rafer suggests that people needn’t wait for their employer to legally form a Canadian subsidiary first — that they can and should apply to live in Canada in parallel (that it takes roughly the same amount of time). This Rolling Stone article suggests the process is relatively easy once someone has a Canadian job offer in hand.

Certainly, Canada’s technology community seems receptive to the idea of welcoming more tech talent. This past weekend, dozens of Canada’s tech CEOs signed a letter asking Canada to offer immediate entry visas to those hit by the order. Part of it reads:

The Canadian tech community supports Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s message that Canada will and must remain inclusive to all nationalities. We also stand directly opposed to any and all laws that undermine or attack inclusion, and call on Prime Minister Trudeau and our political leaders to do the same.

The Canadian tech community also calls on the Canadian federal government to institute an immediate and targeted visa providing those currently displaced by the US Executive Order with temporary residency in Canada. This visa would allow these residents to live and work in Canada with access to benefits until such time as they can complete the application process for permanent residency if they so choose. We encourage provincial and municipal governments across Canada to lend support as they can.

Rafer acknowledges that newly formed True North is limited in its ability. The outfit has already secured a “couple dozen desks” through its local network, he says, but “we aren’t set up to help thousands of people just yet.”

Of the cost, he’s aware that it’s high, saying it “isn’t friendly to bootstrapped startups by any means. We’d love to get it there fast, but we’re completely paranoid about making promises we can’t keep when people’s families are at stake.” He adds that his team is “working to bring [costs] down without putting ourselves in a position of becoming unreliable.”

The good news, says Rafer: the city of Vancouver “has the space, and we’re working with officials on [lining up as much of it as we can]. We may not look like the best customer service force in the world, but we’re also not going to screw with people.”

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