Immigration stalemate's surprise winner

As the United States has known since its founding, every advanced nation benefits from attracting the skills of very talented immigrants. These days, it's a global battle for top talent.

That is why a series of recent events in the United States, from the presidential campaign trail to administrative snafus, is of considerable interest to us Canadians. As the New York Times and other publications have chronicled, highly skilled immigrants with backgrounds in science, medicine and technology, especially those from India and China, face increasing difficulties in securing their professional future in the United States.

Given what is viewed as a de facto closed door policy on the part of the United States, these very talented individuals – often trained at U.S. universities and keen to stay in North America -- may choose to pursue their professional future in Canada, with its more welcoming, far less bureaucratic approach and much quicker decision-making process. America's loss thus turns into Canada's gain.

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As it stands, that closed door is not just experienced by highly skilled immigrants who want to establish permanent residency status in the United States. It applies just as much to those skilled immigrants trying to obtain temporary work visas.

No wonder then that two years ago, Canada's Citizenship and Immigration Ministry began advertising on billboards in the Silicon Valley area. It did so with slogans such as "H-1B Problems? Pivot to Canada," accompanied by promises of favorable visa and tax policies for prospective start-ups.

And as far back as July 2007, Washington state-based Microsoft announced the establishment of a major new software development center just across the border in Vancouver, B.C. Its purpose was to "recruit and retain highly skilled people affected by immigration issues in the U.S." The team eventually assembled there came from more than 45 countries.

Irrespective of the inevitable vagaries of political debates, the knowledge-based economy is here to stay. More than any other form of society in human history, a knowledge-based society, by definition, depends on individual talents. And that is why, even more so than before, it is people who are any nation's most important natural resource.

For most advanced economies, this means engaging in a productive "arms race" to attract highly skilled human beings, no matter where they were born. The challenge for these countries is to ensure that there are immigration programs in place that allow talented individuals to come, go and return as they please.

The United States, as the world's leading economy and an English-speaking nation, has a head start in this race. That makes the country's increasing inability to manage its immigration policies properly all the more perplexing.

In contrast to the U.S., Canada is very open to immigration. We understand that our economy's and society's future potential are closely related to our ability to attract the world's best and brightest.

As a country of around just 35 million people, we know we have room to grow. Cities like Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver have become crossroads of all the great cultures of the world. Walk the streets of Toronto and you will see a fascinating kaleidoscope of people from around the world. About half of all Torontonians are immigrants, hailing from more than half a dozen countries. Indeed, Toronto is proportionally more immigrant-settled now than even New York City.

Far beyond the old image of Canada as a bilingual entity consisting mainly of Anglophone and Francophone people of European descent, the Canadian experience today is one of many cultures and many peoples. With four in ten residents of both Toronto and Vancouver now speaking some language other than English or French, Canada has truly positioned itself to engage fully with an interconnected world economy.

Compared to most other Western economies, we Canadians are eager to welcome people from other countries to come and share our values and ideals. In an ever more global future, we benefit from the skills, experience and education that they bring with them. To us, Canada is an ongoing project, one that must be creatively reinvented with each generation and that makes full use of the global talent pool at its disposal.

We have been especially eager to attract highly qualified international students who will pursue their advanced degrees in Canada and who we hope will remain here after their studies to help fill a domestic deficit of graduates in STEM fields.

It is important to recognize the three key reasons why immigrants are such a key building block for the future. First, they have intense and very real experience in remaking their own lives and striving for betterment, individually and collectively. This adaptability prepares them particularly well for success in today's modern economy and society, which are characterized by constant fluctuation, evolution and growth.

Second, they are well prepared for the globalization era. They, after all, embody it on a very personal level. Third, the transnational networks they represent – and are a part of – benefit their new home countries.

What helps Canada in that context is that our model of development is deliberately not based on assimilation, as is the case in the United States, but on accommodation.

It is often said that to govern is to make choices. That is undoubtedly true. Nations also send out powerful signals in the process of governing. The choices nations make are also signals about the integrity of their people, institutions, economies and societies.

Right now, the United States is signaling that the country is not fully open for business in the 21st century globalized economy. Close-minded politicians are loudly signaling at home and abroad that highly skilled workers with the credentials to satisfy high-tech and in-demand jobs are not welcome in the United States, simply by virtue of the lottery of their birthplace.

As long as this pattern continues, Canada will continue to reap the rewards of its more open and accommodating immigration policies, particularly in the arena of high-skilled jobs.

Commentary by Pierre Pettigrew, the former Canadian foreign minister and trade minister.