As Donald Trump signals his intent to close U.S. borders to foreign-born workers, a Vancouver-based startup wants to remind them they can always move to Canada.
Targeting not only the refugees and workers from the Middle East affected by the current ban, but the tens of thousands of Silicon Valley employees who could be affected by a proposed revision of the work-visa programs tech giants including Microsoft Corp., IBM Corp., Google Inc., Apple Inc., and Amazon.com Inc. use to hire foreigners, True North is positioning itself as a one-stop shop where employers can chat online with an immigration expert and set up a Canadian division for $500; speak with an immigration expert over the phone and set up a Canadian division for $800.00; or send an employee to Vancouver, where they will leave as an employee of a Canadian subsidiary for $6000.00.
The for-profit organization is the brainchild of four tech veterans – Scott Rafer, Christian Gammill, Kirsten Spoljaric, and Vancouver-based Michael Tippett – who, inspired by Trump’s protectionist rhetoric, began developing a fail-safe policy for Silicon Valley workers born outside the U.S. soon after the real estate tycoon’s unexpected victory on Nov. 8, 2016, Tippett tells ITBusiness.ca.
“I know many, many people in Silicon Valley, and my friends and I were very concerned about the impact the new administration was going to have on the San Francisco-Bay Area-Silicon Valley ecosystem,” he says. “The fear, even before the new immigration restrictions, was that people were going to be scattered to the winds and you’d lose the community that’s such a critical part of the region’s innovative capacity.”
Vancouver, he says, served as a logical destination where foreign-born workers could stay in touch with their American colleagues, given its proximity to the U.S. border, identical time zone, robust technology sector and, most importantly, open immigration policy.
While Trump’s executive-ordered travel and immigration ban, which halted the U.S. refugee program and banned visitors from seven predominantly Muslim countries (Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen) after being implemented on Saturday, was heavily criticized by the tech industry, Bloomberg reports that his administration is planning an even more potentially contentious move: reforming a series of visa programs, including the popular H-1B used by tech companies to hire skilled foreign workers when local talent isn’t available. (Trump officials did not respond to Bloomberg’s requests for comment.)
Though True North wasn’t formed in response to one of Trump’s specific policies, Tippett admits the administration’s recent announcements spurred his team to launch the company’s website more quickly than they originally planned.
“We didn’t expect things to move quite as quickly as they have,” he says. “We expected there would be a change in the environment, and that it would impact around 10,000 people.”
With the H1B Visa up for negotiation, Tippett says, IBM alone has 12,000 H1B employees at risk, while Google, Microsoft, and Amazon have similar numbers among their ranks. Suddenly, a development cycle which had only begun three weeks ago, and already accelerated by Saturday’s announcement, needed to be released as quickly as possible.
“Fortunately we’re all entrepreneurs and are fairly nimble, so we’ve been able to move quickly,” Tippett says. “But we’ve had to react very, very suddenly in the last 48 hours.”
True North’s website, which ultimately went live on Jan. 31, makes no attempt to hide its opinion of the new U.S. President: “While we fight Trump’s anti-American immigration orders, we must also keep our community physically intact,” it says. “If we direct all the affected H1Bs to a single refuge then we will have enough energy in one place to be powerful. If we allow him to scatter us across the planet, we lose a lot of that.”
Such rhetoric isn’t far removed from the criticism other Canadian tech leaders have levelled against the Trump administration, particularly in the form of a 3000-plus strong open letter, which states that its supporters “stand directly opposed to any and all laws that undermine or attack inclusion.”
“I think a real blind spot for the people who are making these policies is that they don’t recognize that Steve Jobs would not have been who he was had these policies been in place when he was alive,” Tippett tells ITBusiness.ca. “Sergey Brin was a refugee from the Soviet Union. Elon Musk is from South Africa. Our people are from all over the world.”
To qualify for True North’s services, which are supported by consultation firm Ernst & Young, applicants must possess a valid H1B visa, and their employer must be willing to incorporate a Vancouver subsidiary if they don’t have one already. Spouses and common-law partners, including partners of the same sex, are eligible for permits that will allow them to work or found their own businesses in Canada, while children under 18 are eligible to attend Vancouver-area public schools tuition-free.
While True North has barely been supporting affected workers for 24 hours, its website has already seen a remarkable spike in traffic, and its organizers have engaged in many conversations with other companies, Tippett says.
“I have mixed feelings about the idea of us becoming a success,” he says. “It could certainly be positive for the Vancouver tech ecosystem, but at the expense of what I think is a very misguided policy, one that’s going to negatively impact peoples’ lives and the technology sector, certainly in the short term.”