I must be getting pretty good at this column-writing stuff. Last month, I looked at the proposed U.S. immigration bill and compared some of its provisions to Canada’s existing immigration selection system. I closed the column by predicting that the U.S. bill would not likely become law any time soon – despite President Bush’s assertions to the contrary — and by pointing out that this is actually good news for Canada because “[t]he longer the U.S. maintains its antiquated system for selecting immigrants, the longer we will remain the undisputed destination of choice for many of the world’s best and brightest.”

Well, I had no idea I would be proven correct on both counts so quickly. The proposed U.S. bill died in Congress two weeks ago and with it died any chance of comprehensive immigration reform becoming a reality before the next U.S. presidential election in 2008.

And last week Microsoft, one of the leading advocates of immigration reform in the U.S., announced they would be expanding their presence in Canada by opening a new software development centre in the Greater Vancouver area later this year. In its media release for the announcement, Microsoft left no doubt that this decision was directly related to the failure of Congress and the White House to implement the changes to American immigration policy that Microsoft has advocated. The software giant noted that the Vancouver-based software development centre “will … allow the company to continue to recruit and retain highly-skilled people affected by the immigration issues in the U.S.”

So what are the impediments to bringing skilled workers in to the U.S. that made Microsoft decide to locate a centre that will create 800 jobs in Vancouver instead of its home state of Washington? And what makes B.C. a more desirable jurisdiction for Bill Gates & Co.? In other words, what are we doing right that the Americans aren’t?

First of all, what Microsoft had requested of Congress was an elimination of the limit, or cap, on the number of high-tech workers that can be imported to the U.S. annually. Currently, U.S. immigration law allows for the issuance of only 85,000 employer-sponsored “H-1B” work visas per year despite the fact that companies like Microsoft are requesting some 150,000 such workers. Gates appeared before Congress to request that the cap be eliminated entirely and that there be no limit on the number of temporary workers that can come in through this route. This request was not granted; nor was a more simplified route to permanent “green card” status created for such workers.

By contrast, in Canada, and specifically in B.C., high-tech employers have ready access to foreign workers through a number of different programs. Firstly, there is a national confirmation letter in place for software professionals that fall into seven specific job categories. Employers seeking to bring in workers with experience in one of these occupations are exempt from the need to obtain a Labour Market Opinion (LMO) from Human Resources and Social Development Canada (HRSDC). As a result, these foreign workers can apply overseas for a Work Permit with little more than a letter from their Canadian employer offering them a position along with proof of their experience. Processing times in such circumstances can be as short as several days. And if the foreign worker is coming from a visa-exempt country such as U.S., the United Kingdom, Australia or any Western European country, they can apply right at the border for a Work Permit which can be issued the same day.

There are other provisions of our Temporary Foreign Worker program that allow employers to avoid the need to obtain an LMO from HRSDC including parts of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and a special exemption for foreign students who have graduated from a Canadian university or college that allows them to obtain a “post-graduation Work Permit” valid for one or, in some cases, two years.

Moreover, recently, Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) opened offices in Vancouver and Calgary specifically to vet applications from employers who are seeking to utilize such exemption categories. As a result, employers now have the ability to get their foreign workers “pre-approved”, which streamlines the process of obtaining the Work Permit at the border.

In cases where there is no exemption category available for a position an employer is seeking to fill with a foreign worker, there remains the option of convincing HRSDC to issue an LMO, which then facilitates the issuance of the Work Permit. While this can be a somewhat lengthy process because of the number of employers seeking LMOs to fill labour shortages in our hot economy, there is no limit on the number of foreign workers that can be admitted in a year. The Canadian government processes these applications based to the needs of employers and does not impose arbitrary limits.

And once such foreign workers are here on Work Permits, they and their employers also have an appealing option through which to convert them to permanent status — the BC Provincial Nominee Program. This can be done in less than a year while the foreign worker continues to work in B.C. on a Work Permit.

All in all, Microsoft appears to have made a smart move in deciding to locate a software development centre in B.C. Clearly, they have done their homework and determined that here they will have much easier access to the world’s “best and brightest” software professionals. Hopefully, their next version of Windows will benefit from the input of a worldwide cross section of brainpower.