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Lagging immigration reform in U.S. good for Canada: federal jobs minister

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WEST VANCOUVER, B.C. - Stalled immigration reforms in the United States are an opportunity for Canada to scoop up a wealth of young, "brilliant" foreign nationals and direct them into burgeoning tech-sector employment, the federal employment minister said Wednesday.

Minister Jason Kenney heartily endorsed his government's efforts to entice educated immigrants north of the 49th parallel as a direct counter to American policy obstacles to settling down there after earning highly-prized degrees.

"We're seeking very deliberately to benefit from the dysfunctional American immigration system. I make no bones about it," Kenney emphatically told reporters at a West Vancouver news conference, where he was announcing funding to help skilled newcomers get certified to work in Canada.

Kenney said the government has no concerns about aspiring to capitalize off the "super smart" graduates being produced in the U.S., where tens of thousands of young people from around the world attend prestigious schools like Stanford University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and University of California.

He said Canada will promote "very aggressively" the opportunities it provides, including its budding start-up visa program and incoming fast-track program to permanent residency, to entrepreneurs wanting to launch companies but finding themselves blocked from obtaining green cards.

Last month, federal Immigration Minister Chris Alexander was in Vancouver to celebrate the 17-month-old visa program's milestone of accepting its first two applicants. The government has said it will issue a maximum of 2,750 visas for each year of the five-year pilot, which is limited to entrepreneurs who already have the backing of a venture capital firm in Canada.

"If the United States doesn't want to open the door to permanent residency for them, that door will be opened in principle for them to come to Canada," Kenney said.

Just over a year ago, Kenney travelled to the San Francisco Bay area where Silicon Valley has already claimed an estimated 350,000 Canadians and campaigned for foreign talent. The federal government had just erected a massive billboard, emblazoned with a giant red maple leaf, advertising directly to foreign nationals saddled with visa troubles.

Kenney said on Wednesday the "Pivot to Canada" billboard mounted in California in May 2013 generated "massive interest and buzz" in the Silicon Valley tech sector.

Asked whether Canada might get any pushback from the U.S. for openly courting its grads in the face of impassioned U.S. debate on the issue, Kenney said he has raised the government's objectives "very openly" in Washington.

"And the (U.S.) advocates for immigration reform have used Canada's activity there and the Silicon Valley (scenario) as an argument for comprehensive immigration reform in Washington," he said.

"We'll leave that to the Congress and (U.S. President Barack Obama) to resolve, that's their policy domain, not ours."

Kenney's enthusiasm to continue the drive for global talent he initiated while immigration minister came as he made another in a series of announcements aimed at improving recognition of foreign credentials.

The minister attended a library in West Vancouver to reveal a $3.3 million funding package for the British Columbia government, aimed at matching more skilled immigrants with work.

The cash is slated to fund more than 30 projects meant to remove barriers faced by newcomers who are trained overseas, with a particular focus in B.C. on the energy and resource sectors.

Those projects include aiding employers to close obstacles for new Canadians entering the workforce, putting more information online that promotes the in-demand jobs in Canada and working with regulators to speed up the credential-recognition process.

B.C. Attorney General Suzanne Anton, who joined making the announcement, said the "renewal" of funding will assist the province fill an expected 1 million job openings expected by 2022, including in its developing liquified natural gas industry.

"Letting a group of people languish because their credentials are not recognized is not good for them, nor is it good for our province," she said.

Follow @TamsynBurgmann on Twitter

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