How Latin America could benefit from the US' anti-immigration stance

With ongoing uncertainty about H1-B visas and general anxiety about the immigration climate in the U.S, can Latin American countries benefit?

Visa woes continue to haunt Indian IT firms in the US as a result of immigration-related uncertainties under the Trump administration, according to a recent Business Standard report. With ongoing uncertainty about H1-B visas and general anxiety about the immigration climate in the U.S, tech companies are looking for alternatives and Latin America is stepping up to offer them.

Start-Up Chile for example offers a tech visa that takes little more than two weeks to process in its entirety. When it was first introduced, Nathan Lustig, managing partner of Magma Partners, a seed stage investment fund and accelerator based in Santiago, Chile, described it as a game changer.

At the time, he wrote: "Younger workers love the flexibility to work from the US office and the Chilean office as needed and it's been a recruiting advantage to attract top global talent." He added that it would encourage the growing trend of "top US and European start-ups that are moving to Chile or opening offices to build international teams to compete globally".

And Chile is not the only Latin American country to look to leverage the United States' anti-immigration stance to its own advantage. It looks like Latin America is seeking to benefit from the situation and further develop its tech talent and innovation ecosystem.

Attracting foreign talent and investment

Fragomen Partner Leonor Echeverria says that in the last several years, Latin American governments have taken important steps to attract foreign investment and foreign talent in the technology industry and have been quite successful, even turning cities such as Medellin, Colombia, and Guadalajara, Mexico into global technology hubs.

Echeverria adds that the region has unique programmes designed to attract foreign investment in innovation and technology such as the Start-Up Chile programme. Countries like Panama and Brazil continue to offer immigration benefits and special technical visa categories to bring qualified engineers and other highly skilled professionals into the region.

For example, Colombia is a leader in technology and digital growth in Latin America and has demonstrated great interest in promoting investment and education in the industry. In 2009, Colombia created the "Ruta N" Center of Innovation and Business in Medellin to develop programmes and services to facilitate the city's economic growth into businesses focused on technology, science and innovation.

In 2013, the Wall Street Journal and Citibank named Medellín the world's most innovative city. Additionally, innovation leaders such as Accenture have established an Advanced Technology Centre in Medellin.

Echeverria adds that Mexico has also emerged during the last several years as a destination for technology companies and start-ups particularly in the city of Guadalajara (Jalisco), which has been referred to as Mexico's Silicon Valley. "It is also well known that immigration authorities in Guadalajara generally manage shorter processing times than other immigration offices, to the advantage of incoming foreign talent," she says.

Panama also attracts research and development investment with special immigration regimes such as City of Knowledge (Cuidad del Saber). It includes research centres, technology companies and entrepreneurs that benefit from simplified visa processes for foreign talent and companies established within its area.

Brazil offers an expedited Technical Visa for foreign skilled workers to perform technical activities in urgent situations. It also offers a wide range of visas for skilled workers to perform technical and technological activities in Brazil.

"Over the past couple of years, Latin America has seen a gradual increase in the presence of Indian businesses. Countries such as Argentina, Chile, Panama and Peru have relaxed the visa requirements for Indian nationals to facilitate the entry of visitors and promote commerce and technological, scientific and cultural activities with India," Echeverria explains.

India's own investment in the region has been quietly growing and America's Quarterly noted that "Indian IT companies, both small and large, currently employ some 25,000 people in Latin America, nearly all locals." The relationship between India and the region seems to be growing and Indian tech talent, which has been in demand in the USA, might opt for Latin American alternatives.

Relaxing visa requirements

In 2017, Peru exempted Indian nationals from a visa requirement to enter the country for tourism or business for 180 calendar days in a year, if holding a visa with a minimum validity of six months for, or permanent residence in, Australia, Canada, a Schengen country, the United States or the United Kingdom. Chile now offers similar exemptions.

In 2018, according to Echeverria, Panama implemented several immigration benefits for Indian nationals such as:

  • Entrance to Panama with a consular stamped visa instead of an authorized visa, meaning faster processing times for visa adjudication.
  • Eligibility for a visa waiver for those Indian nationals holding a multiple-entry Australian, Canadian or U.S. visa used at least once to enter that country and with at least one-year validity remaining.

Argentina substituted the visa requirements for Indian business visitors holding a valid U.S or Schengen country visa for a more expedited Electronic Travel Authorization this year. In February 2019, Argentina and India signed several agreements to promote commerce and technology. Per the agreements, Argentina was selected as a hub for transferring innovation and technology from India.

"As part of these agreements, Argentina created a Centre for Excellence of Information Technology (CETI), where India provides software, equipment and training to several information technology laboratories in Argentina. Additionally, the countries signed a Declaration of Cooperation to ensure the exchange of knowledge and expertise in emerging technologies," she added.

Investor visas are used in several countries in Latin America to increase monetary investments and open pathways for foreign entrepreneurs to live and work in these countries. Echeverria cites the examples of:

  • Brazil: A Residence authorization for an indefinite period is available to a foreign national who will invest a minimum of R$ 150,000.00 (Brazil Real) in Brazil for activities related to innovation, technology and science, among others.
  • Panama: An Economic Solvency Permanent Residency is available for foreign nationals who: A) Invest a minimum of three hundred thousand dollars ($300,000.00) in real estate property; B) Provide a fixed term deposit for the amount of three hundred thousand dollars ($300,000.00); or C) A combination of both (real estate and bank deposit).
  • Costa Rica: a temporary residence, with a pathway to permanent residence is available to a foreign national who will invest a minimum of USD $200,000.

Together these initiatives are paving the way for greater investment, a growing entrepreneurial presence and tech talent immigration into the region. Latin America is making a statement that they are not only open to business, but open to tech talent and investment from around the world.