Just the threat of an iconic American company opening its new headquarters in Canada ought to serve as a wakeup call for a Congress that continues to dither over immigration policy. In Amazon’s announcement on Thursday that it was seeking to spend up to $5 billion on a giant new campus, the online retailer dropped some none-too-subtle hints that Canadian cities were a viable option. Toronto, the cosmopolitan business hub unburdened by America’s destructive immigration politics, intends to bid and already appears to be a leading contender.
Still, that needn’t discourage Mayor Marty Walsh and Governor Charlie Baker from going all-in to lure Amazon to Massachusetts. There are plenty of reasons for the company to choose Boston or Cambridge, and with up to 50,000 high-paying jobs, local officials should roll out the red carpet.
Boston should appeal to Amazon for many of the same reasons that convinced General Electric to move its headquarters from Connecticut to Fort Point Channel. The region meets the criteria Amazon set out on Thursday: It’s full of high-quality universities, has an international airport, and boasts a diverse and highly educated population. Finding 8 million square feet of space in Greater Boston won’t be easy, and might require cobbling together multiple sites, but there appear to be several parcels in the region that could fit the bill. Amazon plans to keep its Seattle headquarters open — it’s calling the new headquarters HQ2 — so Boston’s geographic location might also be a selling point, giving the company a major presence on both coasts.
The state would likely need to dangle tax incentives to the company, as it did with General Electric. Tax breaks shouldn’t be handed out indiscriminately, but so long as the economic impact from an Amazon headquarters exceeds the public investment, it’s a trade worth making. A concerted effort by public officials, combined with the quality of life that Massachusetts offers, should make Boston a strong candidate.
What the state is powerless to do, though, is make it easier for Amazon to hire and keep talented foreign workers, a major priority in the tech industry. The American immigration system is already a drag on the region’s competitiveness: Companies have to navigate a cumbersome visa system, and their foreign employees have to endure endless red tape. Since his election, President Trump has only made a bad problem worse by vilifying immigrants and issuing an ill-considered travel ban that swept up workers from six predominantly Muslim countries. Some tech companies are already opening or considering Canadian satellite offices to shield their employees from American immigration policies. Opening an entire headquarters in Canada is a foreseeable next step.
Competitiveness starts at the national level, and the warning signs have been blaring for years. Individual cities and states can only do so much to attract giant global companies like Amazon. Massachusetts should put forward the best proposal it can, and Walsh and Baker should make winning the company a priority. But if Amazon, the quintessential American entrepreneurial success story, ultimately ends up choosing Toronto or another Canadian city for its new headquarters, the soul-searching will have to start in Washington.