Silicon Valley Finds its Voice as Immigration Ban Fuels Outrage
U.S. immigration restrictions introduced over the weekend are bringing the technology industry together in unified anger like never before.
While the clampdown isn’t an immediate threat to businesses, emotions are running high because President Donald Trump’s executive order violates Silicon Valley’s self-image of inclusion and tolerance. More than any other industry, the tech enclave embraces the work and aspirations of immigrants. At least half of the top 20 U.S. tech companies were founded or are currently led by someone who came from another country.
The late Steve Jobs, Apple Inc.’s co-founder, is the biological son of an immigrant from Syria, one of the seven mostly Muslim countries targeted by the administration. The chief executive officers of Microsoft Corp. and Google were both born in India. Among startups, 51 percent of those valued at more than $1 billion had an immigrant as co-founder, according to a paper by the National Foundation for American Policy.
“This is essentially a direct attack at what we consider to be incredibly important to our culture and how we built our companies,” said Aaron Levie, CEO of Box Inc.
Apart from executives, many of the rank-and-file employees in Silicon Valley are people from different nations. Walk through any of Google’s cafeterias during lunchtime or stroll down Palo Alto’s University Avenue on a balmy evening, and you’ll see a mix of white and Asian software engineers.
That’s also a reflection of the dearth of home-grown engineering talent needed to write advanced software code and build complex machines. Many of the core tasks at Silicon Valley companies are handled by immigrants. Recognizing this, industry group FWD.us has been pushing for immigration reform. Founded in 2013, the organization is backed by some of the biggest names in tech, including Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg.
At the same time, Silicon Valley has faced criticism for giving high-paying engineering jobs to foreigners. Through FWD.us and on their own, tech companies have lobbied to expand the H-1B visa program, which lets them recruit highly skilled foreign employees. IBM, Amazon.com Inc., Microsoft, Alphabet Inc., Intel Corp. and Apple have been among those receiving the most approved petitions.
Now, it appears that Trump also has H1-B visas in his crosshairs. His administration is preparing a new executive order that will overhaul the program, calling on companies to prioritize the hiring of American workers, according to a draft of the document obtained by Bloomberg.
Many tech executives and venture capitalists opposed Trump’s candidacy. It was hard to find supporter for the real-estate reality TV star in Silicon Valley before the presidential election in November, although investor Peter Thiel was a visible exception. According to election returns, 86 percent of San Francisco County voted for Hillary Clinton.
Still, there were initial signs that Silicon Valley was willing to take a wait-and-see approach to Trump and his presidency. International Business Machines Corp. CEO Ginni Rometty publicly pledged to hire about 25,000 U.S. workers and spend $1 billion on training over the next four years. That came just before the Dec. 14 meeting between Trump and technology leaders. Now, that’s giving way to open hostility.
“We believe the executive order is misguided and a fundamental step backwards,” Microsoft said in a statement Sunday. “There are more effective ways to protect public safety without creating so much collateral damage to the country’s reputation and values.”
More than 1,000 protesters gathered at San Francisco International Airport on Saturday. They were joined by Google co-founder Sergey Brin, himself an immigrant from Russia, and Sam Altman, president of startup incubator Y Combinator.
“The world now expects to hear from us,” said Mamoon Hamid, a Muslim venture capitalist. “When you have the platform and the followers, then you have the responsibility to let the world know what you think are heinous acts from our government.”
Trump’s order prevents people from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen from entering the U.S. for the next three months. There’s was no shortage of confusion over the weekend, given that some judges have temporarily blocked parts of the order and the administration is giving conflicting messages on its implementation.
Ride-hailing company Uber Technolgies Inc. was caught up in some of the chaos, with CEO Travis Kalanick putting out Facebook posts and tweets that appeared to grow in intensity. He went from a tepid letter to employees that acknowledged that “every government has their own immigration controls” to tweeting “the travel ban is against everything @Uber stands for.” Competitor Lyft Inc. promised to donate $1 million over four years to the American Civil Liberties Union.
Elon Musk, who was born in South Africa, tweeted, “The blanket entry ban on citizens from certain primarily Muslim countries is not the best way to address the country’s challenges.”
Netflix CEO Reed Hastings wrote on Facebook, “Trump’s actions are hurting Netflix employees around the world, and are so un-American it pains us all.”
“America is built on the hard work of immigrants,” said Hemant Taneja, a venture capitalist who emigrated from India and an investor in Snap Inc. and Stripe. “I was 15 when I came here and there are hundreds of such stories that keep coming out today. I look at the events this weekend and say, ‘what has this country become?’”