Last December, when a chosen few among the tech leaders of Silicon Valley were invited to climb the Trump Tower in New York for a photo op and kind words from the then-President Elect, the expression on the face of Apple CEO Tim Cook caught the eye.
It was a sort of frozen-in-the-headlights look of someone who’d peeked into the future and realised what was to come. I thought of Tennyson and the Lady of Shallot - ‘The mirror crack’d from side-to-side. The curse is come upon me cried, the Lady of Shallott’.
It was good therefore to see that Cook is among the tech leaders who have risen up against President Trump’s Executive Order, the so-called Muslim ban.
I say so-called because of course it isn’t a Muslim blanket ban, but one imposed selectively on seven Muslim-majority nations. And by happy chance, as many have pointed out this weekend, it doesn’t apply to Muslim-majority countries in which the Trump business empire has commercial interests. That’s a bit of luck, eh? What are the odds?
But leaving aside the naked hypocrisy and double-standards in play, the immigration order signed off by Trump has serious implications for the tech industry. Hell, it has serious implications for the whole of American society, but it’s the tech industry that has taken a commendably public stand on this matter, including Cook who wrote to Apple employees stating:
Apple would not exist without immigration, let alone thrive and innovate the way we do…As I've said many times, diversity makes our team stronger. And if there’s one thing I know about the people at Apple, it’s the depth of our empathy and support for one another. It’s as important now as it’s ever been, and it will not weaken one bit. I know I can count on all of you to make sure everyone at Apple feels welcome, respected and valued.
Apple is open. Open to everyone, no matter where they come from, which language they speak, who they love or how they worship. Our employees represent the finest talent in the world, and our team hails from every corner of the globe. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, "We may have all come on different ships, but we are in the same boat now".
Another attendee at the Trump meeting in December was Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, who promises that his firm will oppose the ban:
As an immigrant and as a CEO, I’ve both experienced and seen the positive impact that immigration has on our company, for the country, and for the world. We will continue to advocate on this important topic.
Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg was among the most outspoken critics, taking to his own Facebook page to flag up his own family’s immigration heritage:
My great grandparents came from Germany, Austria and Poland. [Zuckerberg's wife] Priscilla's parents were refugees from China and Vietnam. The United States is a nation of immigrants, and we should be proud of that…We need to keep this country safe, but we should do that by focusing on people who actually pose a threat. Expanding the focus of law enforcement beyond people who are real threats would make all Americans less safe by diverting resources, while millions of undocumented folks who don't pose a threat will live in fear of deportation. We should also keep our doors open to refugees and those who need help. That’s who we are. Had we turned away refugees a few decades ago, Priscilla's family wouldn't be here today.
Appropriately enough a number of tech leaders took to Twitter, Trump's favoured communication platform, to make their views known, including Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff:
Among others who have gone public with their opposition, Box founder and CEO Aaron Levie said he was donating to the American Civil Liberties Union, (ACLU), which has filed a lawsuit challenging the legality of Trump’s order:
That was a mild rebuke in comparison to Stewart Butterfield, CEO of Slack, who pulled no punches when reacting to comments from Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway:
Even tech leaders who have been working with the Trump transition team aren’t on side here. After criticising Trump during the election campaign, Tesla CEO Elon Musk grabbed attention when he joined a strategic forum of business leaders advising him as incoming President. But in the wake of the immigration order, he broke ranks, declaring that a blanket on Muslims was not the right approach to take to tackle US problems:
Many people negatively affected by this policy are strong supporters of the US. They've done right,not wrong & don't deserve to be rejected.
Also adding his voice was Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, also part of the Trump business advisory team, who pledged to raise his concern with the President later this week:
While every government has their own immigration controls, allowing people from all around the world to come here and make America their home has largely been the U.S.’s policy since its founding. That means this ban will impact many innocent people—an issue that I will raise this coming Friday when I go to Washington for President Trump’s first business advisory group meeting.
Short term concerns
Leaving aside the wider questions about the rights and wrongs of the Trump doctrine on this issue, a number of firms began immediately to focus on the practicalities of protecting their employees. Google recalled all overseas staff that might be impacted by the ban at once.
Meanwhile Microsoft Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith emailed all staff to offer practical support and guidance:
Our goal as a company is to provide you with legal advice and assistance. We’re aware of 76 Microsoft employees who are citizens of these countries and have a U.S. visa and are therefore affected by this new Order. We’ve already contacted everyone in this group. But there may be other employees from these countries who have U.S. green cards rather than a visa who may be affected, and there may be family members from these countries that we haven’t yet reached.
So if this impacts you or a family member and we haven’t yet been in contact with you, please send an email right away to the CELA U.S. Immigration Team. And of course, if you’re uncertain about whether you’re affected, use this same alias and let us know so we can work with you and answer your questions.
Apple’s Cook made the same pledge to his staffers:
There are employees at Apple who are directly affected by yesterday's immigration order. Our HR, Legal and Security teams are in contact with them, and Apple will do everything we can to support them. We’re providing resources on AppleWeb for anyone with questions or concerns about immigration policies. And we have reached out to the White House to explain the negative effect on our coworkers and our company.
In the longer term, the impact on the tech industry has yet to be determined. Such is the haste with which Trump’s ban was brought into existence that agencies such the Department of Homeland Security were left scrambling to catch-up. Overseas, bodies such as the UK Foreign Office are unable to provide clarity of advice on the matter.
It has been confirmed that people born in one of the seven banned nations, but travelling on another passport - eg Iranian-born, British-naturalised, on a UK passport - will be covered by the ban.
As to what all this says about the future of H-1B visa programs, that is frankly anyone’s guess and can wait for another day.
But foreshadowing what might be to come is an ominous paragraph in Microsoft’s recent 10Q filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission on risks facing this most American of global tech champions :
Our business is based on successfully attracting and retaining talented employees. The market for highly skilled workers and leaders in our industry is extremely competitive. We are limited in our ability to recruit internationally by restrictive domestic immigration laws. Changes to US immigration policies that restrain the flow of technical and professional talent may inhibit our ability to adequately staff our research and development efforts. If we are less successful in our recruiting efforts, or if we cannot retain key employees, our ability to develop and deliver successful products and services may be adversely affected.
Which makes banning immigrants seem a strange way to Make America Great Again.
You know, there would never be a good day for this sort of action to be taken, but somehow the fact that Trump chose to do this on Holocaust Memorial Day adds overwhelming bad taste to the charge sheet of wider moral, economic and societal objections.
It's good to see such a strong stance from the tech industry and one that’s much needed on so many levels. A particular shout-out to Google founder Sergey Brin, who joined the impromptu demonstration at San Francisco Airport to protest the ban, saying simply:
I'm here because I'm a refugee.
He's not alone. It's been pointed out a lot this weekend that American hero Steve Jobs was the son of a Syrian immigrant. There are plenty of other examples - and more to come. A study last year from the National Foundation for American Policy, a non-partisan think tank, reported that immigrants started more than half of the current US-based start-ups valued at $1 billion or more.
This is a tipping point issue for the US tech industry - and by implication the global one. If the US is to have closed doors, others will open their's. Canada has already said it will take in anyone rejected by Trump's ban. Longer term, maybe that's good news for the Canadian tech sector?
The US tech industry has made a good start in taking a stand. There are others who have yet to lend their voice, including some who have considerably more chance of being listened to than others. What gets said and done in the days and weeks to come and the positions taken by companies will be watched with great attention. This isn't an issue on which fence-sitting is going to be allowed.