Tech firms take stand against travel ban, risking backlash

About 58 percent of the engineers and other high-skill employees in Silicon Valley were born outside the U.S., according to an industry trade group.

AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File
FILE - In this June 16, 2014, file photo, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos walks onstage for the launch of the new Amazon Fire Phone, in Seattle. Technology leaders are about to come face-to-face with President-elect Donald Trump after fiercely opposing his candidacy, fearful that he would stifle innovation, curb the hiring of computer-savvy immigrants and infringe on consumers’ digital privacy. On Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2016, Silicon Valley luminaries and other technology leaders are headed to Trump Tower in New York to make their peace, or press their case, with Trump and his advisers. Bezos is one of the CEOs expected to attend.

Through a Super Bowl ad, public statements and court filings, Silicon Valley's biggest companies are taking a strong stand against President Donald Trump's travel ban, saying high tech needs immigrants' creativity and energy to stay competitive.

Although the companies are risking a backlash from customers who side with Trump, they say the pushback is necessary for an industry dependent on thousands of highly skilled foreign workers.

About 58 percent of the engineers and other high-skill employees in Silicon Valley were born outside the U.S., according to the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, an industry trade group.

"Immigration and innovation go hand in hand," said Carl Guardino, the group's CEO. "This cuts so deeply into the bone and marrow of what fuels the innovation economy that very few CEOs feel the luxury of sitting on the sidelines. So people are going to stand up and speak up."

The tech industry contends there aren't enough Americans with the specialized skills these companies need. Though critics contend that companies favor immigrants because they can pay them less, tech companies argue that the ban would pressure them to move some operations abroad.

"A lot of these companies will really struggle if all of a sudden we turn off the spigot," said Greg Morrisett, dean of computing and information sciences at Cornell University.

In a court filing Sunday against the ban, 97 companies, including such major tech players as Google, Apple, Microsoft, eBay, Netflix, Facebook and Twitter, also spoke of the entrepreneurial spirit of "people who choose to leave everything that is familiar and journey to an unknown land to make a new life."

Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella both came from India. Google co-founder Sergey Brin is a Russian refugee who moved to the U.S. as a boy. The father of Apple's late co-founder, Steve Jobs, immigrated from Syria.

Tech worker Ehsaan Taeb, 28, said his whole family is in Iran and knowing his parents won't be able to visit him has added stress to his life. But seeing his company and other tech companies taking a stand against the ban has heartened him, he said.

"When you see your employer and other companies make that kind of effort, that makes me feel very supported and in a community that's thoughtful and caring," said Taeb, who works in support at Checkr, a software company that provides background checks for businesses.

The Silicon Valley Leadership Group estimates that half the companies in the region were co-founded by an immigrant or are now led by a CEO from outside the U.S.

In signing an executive order Jan. 27 that would temporarily ban people from seven Muslim-majority countries, Trump said he was trying to protect Americans by preventing terrorists from slipping into the country. The administration says the president has the constitutional authority to decide who can enter.

During the Super Bowl, several companies ran ads that promoted diversity and inclusion, as marketers tried to reach both sides of a consumer base roiled by the election.

One of the most overtly political was from Airbnb, a company that matches travelers with places to stay. The San Francisco company showed close-ups of people with different ethnicities. A narrator says: "We believe no matter who you are, where you're from, who you love or who you worship, we all belong. The world is more beautiful the more you accept."

Airbnb followed up with a campaign to provide short-term housing over the next five years for 100,000 people in need, starting with refugees, disaster survivors and relief workers.

The company also said it will donate $4 million over four years to the International Rescue Committee, joining many tech brethren in making financial contributions.

Google set up a $4 million "crisis fund" in January to support organizations that are helping immigrants and refugees, while ride-hailing service Lyft pledged $1 million over the next four years to the American Civil Liberties Union, one of the groups challenging the ban.

And workers from Google and Comcast workers have staged walkouts over the restriction.

"I wouldn't be where I am today or have any kind of life that I have today if this was not a brave country that really stood out and spoke for liberty," Brin told a crowd of Google employees who walked out in protest last week.

Tech companies risk alienating the many Americans who support Trump and his policies. But the risk is lower than that of, say, a company that makes consumer products with plenty of alternatives.

It's much harder to boycott a Facebook or Google, where you have friends or your email address, said digital marketing analyst Rebecca Lieb. She added that people are less likely to toss out a $2,000 laptop or pricey mobile phone than change soft drinks.

In fact, tech companies might be more wary of backlash from the anti-Trump side. Last week, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick quit Trump's council of business leaders after an outcry from Uber customers and employees who were upset about the ban.

In addition, most tech companies have operations around the world and risk alienating customers abroad if they stay silent.

"We interact with a large global ecosystem and our businesses would not be here or be able to thrive without it," said Aaron Levie, CEO of Box Inc., an online storage service. "So our businesses are extremely sensitive, by default, to things that affect immigration and things that affect our relationship with the broader world."

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