Silicon Valley fights Trump immigrant curbs

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Silicon Valley fights Trump immigrant curbs

Puts money and muscle into battle.

Silicon Valley has taken the lead in corporate resistance to US President Donald Trump's clampdown on immigration, financing legal opposition and criticising the plan, as well as helping employees ensnared by his executive order.

In an industry that has long depended on immigrants and celebrated their contributions - as well as championing liberal causes such as gay rights - there was little initial consensus on exactly how to respond to Trump's move.

But, while most in the tech industry stopped short of directly criticising the new president, they went much further than their counterparts in other sectors, who were mostly silent over the weekend. Most of the major US banks and auto companies, for example, declined to comment.

Trump ordered a temporary ban on travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries and a 120-day halt to refugee resettlement. The action triggered a global backlash, and sowed confusion and anger after immigrants, refugees and visitors were kept off flights and left stranded in airports.

Big companies such as Apple, Google and Microsoft offered legal aid to employees affected by the order, according to letters sent to staff. Several Silicon Valley executives donated to legal efforts to support immigrants facing the ban.

And Tesla chief executive Elon Musk and Uber head Travis Kalanick both said they would take industry concerns about immigration to Trump’s business advisory council, where they serve.

Kalanick has faced opposition on social media for agreeing to be part of the advisory group. In a Facebook post on Sunday he called the immigration ban "wrong and unjust" and said Uber would create a US$3 million fund to help drivers with immigration issues.

Among those affected by the ban was Khash Sajadi, the British-Iranian chief executive of San Francisco-based tech company Cloud 66, who was stuck in London. Like many tech workers, he holds an H1B visa, which enables foreigners with special expertise to work for US companies.

Sajadi said he hoped big tech companies such as Google and Facebook would take legal action to protect affected employees. That could help set a precedent for people in similar situations, but at smaller companies.  

"Ultimately, I think them simply speaking up is not going to move the needle with people" who are not wealthy and do not live on the East or West Coasts, he said.

'Tech against trump' protest

The response from tech companies has been “as forceful as it possibly can be,” said Eric Talley, a corporate law professor at Columbia Law School.

“One of the difficult aspects of reaction to the Trump administration in its first couple of weeks is trying to balance the interest of expressing legitimate concern ... against the potential cost of being out too far ahead of everyone else,” he said.

The tech industry also has other issues where it may find itself opposed to Trump, including trade policy and cyber security.

The president of California-based startup incubator Y Combinator, Sam Altman, wrote a widely read blog post urging tech leaders to band together against the immigration order. He said he has spoken with a variety of people about organising but remains unsure about the best course of action.

“The honest answer is we don’t know yet,” he said. “We are talking with legal groups and tech groups, but this is so unprecedented that I don’t think anyone has a manual.”

At Lyft, co-founders John Zimmer and Logan Green pledged to donate a million dollars over the next four years to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which won a temporary stay of part of Trump's executive order on Saturday night.

Slack co-founder Stewart Butterfield and Union Square Ventures partners Albert Wenger and Fred Wilson promised to match contributions to the ACLU.

Michael Dearing, founder of venture capital firm Harrison Metal, started an effort called Project ELLIS, short for Entrepreneurs' Liberty Link in Silicon Valley, to help startups and smaller tech companies with immigration issues. "ELLIS" is a also a reference to New York Harbor's Ellis Island, where millions of immigrants arrived.

In less than a day, the group has handled two cases, he said.

Dearing said the idea was to "get people in touch quickly with the ... resources they would have access to if they were in a Google or an Apple or a Microsoft".

Dave McClure, the founding partner of 500 Startups and an outspoken critic of Trump, said his venture capital firm will soon open its first fund in the Middle East and will shift its attention to supporting entrepreneurs in their native countries, if bringing them to the United States proves impossible.

“Investing in entrepreneurs in other countries is probably one of the best things we can do to promote international awareness and understanding,” he said.

Rank-and-file employees were already prodding executives to go further over the weekend.

Shortly after learning of Trump’s order, Brad Taylor, a 37-year-old engineer for web analytics firm Optimizely, began organising “Tech Against Trump,” a protest scheduled to take place on March 14.

In addition to holding a rally in Palo Alto, California, organisers of the event were urging tech workers at companies that have remained silent on Trump to walk out of their offices.

Taylor said he was heartened by tech leaders’ statements over the weekend but wants to see the industry go further.

“The purpose of this is not to be against tech, but to urge them to be on the right side of history,” he said.

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