Tech industry reacts to Trump's order on immigration with fear, frustration

The morning after Donald Trump won the presidential election, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Amr Shady called his immigrationp lawyer in a panic.

“My 10-year-old daughter asked me, ‘Does this mean we’re going to get kicked out?’” said the 40-year-old founder of analytics start-up Reveel, who emigrated  from Egypt to the Bay Area in 2015. “I had to find out what Trump winning meant for my immigration status, but also what it meant for my chief data scientist.”

His lawyer, Los Angeles immigration attorney Ayda Akalin, was inundated with calls from similarly nervous clients who were either already living and working in the U.S. on visas, or had visa applications pending. 

At the time, Akalin assured them that nothing had yet changed, and it was too soon to be worried. But after Trump signed an executive order Friday banning citizens of Syria, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and Libya from entering the U.S. for 90 days, Akalin had an update for her clients, particularly those from Muslim-majority countries: Stay inside the United States.

“All of my Muslim clients are scared, even those from other countries,” said Akalin, who herself is Iranian American, having immigrated to the U.S. when she was 5 years old.

The move blindsided the technology industry, which thought that its main battle on the immigration front was over the number of H-1B visas — granted to high-skilled foreign workers — that will be made available each year. The tech sector relies heavily on foreign-born software engineers to meet its staffing needs, and it has long lobbied for the government to lift the cap on the H-1B visa program to allow more foreign workers temporary employment with U.S. firms.

But H-1Bs took a backseat on Friday as tech workers and entrepreneurs already legally living and working in the U.S. worried about their own futures. Many were caught off guard by the order’s reach, which extends to lawful permanent residents — or green card holders — too.

“For those abroad, we are telling them to come back as soon as possible, and be prepared to face questioning and possible refusal,” Akalin said. 

The order also compelled several big tech companies to break their silence about the Trump administration. Google Chief Executive Sundar Pichai slammed the order in a memo to employees.

"It’s painful to see the personal cost of this executive order on our colleagues," Pichai wrote, according to Bloomberg News. "We’ve always made our view on immigration issues known publicly and will continue to do so."

Bloomberg reports that the memo urged employees traveling overseas who are affected by the order to seek help from the company’s security and immigration teams. More than 100 employees are affected, Pichai said.

“We’re concerned about the impact of this order and any proposals that could impose restrictions on Googlers and their families, or that could create barriers to bringing great talent to the U.S.,” a Google spokesperson said. “We'll continue to make our views on these issues known to leaders in Washington and elsewhere."

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, also spoke out against Trump’s action, although in a less direct way, taking to his personal Facebook page to remind his millions of followers that his wife, pediatrician and philanthropist Priscilla Chan, is the daughter of refugees.

“My great grandparents came from Germany, Austria and Poland. Priscilla's parents were refugees from China and Vietnam,” Zuckerberg wrote. “The United States is a nation of immigrants, and we should be proud of that.”

The chief executives of Uber, Netflix, Microsoft and Lyft similarly issued statements or internal memos opposing the president’s directive. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick said many drivers for the ride-hailing service are immigrants from the affected countries who often visit extended families abroad and might have trouble reentering the U.S. The company is considering compensating those drivers “over the next three months to mitigate some of the financial stress and complications with supporting their families and putting food on the table.”

The tech industry has in the past highlighted the value of immigrants to American culture and the economy: Steve Jobs was of Syrian descent, high-profile executives at Twitter, Yahoo, Google and eBay are of Iranian descent. Along with most of the world’s biggest technology companies, the Bay Area is home to some 250,000 Muslims, according to a study by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, of which 60% are foreign-born.

Venture capital firms see Trump’s move as a slap in the face, especially since it comes less than two weeks after the Department of Homeland Security passed a rule allowing eligible foreign entrepreneurs to work in the U.S. for up to five years. The rule change — which Silicon Valley saw as a boon, and is expected to take effect July 17 — was proposed by President Obama last summer.

“We felt that, finally, things were moving forward,” said Zafer Younis, a partner at venture capital firm 500 Startups, which prides itself on its international investments, many of which are in countries that are predominantly Muslim. “This new development really dampened it.”

The executive order increases the uncertainty and risk of investing internationally, Younis said. And while 500 Startups will continue investing abroad, there’s concern that other venture capital firms that were once eyeing international opportunities will now get cold feet.

“It changes the risk profile all of a sudden,” he said.

But for Younis, it’s personal, too. Originally from Jordan, Younis has lived in the Bay Area for the past two years on an EB-1 visa — a green card that is granted to those deemed to have “extraordinary ability.” Though Jordan is not on Trump’s list of countries whose citizens are banned from entering the U.S., it is a Muslim-majority nation, and it has given him pause.

“My wife is here. I have upcoming business trips to Japan and Europe. I’m not affected, yet I have to think twice — do I really need to travel or not?” he said. “It’s a feeling I thought I left back in the Middle East. It’s an anxiety, that things are beyond your control.”

That anxiety is shared by other technologists and entrepreneurs in the Bay Area. Shady, the Egyptian entrepreneur, is also in the U.S. on an EB-1 visa. He and his children have Canadian citizenship, but his wife is an Egyptian citizen.

“So what does that mean?” he said. “If Egypt is on the list three months from now, what does that mean for our family?”

The American Civil Liberties Union on Saturday filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration on behalf of two men who were detained at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport while traveling back to the U.S. after Trump’s immigration crackdown. Silicon Valley venture capitalist Chris Sacca tweeted that he would match donations to the ACLU up to $25,000.

Tech CEOs are slowly raising their voices. Immigration lawyers are advising their clients to stay put. And in a Silicon Valley mosque where Shady attended Friday prayers, the sheikh preached that everyone needs to stand against injustice toward all communities, even if their own is not directly affected.

“This is the most important thing for me right now because, even though it doesn’t affect me directly, it’s important for us to all understand what it means to stand against unfairness and the splitting of families,” Shady said.

tracey.lien@latimes.com

Twitter: @traceylien

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