The most dangerous wall is a closed mind

6 Feb 2017

The most precious contribution immigrants have made to America is hard work and innovation. Image: Tony Craddock/Shutterstock

Closing borders based on fear will only close minds to opportunity and innovation. Silicon Valley is right to fight, writes John Kennedy.

Driving in my car last week, I still couldn’t get my mind around the enormity and inconvenience that US president Donald Trump’s executive order was causing, restricting travel for people from several Muslim-majority countries. After a litany of errors, missteps and more errors by the Trump administration in just a few days, there were no words.

I switched on my radio to hear the voice of Parsa Ghaffari, CEO of Dublin-based software start-up Aylien, who I got to meet on a number of occasions in recent years. We proudly featured Aylien as a Start-up of the Week and it is one of my ones to watch in 2017. Anyone who has met Parsa will agree that he is passionate and articulate on the subject of data.

A native of Iran, Ghaffari came to Ireland after getting involved in one of Sean O’Sullivan’s SOSV accelerators in China and he has never looked back. Last March, Aylien raised €580,000 in venture capital and revealed plans to create new jobs in Ireland. Ghaffari also planned to open an office in Silicon Valley and create jobs there too, but those plans have been stopped in their tracks for now.

Ghaffari was on RTÉ Radio 1 with Sheelan Yousefizadeh, an Irish-Iranian woman, and they spoke with feeling of their disappointment, disbelief and helplessness at the executive order. There was something in their voices that resonated; it wasn’t just bewilderment, it was hurt.

I recognised it because it is the same tone you hear Irish people use when they bring up painful experiences about emigration into the UK in the 1950s and 1960s, for example, when many were made to feel far from welcome. The foolishness that is Brexit is stirring those emotions again.

We live in troubled times. When the history books are written, our children will ask us what we did during these times. What did we do to make a difference?

But it is confusing right now and, maybe with the clarity of time and hindsight, our choices will seem stark and obvious to future generations.

We are in the fog of war. I say war because from the clarity of history books – depending on whom they will be written by, of course – these times will look like a war on people. A war on decency and a war on humanity.

In war, the first casualty is truth. And now we are in the era of fake news, alternative truths and social media; a narrative where, depending on what you ‘like’ and ‘share’, whether you are left-wing or right-wing, a snowflake or a patriot, the lexicon will somehow group together the words ‘immigration’, ‘refugees’ and ‘terrorism’ as though they are one and the same thing.

Let’s be clear on a few things.

Immigration: forced or otherwise, the 21st century will be all about the ebb and flow of people. It is an economic reality and the upsides include a broader, more inclusive and culturally diverse world, but also access to talent and entrepreneurship, which will lead to jobs. One of Silicon Valley’s greatest strengths is that it is an economic powerhouse because of its diversity. 51pc of billion-dollar tech giants in Silicon Valley were founded by immigrants.

Refugees: people fleeing terror are not terrorists, they are the victims of terror. Many are ordinary people who had ordinary lives; they were scientists, doctors, dentists, entrepreneurs, parents and grandparents. They never saw war coming, nor wanted it. If they could be at home living their old lives, they would. But now they need our help.

Terrorism: who equips terrorists with their weapons, bombs and bullets? What are the root causes of terrorism? Is it idealism? Religion? Oil? Who taught them to use arms in the first place, and why? Why is it so easy for groups like ISIS to recruit socially isolated, unemployed young men and women in the suburbs of European cities to do their bidding?

Those words don’t belong together, but the fearmongering narrative of our times is making it so.

Breaking down walls

Talk of Trump building a wall is one thing, hearing about two leaders of the so-called free world berating each other, with one slamming down the phone over refugees, is unbecoming. But it is happening.

And yet, my heart swelled with pride over a year ago when I spoke with vice-admiral Mark Mellett, chief of staff of the Irish Defence Forces, as he told me how Irish naval ships LÉ Samuel Beckett, LÉ Niamh and LÉ Eithne had saved the lives of close to 10,000 people in the Mediterranean Sea, and continue to do so.

I was moved by the words of Razan Ibraheem, a Syrian woman who has been living in Ireland for the last six years. She works as a journalist for Storyful and penned A love letter from a Syrian to Ballaghaderreen, saying: “By hosting Syrian refugees, you are not only saving and protecting them, you are truly creating new lives with new hope and dreams for the future.”

Unfortunately, the eloquence of Ibraheem’s prose contrasts with the blustering thoughts, tweets and instincts of a US government that has other ideas.

The plight of refugees fleeing terrorism is being mixed in with immigration and new America First economic policies, and people are getting hurt.

Over the weekend, it emerged that 97 US tech companies filed an amicus brief voicing opposition to Trump’s immigration order.

The companies included Apple, Twitter, Microsoft, Facebook, Netflix, Square, Salesforce, Airbnb, Uber, Pinterest, AppNexus, Twitter, Yelp, Reddit, Kickstarter, GitHub, Glassdoor, Box, Mozilla, Dropbox, Twilio, Zynga and Medium, to name a few.

In the wake of Trump’s executive order blocking immigration from seven countries with Muslim majorities, it also emerged that another executive order was in the works, targeting work visa programmes such as H-1B, which is critical for tech companies to hire skilled workers from countries such as China and India.

It will be aimed at ensuring businesses hire “Americans first”, and if they do hire foreign workers, priority will be given to the most highly paid.

This policy is misguided and unrealistic.

Last week, I spoke with PK Agarwal, regional dean and CEO of Northeastern University Silicon Valley, for an upcoming interview. Hailing from India, Agarwal is one of California’s most celebrated technologists and entrepreneurs, who, as CTO of California, reduced the state’s IT spend by 60pc.

Agarwal pointed out that California currently has a shortfall of 400,000 IT professionals, which could reach 1m by 2020. The current policies will only exacerbate this.

Apparently, there is this belief in the Trump camp that these engineers from India and China and elsewhere are taking American jobs. This is not true. The reality is American schools and universities are not producing enough engineers and scientists, women especially, with these core skills.

The entire legacy of Silicon Valley, built by engineers like Intel and Fairchild co-founder Robert Noyce, is being jeopardised by underperformance in maths and science in US high schools. Not by immigrants.

Steve Jobs’s natural father was a Syrian immigrant. Google co-founder Sergey Brin was born in Russia and WhatsApp founder Jan Koum was born in Ukraine. The wealth creation engine that is Silicon Valley owes a lot to immigration.

If Trump and his government really want to put America first, they would ensure that mathematical, scientific and literacy performance is improved in the US education system. Maybe they can pay teachers better wages too?

Reactionary immigration policies will do more harm than good.

Keep on coding in the free world

Most of the world’s culture is, for better or worse, largely influenced by the US. Movies from Hollywood, talk shows, books, music, you name it – America’s impact on pop culture is significant.

Most people around the world grew up on American culture. We look to America as a bastion of decency, a centre of civilisation.

The dangerous rhetoric of recent weeks is not the America that most people have known or admire.

If you walk down the streets of New York, you could pass 100 different restaurants from 100 different ethnicities. It is bursting with culture and amazing things that immigration has brought to the US. (We Irish brought the Irish pub, so sorry about that.)

America is what it is because it is an immigration nation.

A year before the terrible events of 9/11, I walked around Wall Street and as I wandered through a small street, an African-American woman standing in a doorway just burst into song. It was spontaneous, rich and joyful and spoke to me about being happy to be alive. It was a moment I will always treasure because it was just the two of us on that small street. We locked eyes, she laughed with embarrassment and I gave mock applause. She did a small ironic curtsy, we both smiled and went on our way.

The warm memory of the moment sustained me as we took a cold, stormy passage by boat to Ellis Island, a place my grandmother would have passed through 70 years earlier. The solemnity of the place stirred all kinds of emotions as I thought about the thousands arriving in the hope of a better life. Indeed, many found those better lives in America, the land of the free.

On the Statue of Liberty, there is a sonnet written by Emma Lazarus about The New Colossus that the young nation of America was becoming:

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

A year after 9-11, I was near Wall Street again, looking down into the gaping hole of Ground Zero, where the gleaming towers of the World Trade Center once stood.

I tried to remember the Borders bookshop in a shopping mall beneath the towers, where I bought a book just a few years earlier. Most importantly, I tried to listen to hear a singing voice.

I heard nothing.

If America is really the land of the free, it should never be silenced and it should celebrate its diversity.

The most dangerous wall of them all is a closed mind.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years