Tech founders, investors and leaders rally to fight ‘Muslim ban’ in US

30 Jan 2017

The Statue of Liberty, once a welcoming sight to immigrants entering the US, has been invoked by those protesting the so-called ‘Muslim ban’. Image: Katharina M/Shutterstock

Native and immigrant tech leaders in the US are protesting the immigration ban and backing the ACLU’s fight to quash it.

This past weekend began with a controversial executive order signed by US president Donald Trump. Dubbed by many as the ‘Muslim Ban’, the order severely restricts immigration from Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Somalia, Libya, Syria and Yemen – seven predominantly Muslim countries – into the US. The order also suspended the admission of refugees for 120 days, though Syrian refugees face an indefinite barring.

Confusion at immigration checkpoints swiftly followed as details on how the restrictions were to be handled and to whom they applied were unclear. The disarray resulted in people travelling with valid visas, or as dual citizens of the US and one of the seven blacklisted countries, being detained at US airports.

Protests have since broken out at airports across the US – and down Pennsylvania Avenue –to decry this latest move from the fledgling administration.

ACLU match-making

Lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) rapidly responded to the travel ban with a legal challenge. This achieved a stay from Judge Ann Donnelly following an emergency hearing on Saturday night (28 January). Just days after the order had been signed, this injunction blocked the deportation of those stranded at US airports.

Inspired by the swift action of the ACLU, business people and celebrities began donating in large sums to the organisation, some offering to match donations to a certain point. Among them were Irish founders Eoghan McCabe (Intercom) and Patrick Collison (Stripe).

According to Collison’s tweets, he was acting on an example set by his younger brother (and Stripe co-founder), John, in donating to ACLU. Collison formed a quartet of generosity with VCs Fred Wilson and Izhar Armony, and Nat Friedman (co-founder and CEO of Xamarin, now at Microsoft following an acquisition), all of whom committed to matching donations up to $50,000 for those who presented receipts.

Wilson’s pledge to match donations also inspired angel investor Joanne Wilson, philanthropist Amy Batchelor and investor-entrepreneur Brad Feld to participate. “We had seen the ACLU already jump into action so we collectively decided to do something about it by supporting it,” wrote Feld on his blog.

Investor Chris Sacca, who is known for his appearances on the Stateside version of Dragons’ Den, Shark Tank, seems to have been the instigator of matching ACLU donations. Sacca has invested in companies such as Twitter and Uber, which are among those with leaders coming out against the ban.

It has been reported that the ACLU raised more than $24m over the course of the weekend, when an average year of online donations would normally net the organisation $4m. The newly founded Twitter account @ACLUMatch continues to tweet about those donors promising to match contributions.

Direct action

Meanwhile, responses continue to stream in from tech leaders via social media – à la Netflix CEO Reed Hastings on Facebook – and through more traditional official statements.

Investor Sam Altman, president of the famed Y Combinator accelerator, wrote a blog post entitled ‘Time to Take a Stand’ in which he addressed the far-reaching implications of the executive order. “This is not just a Muslim ban. This is a breach of America’s contract with all the immigrants in the nation,” wrote Altman.

Well-known brands such as Airbnb and Viber have offered up their services for free to those affected by the ban, while other leaders have been prompted to take direct action as individuals. Google co-founder Sergey Brin was perhaps the most prominent tech figure spotted at the San Francisco International Airport protest, while Gaia Dempsey of AR technology company Daqri joined the demonstration at LAX.

Brin reportedly commented, “I’m here because I’m a refugee.”

Immigrant economy

America’s tech elites are a handful among many examples of the immigrants who contribute to the nation’s tech economy.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella wrote in a LinkedIn blog post: “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.”

Ayah Bdeir, CEO and founder of LittleBits, tweeted: “I am a Muslim immigrant and came to [the] US to make a difference. [There are] many more like me.”

As well as excluding and alienating tech founders and leaders from the United States, the immigration ban presents yet another recruitment challenge in a sector already struggling with a growing skills gap. In order to recruit talent with the right skills, sci-tech employers are known to draw on a global pool, and barriers to immigration also act as barriers to growth for these companies.

Intel, a company with an immigrant co-founder, is among them, and CEO Brian Krzanich tweeted his support for continuing “lawful immigration”.

Last summer, the Intel leader cancelled an event with then-presidential nominee Trump, which was intended to be a conversation on issues such as diversity and America’s manufacturing industry. Krzanich told Fortune: “It turned into a fundraiser, and we backed out. It is not our business to support a person.”

Dropbox founder Drew Houston was in Ireland last month discussing the importance of a diverse culture in the formation of his company, while Dublin lead Adrienne Gormley explained how this multinational company deals with work around the world, around the clock. A bar on immigration will directly impact how these international services can operate.

A limited number of tech’s biggest players – namely Peter Thiel, Elon Musk, Oracle CEO Safra Catz and Uber CEO Travis Kalanick – still have a hand to play in influencing Trump’s team, and the pressure is now on for the tech community to sustain its competitiveness through open immigration policies and a stable, supportive environment for employees.

Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.