Many Washington Tech Giants in Vocal Opposition to Immigration Ban

When Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed a lawsuit to invalidate the Trump administration’s executive order temporarily banning immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries, he did so with the explicit support of two giants of the tech industry.

Amazon and Expedia filed legal briefs outlining the order’s negative impacts to their businesses and employees, as many from the Northwest tech industry spoke up in opposition to the ban, and in support of their immigrant employees impacted by it. Starbucks, Microsoft, Tableau Software, and venture capital firm Maveron were among those repudiating the ban early this week.

Ferguson’s complaint says the executive order “is separating Washington families, harming thousands of Washington residents, damaging Washington’s economy, hurting Washington-based companies, and undermining Washington’s sovereign interest in remaining a welcoming place for immigrants and refugees.”

Washington state is home to about 7,280 non-citizen immigrants from Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, Syria, Iran, and Iraq—the countries subject to the immigration ban, according to American Community Survey data from the U.S. Census cited in the complaint (PDF).

While this executive order provoked a strong response from many tech companies, the stage is set for what could be a larger fight over high-skilled immigration policy, which could have a much heavier impact on these firms’ operations. Companies such as Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook employ thousands of H1-B visa holders. Bloomberg reported Saturday on a draft executive order that would overhaul the high-skilled immigration program to prioritize “the protection of American workers”.

“The market for highly skilled workers and leaders in the technology industry is extremely competitive,” Ferguson’s complaint notes. “Changes to U.S. immigration policy that restrict the flow of people may inhibit these companies’ ability to adequately staff their research and development efforts and recruit talent from overseas. If recruiting efforts are less successful, these companies’ abilities to develop and deliver successful products and services may be adversely affected.”

Declarations from Amazon and Expedia give a glimpse of the impact the order is having on tech companies with employees and operations around the world.

—Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN), through a declaration of its senior manager of mobility and immigration, Ayesha Blackwell-Hawkins, says the order “immediately—and negatively—impacted employees, dependents of employees, and candidates for employment with Amazon.”

Like other companies, lawmakers, judges, and immigration officials trying to interpret the order, Amazon notes that it is unclear whether it bans anyone born in the seven countries, regardless of current citizenship or visa status, or only applies to citizens. Also unclear is its impact to people with dual citizenship. Amazon says it has 49 employees—out of 180,000 in the U.S.—born in one of the seven countries, though all but two have citizenship in another country, and all are working in the U.S. under a legal visa.

Ten dependents of Amazon employees were born in the impacted countries. And seven people who have received job offers from the company were born in Iran but are citizens of other countries. “We are currently assessing alternatives that could include placement in countries other than the United States,” Blackwell-Hawkins says in the declaration (PDF).

—Expedia (NASDAQ: EXPE), in a declaration of its general counsel Robert Dzielak, says that it is “crucial that Expedia hire talent from around the world to provide a broad spectrum of insights, ideas, and perspective to the travel services and destinations that it offers.” But the company “expects that its ability to recruit talent from around the globe … will suffer as a result of the Executive Order.”

The company has some 20,000 employees around the world, with more than 3,500 based in Washington state—including at least two who “would be at risk for not being re-admitted” to the U.S. under the ban.

Expedia CEO Dara Khosrowshahi is an Iranian-American, born in Tehran in 1969.

Like other employers, Expedia has advised its employees from the seven impacted countries to “refrain from traveling until further notice,” Dzielak’s says in the declaration (PDF).

Expedia, Dzielak says, has served at least 100,000 customers with passports from the countries impacted by the ban since its founding in 1996, and at least 1,000 such individuals have purchased current itineraries for travel to, from, or through the U.S. on Expedia.

Dzielak says Expedia is incurring business costs to help those people affected by the travel ban, and the uncertainty surrounding it is impacting Expedia’s business directly through operational difficulties, and potentially through a broader effect on global travel.

—Ferguson’s complaint goes on to note that at least 76 Microsoft employees are citizens of the impacted countries with temporary U.S. work visas. University of Washington has more than 95 students from the impacted countries; Washington State University has 135 students.

Here are some of the public statements and actions announced by Washington-based tech and innovation companies in the days since the ban was ordered. We will update this with additional examples as appropriate:

Starbucks (NASDAQ: SBUX) chairman and CEO Howard Schultz publicized a message to the Seattle-based coffee chain’s employees worldwide on Sunday, assuring them of corporate support for people impacted by the immigration ban, and committing to hire 10,000 refugees—“those fleeing war, violence, persecution, and discrimination”—at its locations around the world in the next five years. The first part of this action will be hiring translators and other personnel who supported the U.S. military overseas at Starbucks’ U.S. stores.

That was one of several specific actions Schultz announced, pledging “that we will neither stand by, nor stand silent, as the uncertainty around the new Administration’s actions grows with each passing day.”

The stance provoked calls for a Starbucks boycott, though the company has faced similar responses to stances it has taken before.

Schultz went on to encourage Starbucks employees “to use the collective power of your voices” to “ensure our elected officials hear from us,” but to also respect “the diverse viewpoints” of its customers.

—Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) called the executive order “misguided and a fundamental step backwards,” in a statement on Sunday. CEO Satya Nadella, an immigrant from India, said in an employee meeting Monday:

“I always come back to two things. One is the enduring principles and values that drive us as a company, that have made us and this country what it is, and my own personal story.

“There is no place for bias or bigotry in any society, in any context. That’s where we start from. We will always as a company stand for that diversity and inclusion. And we’ll keep pushing at it, pushing at it, and making progress. That’s core to who we are. That I believe is core to what America is.

“I mean, think about it, I am a product of the fundamental greatness of the United States. It is the ingenuity of the American technology that reached me where I was growing up that even made it possible for me to dream of being able to be part of this journey. It is the enlightened immigration policy of this country that even made it possible for me to come here in the first place, and gave me all this opportunity.

“And so I always think about that. I will always advocate for that America that I know and that I’ve experienced.

“And we will do that consistently. We’re not going to overreact because of any one incident, but we will always stand for what we believe are these enduring principles that really are going to be about us as a company, but also recognizing that we’re a multinational company that is an American company.”

—Seattle-based venture capital firm Maveron—co-founded by Schultz and Dan Levitan—posted a statement to its Facebook page Tuesday expressing sadness and concern at the executive order, and noting that the leaders of many of its portfolio companies—and their employees—feel likewise.

“America is, at its foundation, a nation of immigrants,” the statement reads. “’Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. At Maveron, we believe this country has the duty to provide people of all backgrounds, color, religion, and politics the opportunity to pursue their dreams and build a better tomorrow.”

The VC firm, with offices in San Francisco and a focus on consumer brands, goes on to note that more than half of the startups with $1 billion-plus valuations were founded by immigrants. The firm believes “the best brands will continue [to] be built by diverse teams, that represent different religions, countries of origin, ethnicities, and sexual orientations.”

The firm offered its portfolio companies financial help to obtain legal resources “to reunite family members, and minimize, to the extent possible, the impact on your employees’ lives.” It further says it plans to help different companies in its portfolio share best practices in the face of the ban. And, it urges employees from countries impacted by the travel ban to “seek legal advice prior to leaving the U.S.”

Tableau Software (NASDAQ: DATA) CEO Adam Selipsky sent a note to employees Monday, posted to the company’s public blog. It says none of the data visualization company’s workers or families have been impacted yet. However, Selipsky zoomed out to put the executive order in broader context.

“We agree that we need safe borders to protect our way of life. But the answer is not to issue broad proclamations against religions or nationalities. We are strongest when we embrace and embody our national values of tolerance, collaboration, inclusion, and respect. If we want to live these values, then we need to base policy on intelligent and nuanced analysis—on data—rather than on fear. That is not a political statement, nor a partisan statement, nor a commentary on any person. It is a statement about being willing to stand up for what is right,” he wrote.

The company is double-matching contributions by its employees to nonprofits focused on immigration and refugees and pledged to provide software and services to those organizations through its philanthropic foundation.

Selipsky added this personal note: “[H]ad my grandparents not been allowed to flee Eastern Europe between the First and Second World Wars, I might well not be here today. In addition, I am an immigrant to the US, and am grateful for that privilege.”

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