An ill wind blows through Silicon Valley

Trump's executive order on immigration, if it stands, will mark the beginning of the end of U.S. technology leadership

An ill wind blows through Silicon Valley
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Today would be a good day to remember that Steve Jobs’s biological father, Abdulfattah Jandali, grew up in Syria — the country from which Donald Trump’s executive order banned all refugees indefinitely on Friday.

Make no mistake. That action, which included a 90-day ban on entry into the United States by nationals of seven Muslim-majority countries and a 120-day ban on all refugees globally, has dire implications for the tech industry, despite a court order Saturday that halted part of the ban.

The most glaring immediate example: According to a report by Bloomberg News, Google CEO Sundar Pichai asked more than 100 employees traveling abroad to return to the United States. In an internal memo Pichai said: "We’re upset 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 US."

Incredibly, the executive order was so poorly conceived that it was not known whether the ban applied to green card holders until Sunday, when Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly clarified that it did not. In the confusion, green card holders were detained at airports and families were separated. It appears that H-1B visa holders from the seven countries will not be admitted during the ban at all.

The implications are wide-ranging and profound. Of the hundreds of technologists I’ve met over the years, probably more than half are foreign-born. Some have told me they periodically consider returning to their country of origin, but time and again have been held back by the open culture and intense concentration of expertise in the Valley.

If ugly, primitive xenophobia is the law of the land, how many brilliant minds will simply decide it’s time to leave?

Think also of the impact on new talent. According to a 2015 analysis by Pew Research, over 50 percent of all doctorates in computer and information sciences at U.S. universities were earned by foreign students. How will foreign tech students of any religion or ethnicity feel about coming to America now? Particularly when the likes of Trump strategist Steve Bannon lament that there are too many Asian CEOs in Silicon Valley?

Prospective foreign students may simply decide to get their education elsewhere—and never consider following the immigration path so many took before them. Their contributions will be lost.

No wonder the tech industry is speaking out. At this writing, in addition to Google, tech company executives from Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, Netflix, Salesforce, Twitter, Etsy, Airbnb, and others have spoken out against the executive order. Some have been more forceful than others. In a pair of tweets, Box CEO Aaron Levie was right on target:

On every level — moral, humanitarian, economic, logical, etc. — this ban is wrong and is completely antithetical to the principles of America. … Donating to the @ACLU today. We cannot let America turn into a closed off, fearful country. We’re better than this.

There’s a reason the United States has been the global leader in technology development instead of, say, Russia. A free and open society fosters the exchange of ideas and encourages entrepreneurship. Rational immigration laws and acceptance of cultural differences has enabled the diverse contributions on which the technology industry has been built. If those core tenets are swept aside, so too will be United States technology leadership.