Donald Trump’s executive order limiting immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries has made a lot of people upset. Immigrant communities are most directly affected, of course, and the policy inspired spontaneous protests at airports across the country this weekend.
But some of the most consequential opponents may be business groups. Over the past four days, many American companies — including iconic brands Ford, Coca-Cola, and Apple — have denounced Trump’s policy.
Businesses normally try to stay out of politics, but several factors inspired these companies to speak out. Some have angry customers pressuring them to oppose the policy. Others rely heavily on immigrant employees. And many CEOs are motivated by personal conviction.
The business backlash is significant because the business community has a lot of influence in Washington, DC — and especially among Trump’s Republican allies in Congress.
At the same time, some of the most powerful business groups have been notably silent in the face of Trump’s immigration order. Take the US Chamber of Commerce, for example, which has traditionally lobbied for more liberal immigration laws. When I asked them for a comment on Trump’s immigration order, they were noncommittal.
“At the moment we are focused on the reports we have gotten from companies understandably confused with regard to the status of green card holders and dual nationals, and we hope the administration can quickly clarify how these will be handled,” a spokesperson told me.
Several other business groups have also kept a low profile on this issue. Their silence blunts the impact of individual companies’ statements on the issue. It’s true that individual companies have lobbyists who can push for changes to Trump’s policies. But the business community has more power when it is unified. And there’s little sign of that happening so far.
The technology sector is a hotbed of anti-Trump sentiment
The business backlash against Trump’s policy is much broader than technology companies, but opposition is fiercest in tech. Almost every major American technology company — Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Google, Facebook, IBM, Intel, Salesforce, Netflix, Uber, Airbnb, and many others — has put out a statement condemning Trump’s policy (though Gizmodo panned IBM’s statement as “embarrassingly weak”).
Julie Samuels leads Tech:NYC, a group that — as the name suggests — represents technology companies and investors with connections to New York City. She drafted a letter to the president that was signed by more than 400 technology leaders.
Samuels has drafted a lot of letters like this over the years, and normally it’s a grind to round up signers. But she told me this time was different. “In less than 12 hours we got over 400 signatures from New York CEOs and investors,” she said. And she said “not a single person” expressed opposition to the letter.
“The diversity of our employees is what makes our organization so great,” said Shutterstock CEO Jon Oringer, one of the letter’s signers. “We depend on people from different parts of the world, different cultures, to help us every day to achieve our goals.”
Brian O'Kelley, CEO of the ad technology company AppNexus, also signed. He told me the order is a “basic violation of what the country stands for to discriminate against people from certain countries.”
A lot of big technology companies were co-founded by immigrants, and virtually all of them have immigrant employees. That not only means that Trump’s immigration order could hurt their future recruitment, it also means these companies have a lot of current employees whose friends and family could be affected.
Google co-founder Sergey Brin attended Saturday’s protest at the San Francisco International Airport. Brin is an immigrant himself, having moved to the United States from the Soviet Union in 1979. Forbes’s Ryan Mac quotes Brin as saying, “I’m here because I’m a refugee.”
Oringer and O’Kelley both told me that Trump’s immigration policies would hurt their business in ways that go beyond recruitment. For example, O’Kelley said, he sometimes needs to meet with customers or business partners based overseas.
“Let's imagine that we have a customer in the UK that happens to be born in Syria. We want to bring them in for a conference,” O’Kelley said. Trump’s policy could make that impossible, putting AppNexus at a competitive disadvantage to companies based in other countries with more liberal immigration rules.
And this points to another reason technology companies have led the charge against Trump’s policy. As O’Kelley put it, “The internet doesn't have borders.” Technology companies often compete in a global market, with a lot of customers, suppliers, and employees based overseas. If Trump’s policies close off the US from the rest of the world, technology companies will be among the hardest hit.
Not every technology company has been agitating against Trump’s policy. Foreign technology companies haven’t been as likely to speak out — I wasn’t able to find comments from Sony or Samsung, for example. Also keeping a low profile are enterprise IT companies, many of which supply products and services from the federal government.
Dell, for example, sent me a statement from CEO Michael Dell in which he endorsed “immigration reform” but didn’t specifically take a position on Trump’s immigration order. HP and Oracle also seem to be staying quiet.
The broader business community hasn’t fully mobilized against Trump
Opposition to Trump’s executive order isn’t limited to the technology sector by any means, but the situation is more mixed in other industries. Ford strongly opposes Trump’s policy, while GM and Fiat Chrysler have stayed neutral. Coca-Cola blasted the policy, while Pepsi has stayed quiet.
Most importantly, major business groups haven’t engaged on this issue. As I noted above, the US Chamber of Commerce hasn’t taken a position. The National Federation of Independent Businesses — which represents small companies in the US — has praised several Cabinet picks but hasn’t said anything about immigration. The National Association of Manufacturers has put out press releases on several other issues but not about immigration. (I’ve left messages with both groups and will update if they get back to me.)
One big reason for this is undoubtedly that they’re hoping Trump will enact other policies they favor — especially tax cuts and deregulation. Strongly opposing Trump’s immigration agenda could alienate the president and make him disinclined to give them what they want on other issues. And while business groups generally favor more liberal immigration policies, they may not view it as a top priority.
On the other hand, Trump isn’t done crafting his immigration policy. He is rumored to be working on legislation that would restrict the use of visas like the H-1B that allow American businesses to recruit high-skilled foreign workers. Trump may also order further crackdowns on unauthorized immigration — something that would hurt industries like restaurants, hotels, and agriculture that rely heavily on immigrant labor. So while major business groups are largely sitting on the sidelines today, they could become more involved in the coming months.