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View from Washington: Trump’s travel ban - things just got a whole lot worse

President Trump's travel ban on nationals from seven countries and his moratorium on all refugees define the word 'egregious'.

It is hard to see a way back for the Trump administration’s relationship with high technology after the events of the last week.

An overwhelming majority of Silicon Valley leaders never wanted Donald Trump as president in the first place. But, following his post-victory chinwag with some (but hardly all) of the sector’s leaders, the belief was that it was worth making an effort to find common ground.

Not any more.

Last week began with rumours – soon confirmed – that several government agencies had been told to stop communicating with the media and public. Government-sponsored scientific data, particularly on climate change, began to disappear from official websites. ‘Rogue’ employees within various federal organisations – but particularly the National Park Service – set up alternative Twitter and Facebook accounts that directly challenged the President’s authority.

The immediate legacy of all that has been the March for Science. Echoing the recent Women’s March, it aims to coordinate a series of anti-Trump protests based around a main one through Washington DC. At time of writing, the campaign has attracted nearly 300,000 followers on Twitter.

Before going any further, it’s worth pausing to think about just how unusual a notion a broad-based ‘science’ protest is. This is not a fair. Science has previously been an important factor in protests about, say, education funding or climate change – but I cannot think of an example when it was the overarching theme. Are things getting that bad?

Well Trump has also put that walking Spoonerism of a governor, Rick Perry, in charge of the US’s arsenal of nuclear weapons – a role previously held by a nuclear physicist (Ernest Moniz) and a Nobel laureate (Steven Chu). Perry has a degree in animal husbandry.

Anyway, The Donald wasn’t done yet. The week ended with Trump enacting an entry ban on people from seven predominantly Muslim countries and a moratorium on the US acceptance of refugees from anywhere for 120 days.

Amid general outrage and opposition towards this move, technology has moved particularly quickly to oppose it and, if possible, lessen its impact.

Visible among a throng of protestors at San Francisco International Airport was Sergey Brin, Google founder and Russian émigré, proudly declaring his own immigrant status. Google has also set up a programme to provide up to $4m in support for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Immigrant Legal Resource Center, International Rescue Committee and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

According to TechCrunch, a further 11 senior Valley executives from both the technology and investment sectors have made financial pledges to the ACLU since the ban was announced, as has Lyft on a corporate basis.

Companies that have specifically slammed Trump’s ban include Apple, Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft. More are joining the rank all the time. It’s probably easier to try and name Valley players that support Trump’s actions – you’ll probably need only two words by the time we’re done: Peter Thiel.

For technology, the issues are profoundly simple. The inherently immigrant nature of the US has long been one of the things that have helped it attract the world’s best scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs. Many of those to whom Trump has just slammed the door are among that elite today – and while Green Card-holders from the ‘banned’ states are now being admitted, the same is apparently not the case for those with, for example, H1B and similar visas (or as befits the confusion seeded by Trump’s decree, it depends on which airport you arrive at!)

And whatever else you might say about the seven ‘banned’ nations - Syria, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Libya, Somalia and Sudan – they are spread across a region that has long been a rich source of engineering and scientific talent.

But there is a further element here, the refugee element. Many of today’s technology leaders come from families that fled persecution in one part of the world or another to ultimately settle in the United States. Some were even refugees themselves, people like Albert Einstein or former Intel CEO Andy Grove, who escaped communist Hungary in the 1950s.

In a highly globalized business, just about everyone knows a story about someone who had to flee from war, oppression or discrimination – or, indeed, who may still be trying to do so. One likes to think, therefore, that people in science and engineering have a far better understanding than most about the need to maintain humane refugee policies. In that context, Trump’s ban isn’t just commercially dangerous, it is deeply questionable in the moral sense.

Having corresponded over the weekend with a number of colleagues, I know I’m not the only person who now thinks that. So, ask yourself again, what way back is there once you’ve reached that conclusion?

 

PS: Just in case you don’t understand how utterly toxic the refugee issue is here in regard of President Trump’s actions, please read this Twitter thread from Iraq veteran Kirk W. Johnson. It may break your heart… in fact, I hope it does.

 

 

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