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Businesses ambivalent to Trump's travel ban

Matt Freathy examines the proactive response tech companies have adopted toward the immigration ban while other businesses seem to tow the line.

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Donald Trump's temporary ban on immigration from seven Muslim majority countries and suspension of the US refugee programme has sharply divided the American people, and the reaction from large American corporations has also been mixed. While there has been little outright support for the ban many companies have kept silent over the issue, or at least exercised significant restraint.

The main opposition has come from the tech sector, who have almost unanimously decried the ban on the grounds of its questionable constitutionality and the negative consequences for their own operations. Many of their workforces depend greatly upon immigration, with 58 per cent of engineers and other highly skilled employees born outside the US. Across other industries there has been a more muted response, albeit with major exceptions.

The unity of Silicon Valley firms has been unparalleled. 127 US tech companies, including giants such as Apple, Facebook and Microsoft, signed a legal document attached to the cases brought against the ban by the states of Washington and Minnesota, firmly opposing the order.

Given that they're mostly headquartered in the liberal haven of California, and that many of their founders and CEOs hail from abroad, (like Syrian immigrant Steve Jobs and the Indian-born CEOs of Google and Microsoft), their stance comes as no shock. However, others have put their money where their mouth is. AirBnB are offering free housing to those impacted by the policy, while in January Google set up a $4m "crisis fund" for organisations that support immigrants and refugees. A temporary outlier, Uber endured a viral boycott (#DeleteUber) after they removed surge pricing to JFK airport during an anti-ban protest by the New York Taxi Worker's Alliance. They then set up a $3m legal defence fund for the affected, and openly condemned the ban.

Throughout the rest of American big business there's been far less unity. More moderate reactions, from companies like Citibank and Walmart, include voicing concern about Trump's order but not outright opposing it, nor offering support for any of their affected employees.

Plenty of multinationals are avoiding the debate entirely by giving no public comment on the situation, particularly in the media and telecoms industry. Such conservative responses are partly due to fear of becoming the subject of one of Trump's Twitter rants, which have been known to cause a company to plummet on the stock market, or a boycott by the 63 million Americans who voted him into office.

This consequence has already been realised for Starbucks after their promise to hire 10 000 refugees was met with a backlash from Trump supporters who have threatened to abandon the brand.

Technology giants have been emboldened by their own consensus. By sharing a platform with their competitors, they are less likely to be damaged by speaking out on such a divisive policy and are able to present a recognisably united front, less susceptible to boycotting.

Compare this to other sectors, where a move as tame as a Superbowl advert promoting diversity and inclusion could see many consumers switch to a fence-sitting alternative. It's strange that in this new era, an expression of basic human decency has become a major business risk.

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