Tech Companies Push Back on Immigration Practices

Jun 29, 2018 8:45 AM ET

This story originally appeared in the Brands Taking Stands Newsletter

One of the hottest of hot button political-social issues got pushed, hard, last week. The separation of children from immigrants seeking asylum in the U.S. blew up into a major conflict zone in the larger culture wars that shows no signs of quieting down anytime soon. As before, following the issue of the “Muslim ban” immigration executive order issued in early 2017, business squared off against government policy in a high volume debate over values.
The tech industry took the lead. CEOs of Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Uber, Airbnb, Tesla, Cisco, and Reddit, among others, issued statements decrying the separation of families. With their workforces including mission-minded millennials and many immigrants, tech companies are particularly sensitive to issues of values (or the perceived lack of them) in public policy.
The administration’s “no tolerance” policy puts “something fundamental at stake: whether our nation’s policies will reflect values or run in direct contradiction to them,” Airbnb co-founder Joe Gebbia, in a statement typical of many.
Several business leaders evoked “values,” “standards,” and “ethics” in their statements. “A moral imperative,” said Lloyd Blankfein, chief executive of Goldman Sachs, calling for a halt to the policy.
Tech companies also face internal pushback from their own employees about accepting government contracts with terms that trouble employees. For example, Microsoft management received a request signed by more than 300 employees demanding that the company end its contract with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. “We believe that Microsoft must take an ethical stand, and put children and families above profits,” said the open letter, addressed to the chief executive, Satya Nadella. The company replied by pointing out that the $19.4 million dollar deal was not related to the “zero tolerance” policy but focused on basic data management.

Amazon employees protested that company’s sale of facial recognition technology to law enforcement agencies. And earlier this year, Google employees halted an AI project with the Pentagon to improve the accuracy of drones. The company has published a statement of “AI principles,” the first of which is “be socially beneficial.” Just now, more than 650 Salesforce employees have signed a petition asking their employer to end a contract with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).  

Several airlines joined in protesting the separation policy. American, Frontier, United, and Alaska Airlines said they would not cooperate with the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy by not transporting children taken from their parents. United CEO Oscar Munoz said: "Our company’s shared purpose is to connect people and unite the world. This policy and its impact on thousands of children is in deep conflict with that mission and we want no part of it."

Where will this increasing practice of brands taking stands go? As of this writing, the firestorm over immigration policies continues to rage, and will probably burn hot through this fall’s mid-term elections, so it is guaranteed to drive controversy and comment. What is certain is that pressure from customers, consumers, and the general public will require that companies to stake out positions on such social issues of great public importance. Speaking of the broader trend of companies looking beyond profits to their responsibilities towards other stakeholders, Airbnb’s Gebbia told FT: “I think maybe that’s becoming an expectation of companies in the 21st century.” 

I’d argue that it’s more than a trend—it’s a movement, and a large and growing one at that. A company’s statement of principles is becoming an important element of its reputation—and its market cap, as the investment sector is becoming aware of the practice. Look for as much focus on values as on valuation by public companies as the general public demands socially responsible behaviors from the companies they patronize and invest in.

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Written by veteran journalist, John Howell, this newsletter is published every Wednesday morning.