Last year, when we were debating whether or not the U.S. should ramp up its acceptance of Syrian refugees, one image of a tech icon went viral, inspiring social media posts, news coverage, and a Banksy tribute. That image was of Steve Jobs with the caption “Steve Jobs was the son of a Syrian refugee.”
While the image should probably have read “biological son of a Syrian immigrant,” it put a relatable face on the situation and added tangible stakes. Imagining a U.S. without Syrians is easy if you don’t know any Syrians, but imagining a U.S. without Steve Jobs means bearing the loss of Apple and Pixar’s economic, design, technological, and cultural influences. It would be a veritable alternate timeline.
Trump’s new order threatens to cripple immigration from seven countries: Iran, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Sudan, and Somalia. So far, no one’s done a good job of expressing the tech and business costs of what it means to lose the best and brightest from those countries. Instead, we get limp statistics, images of strangers suffering, and vague lamentations like “we’re losing our values” or “this will make it harder to hire programmers from abroad.”
Since I’m an Iranian-American and know the community’s accomplishments well, I’d like to paint a brief picture of what the U.S. tech landscape would look like had Iran been stonewalled over the last few decades. This should give you an idea of what’s at stake (the people below were either born in Iran or had Iranian parents).
- eBay, if it existed at all, would be a French company (Pierre Omidyar, founder)
- Your searches might be on Yahoo instead of Google, since Google would have lost its business founder (Omid Kordestani)
- If Google did survive, its acquisition of YouTube might have wrecked the platform without a key employee’s stewardship (Salar Kamangar, former YouTube CEO and Google employee #7)
- You’d be storing your files locally instead of on Dropbox. Other cloud storage services inspired by Dropbox wouldn’t exist. (Arash Ferdowsi, cofounder and CTO)
- Twitter would be in deep trouble, because it would lose its Executive Chairman (also Kordestani) and its COO (Ali Rowghani).
- Oracle would just be a character from The Matrix, because Larry Ellison would be missing his cofounder (Bob Miner)
- If you’re a gamer, the ambitious World of Warcraft might never have made it out the door (Shahram Dabiri, Lead Producer)
- If you’re single, you’d have no Tinder, which also means no Tinder knock-offs. If you’re not single, that also means no swipe-right UX (Sean Rad, founder)
- Your business or computer science or engineering alma mater would lose international standing because Iranian-Americans are over-represented as professors and administrators in these fields.
The list goes on, and Iran is just one of the seven countries Trump is targeting. But it gets worse, because even if you think turning people away from these seven countries is an acceptable loss, there’s a cascading effect.
- Immigration will fall from neighboring countries. Would a brilliant Turkish programmer accept a job in the U.S. now, knowing that their work visa could be revoked on a whim?
- Immigration will fall from dual citizens (and many people with immigrant parents are automatically dual citizens). Would a born-and-raised British student study abroad in the U.S. if they had immigrant parents, knowing they could be stranded there indefinitely?
- Immigration will fall from those with affected friends. Would someone weighing multiple international job offers pick the U.S. if their best friend was being unfairly treated by us?
- Immigration will fall from those with empathy. Would a wealthy Swiss angel investor want to retire in the U.S. if they disagreed adamantly with our refugee policy?
Talented people in other countries don’t disappear if we reject them. They’ll shrug and move on to the burgeoning tech scenes of Europe and Asia, where they’ll be greeted with easy funding, a low cost of living, fast Internet, vibrant communities, and exotic workspaces. Many American tech startups have even been flocking to these destinations of late. If we limit immigration, we’ll be accelerating Europe and Asia’s tech position while massively sabotaging our own.