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Mossberg: Immigration builds America’s tech dominance

Nativist policies threaten not just American values, but its economy

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Photo by Rosemary Warren / The Verge

The next time you're driving from New York to Boston on I-95, you should make a little detour in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, to visit the Old Slater Mill national historic landmark. It’s the site of what is considered to be the first successful water-powered textile spinning mill in America. That feat was made possible by Samuel Slater, an immigrant to the US who came here at the age of 21 in 1789 from England — a country with which we had just fought a long, bitter war. He had the mill going only a few years after the signing of the US Constitution, and is sometimes referred to as the "Father of the American Industrial Revolution."

The textile industry became a huge deal in 19th century America, kind of like the tech industry is today. And that immigrant tradition continues, especially in tech, America’s most dominant and dynamic industry today. In fact, if you were drawing up a business plan for countries back in 1789, you couldn’t have done better than the American founders did by, among other things, welcoming the most ambitious people from around the world to build lives here as full participants in the American experiment.

For me, it is this long, deeply ingrained tradition of American immigration — and the huge benefits it has paid to our country — that makes President Trump’s executive order restricting immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries deeply worrisome. Yes, I understand it is supposedly meant to buy time to develop a better system to block terrorists from entering our nation. Yes, I understand that our government has clamped down on immigration from time to time in the past, sometimes shamefully excluding specific peoples, like the Chinese.

But the Trump action carries with it the unmistakable scent of nativism, the idea that immigration is a bad idea. And that is just un-American, and bad for innovation to boot.

That isn’t to say that refugees fleeing horrors in Syria or elsewhere and seeking asylum must be computer programmers or biochemists to be admitted. We should admit as many as we can, after proper vetting, simply because they are refugees. That’s reason enough. It will forever be a stain on our history that we turned away some Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler.

The same goes for average immigrants who aren’t refugees, but are simply seeking economic opportunity. Not all are Samuel Slaters. Like native-born Americans, only a few will change the world. But you never know which foreign-born barista putting herself through school might one day build a great business or invent a great product. Just by pulling up roots in another country and coming here, she’s already shown grit, ambition, and a strong work ethic.

Immigrant ingenuity

The immigrants who did important, world-changing things did them here because this country welcomed them when others shunned them, or weren't as open. And the tech industry, America’s most famous worldwide, is a prime example. Our lives and our culture have been significantly changed and improved by hardware, software, and services developed by immigrants.

Who co-founded Google? Sergey Brin, a Russian-born Jew whose family fled anti-semitism in the Soviet Union to settle here and who considers himself a refugee. Brin showed up at the San Francisco airport to protest the Trump order.

Who runs Google today? Sundar Pichai, a man born and raised in India but who received his advanced education here.

I asked Pichai, who has spoken out against the Trump order, about American immigration more broadly. “In Silicon Valley, being an immigrant doesn't matter,” he replied via email. “It's the ideas that matter. We are able to build products for everyone because we attract talent from around the world. Immigration is a strength for this industry and our country — it's one of our defining characteristics.”


And it’s not just Google. Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk was born in South Africa. Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang was born in Taiwan. Oracle CEO Safra Catz was born in Israel. And Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, like Google’s Pichai, was born and raised in India.

In remarks this week during a Q&A with Microsoft employees, Nadella said, “It is the enlightened immigration policy of this country that even made it possible for me to come here in the first place, and gave me all this opportunity. And so I always think about that. I will always advocate for that America that I know and that I’ve experienced.”

The giants

Perhaps the greatest technology icon of our time, the man responsible for so many tech innovations, the late Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, was the biological son of a Syrian immigrant.

And one of Jobs’ mentors, a seminal figure in Silicon Valley, was the late Andy Grove, one of the three creators of Intel, whose processors are in nearly every desktop and laptop computer today. Mr. Grove was a Hungarian whose family fled Communist repression. As he once wrote:

“By the time I was twenty, I had lived through a Hungarian Fascist dictatorship, German military occupation, the Nazis' "Final Solution," the siege of Budapest by the Soviet Red Army, a period of chaotic democracy in the years immediately after the war, a variety of repressive Communist regimes, and a popular uprising that was put down at gunpoint… [where] many young people were killed; countless others were interned. Some two hundred thousand Hungarians escaped to the West. I was one of them.”

Rank and file, too

And it isn’t just so many of the famous CEOs of tech who were immigrants. In my 25 years of covering the industry, it’s become routine to encounter product managers, engineers, and startup founders from Russia, India, Pakistan, Israel, Britain, France, and so many other countries.

Just two well-known examples. The chief designer of your Apple iPhone, iPad, and Mac? It’s Jonathan Ive, native of the United Kingdom. The new head of virtual reality at Facebook and former senior Android team member at Google? That would be Hugo Barra, native of Brazil.

A little skepticism

Of course, like every other government policy, immigration laws can be abused. I wouldn’t bet my life that every single H-1B visa issued to the tech industry fully meets its intended purpose of allowing in skilled foreign workers for specialty jobs only after failing to find an American worker for the slot. And there certainly are some tech jobs US companies base abroad that could be filled with native-born labor at home.

What’s more, a strong belief in immigration doesn’t relieve us of our responsibility for better education and training for US workers so they can do all those “specialty” jobs — and many others — and few H-1B visas will be needed.

Bottom Line

But, overall, the American technology industry is a shining example of the wisdom of the founding fathers, and the example of Samuel Slater over 200 years ago. The moral of their story is that being open to immigration is not only the right thing to do, but the smart thing as well. It’s a humane good and a competitive advantage, all rolled into one.

If President Trump is as good a businessman as he says, and not a short-sighted nativist, he should understand that.