A few hundred protestors gathered outside Palo Alto’s City Hall early Tuesday afternoon, less than two blocks from Facebook’s old headquarters in the heart of Silicon Valley, for a tech worker-led rally against President Donald Trump’s administration and to voice a litany of concerns that have rippled throughout Silicon Valley in recent weeks.
The mood was a mix of cheerful optimism and a sense of uncertain apprehension toward tech’s newfound role of political agitator. In attendance were union reps, political activists, students, tech workers, volunteers, an immigrant janitor at Facebook and a small horde of television cameras.
The range of profiles of the protestors was encouraging for Brad Taylor, a software engineer who founded Tech Stands Up and organized the event along with his wife. Taylor said his primary goal was to encourage communication and engagement by those in tech.
“It’s about getting people to participate,” Taylor said, adding that Silicon Valley hasn’t been well organized with its limited political involvement to date. “If we don’t start participating and engaging, we can’t expect to have a say in the outcome.
“We have an enormous responsibility to really give back,” Taylor added.
The protest featured not only a wide range of speakers but also a broad agenda of social and political issues, from how to handle deportation risks to LGBT rights, “the recklessness of taking away healthcare” and “racial bias in the age of Trump.” The demonstration showed how wide the divide between Silicon Valley and Washington has grown, and offered a stark contrast to the Barack Obama presidency, when much of the tech industry believed it had an ally in the White House.
The genesis of Tuesday’s rally came out of Trump’s widely-criticized executive order on immigration earlier this year. The order, which has since been replaced with a narrower set of travel restrictions following a slew of legal challenges over its constitutionality, set off a series of alarm bells at tech companies that rely heavily on a steady stream of foreign-born workers. Many of Silicon Valley’s most recognizable companies are led by immigrant executives, while countless startups every year are launched by entrepreneurs and run by engineers from other countries.
Tuesday’s demonstration comes on the heels of weeks of smaller gatherings and political strategy discussions in Silicon Valley centered around immigration. Last week, hundreds of young entrepreneurs gathered at the San Francisco offices of the financial services company Affirm to meet with immigration lawyers and learn about how the travel ban affects them. PayPal cofounder Max Levchin, who is CEO of Affirm, hosted the event, and said afterward that he intends to advocate for highly-skilled immigrants. Levchin is an immigrant himself, having arrived in the United States as a refugee from Ukraine more than 25 years ago. He said the experience, along with his extensive network of contacts in Silicon Valley, made it easier for him to speak out against immigration restrictions.
“It’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately,” Levchin told Forbes, adding that while he supports protests like Tuesday’s, his focus will be more on advocating specific policies such as H-1B visa reform. “I think if you want to see the country improve, you have to find a mode of engagement that’s more than just ‘I don’t agree with anything you’re saying.’ I think it has more to do with things like engaging your senator, and your congresspeople.”
Levchin isn’t the only political novice in Silicon Valley figuring out his next move. Dozens of tech firms had prepared to sign a public letter last month protesting Trump’s immigration policies, an effort that was tabled indefinitely after the second version of the travel ban was introduced in early March. Representatives from many of the companies remain in conversation with trade groups, such as the Washington, D.C.-based Information Technology Industry council, about how to handle travel restrictions internally as well as how to publicly air policy concerns.
While the collective response to Trump’s most recent immigration order was more muted than in January, some argue it’s a sign that Silicon Valley companies are cautiously trying to figure out how to best work with Trump’s administration. “It is less public, but no less active,” said ITI CEO Dean Garfield, adding that “the need for public statements” by tech firms isn’t as necessary now as it was before. “Everyone is evaluating what the president is going to do next.”