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Boston business leaders oppose Trump's immigration order

January 29, 2017

President Trump’s temporary ban on travel to the United States for citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries has sparked deep concern in Boston’s business community, with executives warning that the move would hurt their companies and a regional economy reliant on foreign-born workers.

Business leaders said Sunday that they were worried the new administration was ushering in an era of anti-immigrant policies that threatens to curtail recruiting, bar would-be entrepreneurs from entering the country, and prevent employees from traveling abroad.

The issue is of particular importance to the high-tech, biotech, and health-care industries that define the Boston economy because “innovation is dependent on the free flow of talent,” said Jeff Bussgang, a general partner at Boston-based venture capital firm Flybridge Capital Partners. “It’s the innovation economy’s worst nightmare,” he said.

In a statement Sunday criticizing the travel ban, Republican Governor Charlie Baker said Massachusetts businesses, as well as education and health-care institutions, rely on international connections. “The federal government’s recent decision puts this at risk,” he said.

Silicon Valley’s biggest tech companies, including Apple Inc., Google Inc., and Facebook Inc., have also slammed the policy since it was signed by Trump on Friday.

According to a 2015 report from the Boston Planning & Development Agency, about 30 percent of the city’s workforce is made up of immigrants. Few come from the seven affected countries, but some entrepreneurs worried about the precedent it might set. In addition to high tech and life sciences, foreign-born workers are vital to the construction, hotel, and restaurant industries.

General Electric Co. chief executive Jeff Immelt said in an internal blog post that employees and customers of the global giant in the banned countries are “critical to our success and they are our friends and partners.”

“We stand with them and will work with the U.S. Administration to strive to find the balance between the need for security and the movement of law abiding people,” Immelt wrote in the post, which the company provided to the Globe. “We will continue to make our voice heard with the new administration and congress and reiterate the importance of this issue to GE and to the business community overall.”

Immelt is a Republican who is providing input to the administration about how to grow jobs in the manufacturing industry, but he criticized Trump’s rhetoric about Muslims ahead of the election as “unacceptable.”

He wrote that executives at Boston’s largest company by revenue “know very little right now” about the impact of the order.

Similar confusion reigned at some US airports over the weekend as several federal courts — including one in Boston — issued stays of Trump’s executive order.

That lack of clarity on its own represents a problem for companies, said Christopher Anderson, president of the Massachusetts High Technology Council.

“There are a number of confusing questions regarding what the new rules are. Green-card holders, are they in or out? Visa holders, are they in or out?” he said. “The way the White House is implementing this without giving it much thought ... is giving added distractions for global companies in Massachusetts.”

Vertex Pharmaceuticals Inc. sent a note to employees Sunday saying the company was “actively reviewing our travel policies and controls to help minimize any potential issues for our employees.”

“We are opposed to any immigration policies and restrictions that target people based solely on their nationality and/or religious faith. Any immigration policy that hinders the diversity of people, faith, or thought hurts this country and our company,” the note read.

Paul English, founder of the travel site Kayak and chief executive of startup vacation booking service Lola, said he recently hired a Mexican national to develop Lola’s app. He said the employee is now worried that if he goes home to visit his family, Trump — who has spoken harshly of Mexico’s effect on the US economy — could sign an order preventing him from reentering the nation.

“You have to ask yourself, what’s going to happen next?” English said.

Even a small number of employees impacted by the executive order could have a big effect, said Mohamad Ali, chief executive of Boston-based Carbonite Inc. Ali said “a small number” of the data-backup company’s 850 employees are from the countries on the list, and none was out of the country when it was implemented.

“They have relatives [overseas] and it will impact their lives,” said Ali. “They have now other things to worry about. ... If every company has a small percentage of employees where they now are going to do things differently or less effective, then that affects the country as a whole.”

The ban’s impact on Boston’s future workforce is another concern, said Jim Rooney, CEO of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce. He worries that if students at the region’s many universities are unable to return to the US from abroad, it will hurt companies’ recruiting.

Todd Dagres, a venture capital executive in Boston, said biotech companies will feel the effects of Trump’s edicts because of the potential impact on students. “They rely on foreign students, PhDs, to develop their products,” he said.

Steve Kaufer, chief executive of Needham-based TripAdvisor Inc., said he is more concerned with the moral rather than economic implications of Trump’s order. He published a statement on LinkedIn calling the ban “not only heartless and discriminatory, but also against the principles that make our country great.” The executive order indefinitely halts entries to the US for Syrian refugees.

“We are experiencing the worst global humanitarian crises of our time, and we are against this executive order not just because we are a global business with a diverse workforce, but because we are human beings and citizens who respect and love the fabric of our nation,” he wrote.

Read the article from The Boston Globe here.