Trump’s immigration order sends ripples of dismay through UK tech community

Reactions to President Trump’s executive order placing a three-month ban on entry to the U.S. from seven majority Muslim countries have been rippling out across the Atlantic over the past 48 hours — with figures from the U.K. tech industry adding their voices to a general chorus of dismay.

In comments to TechCrunch, Passion Capital partner Eileen Burbidge expressed her own misgivings about the policy — branding it “unconstitutional, unethical and immoral.” The U.S.-born investor has become a lynchpin of the U.K. tech ecosystem since arriving in London as an immigrant from the U.S. more than 10 years ago to take a job at Skype.

“As an American, born and raised in the States by immigrant parents, I was incredibly shocked and saddened to see the executive order issued — and the haste and disarray with which it was implemented the following morning,” she said via email when asked for her thoughts.

“Being in the States these last few days has given me a firsthand view of how tremendously people have rallied to exercise their first amendment rights in expressing their objections to this unlawful, unconstitutional, unethical and immoral order — and seeing that gives me hope. It reminds me that we each have a voice and our collective voices can make a difference. It also reminds me that silence can be deafening, so I hope people and leaders all around the world will continue to make their views known whatever those may be.”

People have rallied to exercise their first amendment rights in expressing their objections to this unlawful, unconstitutional, unethical and immoral order — and seeing that gives me hope. Eileen Burbidge, partner, Passion Capital

Brexit and the ban

In the U.K. the perception among some in the tech industry is that Prime Minister Theresa May’s desire to cut a post-Brexit trade deal (following last summer’s referendum vote for the U.K. to leave the European Union) is overriding all other considerations — leaving her biting her lip rather than condemning an inhumane policy toward refugees, as other heads of state have.

“The simple truth is it’s important for the U.K. to get a trade deal with the U.S., and right now that looks like a sure thing,” said one London-based tech manager who works for a company with offices in both countries, and who reached out to us with details of how the ban is affecting team morale.

“They can’t and won’t jeopardize that unless there is a cast iron case that Trump is really being a fascist… If we had three to four solid trade deals in place for post-Brexit I think it would be a different story.”

The source went on to describe their team members’ opinions on the immigration ban as ranging from “I’m so worried I can’t focus on work” to “It’s very targeted, precise and temporary, so I’m not worried,” adding: “There are still lots of people who are “prisoners of hope.” Saying things like “I hope he isn’t as bad as he seems — let’s wait and see.” They also noted some staff are voicing concerns about traveling to the U.S.

“The executive order stops travel for three months while ‘proper policies are put in place’ — it’s those policies that will be the super interesting ones,” they added.

While Burbidge wouldn’t be drawn into criticizing U.K. government policy vis-à-vis Trump — perhaps unsurprisingly, given she remains an advisor to the government on tech policy, including serving as a member of the Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Group — she did call for U.S. allies to hold Trump to “regular account.”

Her Twitter account also records her liking a tweet by London Mayor Sadiq Khan calling for Trump to be denied a state visit to the U.K. until he lifts the ban.

“President Trump didn’t win the popular vote but that’s not even the point. Even a popular vote or a president elected by the will of the people can make poor decisions from time to time,” she added. “We, the people he has been elected to serve and those around the world who are friends, allies and trading partners with the United States, need to stay informed and hold him to regular account.”

One founder likely to be directly affected by the ban, Cloud 66’s Khash Sajadi, has been explicit in calling out May for failing to condemn Trump’s action loudly enough. He was born in Iran but has British citizenship (and currently works in the U.S.), and argues the policy has rendered him a “second class citizen.”

“What makes me feel like this today is how my country, Britain, responded to this decision: with silence,” he writes in a Medium blog post. “While other world leaders, like Justin Trudeau the Canadian Prime Minister was quick to seek clarification from the US authorities and insist on all Canadian citizens being treated equally and without prejudice about their place of birth, my Prime Minister is willing to indicate I am a second class citizen in my country.”

Last week May became the first international leader to meet the newly inaugurated President Trump, with the stated aim of getting the prospect of post-Brexit trade talks on his radar, and renewing the terms of the so-called “Special Relationship” — the phrase that’s traditionally used to distinguish diplomatic relations between the U.S. and the U.K.

But she has had little to say publicly since Trump’s entry ban was announced, despite apparently being aware the policy shift was incoming since Friday — telling reporters that U.S. immigration policy is a matter for the U.S. government.

Under increasing pressure for not condemning the policy, May expanded her comments slightly on Sunday, saying she does “not agree” with the ban. She also said the government would help any U.K. nationals affected by the policy. But she remains under fire for a tepid and reticent response.

There has also been confusion about whether the ban applies to dual U.K. nationals who also hold citizenship in one of the listed countries — as, for example, Sajadi does.

An update on the U.K.’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office website yesterday suggested such individuals would not be denied entry to the U.S. However, advice from the U.S. embassy appeared to contradict that until earlier today.

In comments to TechCrunch, Sajadi gave a personal flavor of the impact of this confusion. “There was and still is, confusion over this as the US Embassy in London had a page with a warning about dual nationals and their visa appointments which is now taken down. So I believe things are not yet clear and if I were to travel to the US there is a good chance of me being tangled up in some administrative confusion which could cost myself and our business dearly.

“On the visa ban issue, I would expect May’s government to be transparent and upfront about this with the public and those affected,” he added, when asked for views on the U.K. government’s position. “There has been way too much confusion, costing small businesses like us a lot and plenty of anxiety on a personal level.”

“As for the government response to the ban in general, I feel she has put her political interests before basic human compassion (and perhaps international conventions) by not taking a firmer stance. Following her logic can we assume she might one day say it is up to the US to change its position and restate slavery but we are going to have our own policy? There are some lines that our government should not cross and one in this case is the terrible situation of the refugees from Syria.”

At the time of this writing a petition on the U.K. parliament website calling for the forthcoming state visit of Trump to the U.K. to be called off until he rescinds the ban has passed 1.5 million signatures.