Business & Real Estate

Trump’s immigration order sows confusion, anxiety in California economy

Travelers coming into San Francisco hear 'Welcome to America'

Trump protesters chant "Welcome to America" with international fliers arriving at San Francisco International Airport on Sunday, January 29, 2017.
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Trump protesters chant "Welcome to America" with international fliers arriving at San Francisco International Airport on Sunday, January 29, 2017.

From Google’s Silicon Valley headquarters to an iPhone repair facility near Sacramento, a vast immigrant economy in California has been thrown into confusion as businesses large and small try to make sense of President Donald Trump’s order temporarily banning refugees.

Following a weekend of protests at international airports in Sacramento and elsewhere, chief executives of many of California’s largest tech companies denounced Trump’s order. Technology stocks fell, along with the broader market.

Reaction was particularly harsh in Silicon Valley. Apple Inc. Chief Executive Tim Cook, whose Elk Grove customer support and repair facility employs scores of immigrants, said the company “would not exist without immigration.” Intel Corp., whose Folsom research and development campus is one of Sacramento’s largest employers, said it is “providing support to potentially impacted employees, all of whom are in this country lawfully.” Google’s chief executive late Friday urged more than 100 foreign-born employees who have been traveling overseas to return to the United States right away.

Employees “need to travel abroad without a fear that they will have a problem in returning, boarding flights back or having to go through questioning at entry” into the United States, said Rekhi Singh, an executive with R Systems, an Indian tech company with offices in El Dorado Hills.

The order is having ramifications beyond corporate suites. A former Uber driver from Afghanistan living in Sacramento canceled a trip to visit his hometown, fearful he wouldn’t be allowed back in the United States. Citing the same fears, an Iranian-born UC Davis physicist temporarily studying at Harvard University canceled plans to attend an academic conference in mid-February in the Netherlands.

“There seems to be some ambiguity as to whether I’d be allowed to return,” said the physicist, Mohammad H. Hamidian, who has dual Iranian-Canadian citizenship. He said he was advised by officials at Davis and Harvard to stay put.

Sung Won Sohn, a prominent California economist who was born in South Korea, said tech companies are particularly anxious because “they do not want to antagonize their customers overseas.” Perhaps just as importantly, he said, they are worried about the fate of legions of foreign-born software developers and other employees who aren’t directly affected by Trump’s order but could be affected by future decisions to restrict immigration.

“The question for me is, when does (Trump) go after the H-1B visas? These guys hate immigrants, period,” said Chris Thornberg, the head of Beacon Economics consulting in Los Angeles.

H-1B visas, which are popular with tech companies, allow foreigners in specialty occupations to work temporarily in the United States. A report from Bloomberg news Monday said Trump is preparing to rework the H-1B program through an executive order that says visas can be granted to foreign workers only in a manner “that prioritizes the protection of American workers – our forgotten working people – and the jobs they hold.”

Trump’s order bars refugees from anywhere in the world for 120 days. Refugees from Syria are banned indefinitely. The Trump order blocks visitors of any kind for 90 days from seven predominantly Muslim countries: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. The Department of Homeland Security ​backed off part of the order Sunday, saying the seven-country ban would not apply to people with green cards granting them permanent residency in the United States.

Executives said Trump’s order was having a chilling effect on workers, even if they weren’t directly affected. Ajay Kaul, managing partner of Folsom software company AgreeYa Solutions Inc., said workers are anxious that the order could be extended to immigrants from additional countries. “It’s more emotional than anything else,” Kaul said.

The order will likely affect California more than any other state. Although migration has slowed somewhat in the past decade, the state is home to more than 10 million immigrants, or about a quarter of the nation’s foreign-born population, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. Almost all of California’s immigrants are from Latin America or Asia.

“We have a large immigrant economy, the largest in the country,” said Sohn, a professor at CSU Channel Islands.

A broad crackdown on immigration, if it were to go beyond the initial 120 days established by Trump’s order, could have profound implications for the Sacramento area. Sacramento County became home to 3,261 refugees last year, more than any other county except San Diego, according to the California Department of Social Services.

Some companies could see labor sources dry up. Apple’s Elk Grove facility is known to hire scores of Afghan refugees, who repair iPhones for Apple subcontractor Pegatron Technology Services Inc. Officials from Apple declined comment aside from a statement issued by its CEO saying the company opposes Trump’s policy. Officials with Pegatron and its labor-contracting firm, Volt Workforce Solutions, weren’t available for comment.

Trump’s order also fueled speculation that the White House could crack down on immigration from Mexico and other countries that supply a significant chunk of California’s farm labor force. The president has already engaged in a war of words with Mexican officials over his proposed border wall to keep immigrants out, and his vow to impose a 20 percent tariff on Mexican goods shipped to the United States.

“It’s certainly making them more fearful,” said Gail Wadsworth of the California Institute for Rural Studies, a Davis nonprofit that tracks farm labor issues. “I think farmers are concerned, and I think workers also are concerned.” She added that undocumented Mexican immigrants were already anxious because of increases in deportations under former President Barack Obama’s administration.

Regardless of occupation, refugees in Sacramento said they were worried about traveling overseas. Pasoon Khan, a Sacramento Afghan refugee who until recently drove for Uber, said he canceled a flight to Afghanistan to visit his ailing mother because of Trump’s order.

“I don’t trust the situation right now,” he said. “You can’t go to see your family. You can’t leave.” Khan said he is in the United States on a Special Immigrant Visa, granted because of his assistance to U.S. military forces in his native country.

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler