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Tech CEOs voice opposition to family separations at the border

Tech CEOs voice opposition to family separations at the border
Apple CEO Tim Cook at a fashion show by Roberto Cavalli in Florence, Italy, on June 13. While in Dublin on Tuesday, Cook called family separations at the U.S.-Mexico border "inhumane." (Claudio Giovannini /EPA-EFE/REX)

Tech heavyweights from Apple Inc. Chief Executive Tim Cook to Facebook Inc. boss Mark Zuckerberg joined a chorus of Americans denouncing the Trump administration’s policy of separating children in the U.S. illegally from their families at the border. But it’s unclear whether the industry has any real leverage to stop the practice.

Top executives from Airbnb Inc., Box Inc. and Twilio Inc. denounced the separations, which started after the U.S. announced in April to pursue criminal charges against people who attempt to cross the U.S.-Mexico border without proper documents. More than 2,000 children have so far been taken from their parents and are being kept in detention facilities.

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“It’s heartbreaking to see the images and hear the sounds of the kids. Kids are the most vulnerable people in any society. I think that what’s happening is inhumane, it needs to stop,” Apple’s Cook said in Dublin on Tuesday, according to the Irish Times.

Some, including Zuckerberg and YouTube Chief Executive Susan Wojcicki, implored their social-media followers to donate to legal and humanitarian organizations that support the migrant families.

“I’ve donated to them and I encourage you to as well. We need to stop this policy right now,” Zuckerberg said on his Facebook page.

Beyond the tweets and individual financial donations, there’s no sign yet that tech companies have done anything concrete, such as pulling contracts from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and other government agencies, as some migrant advocates are demanding.

Unlike other government policies — such as a North Carolina law (since repealed) that required transgender residents to use the restroom that matched their birth certificate — companies can’t threaten to pull employees or investment out of a geographic area in this case.

The debate highlights a core paradox that tech companies face in 2018: How to keep their largely progressive workforce happy without wading into political fights that might hurt sales or taint their reputation with conservative consumers and politicians.

This year, a debate erupted inside Google over a contract the company has with the U.S. Defense Department to provide image-recognition software for analyzing drone footage. More than 4,000 employees demanded Google end the deal, and some quit in protest. Google relented and plans to let the contract expire next year — a potential blow to its recent efforts to work more with the Pentagon and other government agencies.

Microsoft deleted, then reinstated, parts of a blog post about how it was proud to provide Immigration and Customs Enforcement with cloud-computing services.

Some executives stopped short of criticizing the Trump policy directly. Microsoft Corp. President Brad Smith tweeted: "Father’s Day is a day we shouldn’t take for granted — it’s a special day set aside for families to be together. And given the news from the border, it’s something I’m thinking about today."

Sundar Pichai, chief executive of Alphabet Inc.’s Google, wrote on Twitter that "the stories and images of families being separated at the border are gut-wrenching. Urging our government to work together to find a better, more humane way."

Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk, who is a near-constant presence on Twitter, tweeted a song by the band The xx called “Shelter,” and wrote “I hope the kids are ok.”

When other Twitter users called him out for what they saw as a flippant comment on an important subject, he replied immediately: “I couldn’t even keep the US in the Paris Accord, but if there is some way for me to help these kids I will do so. I am one of the top donors to @ACLU.”

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