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More than 100 tech firms join legal fight against Trump's travel ban

Last week, they took to social media. This week, they’re going to court.

More than 100 technology companies — including industry big guns Apple, Google, Facebook and Microsoft, and newcomers such as Snap, Lyft and Scopely — joined forces Sunday to file a friend-of-the-court brief, arguing against President Trump’s ban on refugees and travel from seven predominantly Muslim nations.

The joint brief, filed in the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in support of a Washington judge’s move to halt enforcement of the executive order, contends the ban is unconstitutional, unfair and, above all else, bad for business.

“The order makes it more difficult and expensive for U.S. companies to recruit, hire, and retain some of the world’s best employees,” the companies said in the filing. “It disrupts ongoing business operations, and it threatens companies’ ability to attract talent, business, and investment in the United States.”

The filing comes after a week of activism from tech firms, whose industry emerged as the first and loudest corporate opponent of Trump’s executive order. It marks a noticeable departure from the sector’s long-held desire to appear apolitical for fear of alienating customers. 

“For years, the tech industry tried to stay outside of politics,” said Eden Gillott Bowe, president of crisis and reputation management firm Gillott Communications.

Many tech chief executives stayed quiet in the days after Trump’s election victory. Leaders in the industry gathered at Trump Tower in December for a meeting with the then-president-elect, but no one confronted him about his campaign rhetoric, including a hard-line stance on immigration. Even those known for being outspoken on issues such as sexism and discrimination — such as Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg — were reticent on the new president and his policy proposals.

“But it’s gotten to the point where they no longer can” remain silent, Gillott Bowe said.

Part of it is optics, according to public relations experts, who cited mounting pressure internally from employees and externally from customers as a reason for firms jumping on the bandwagon. 

“It’s similar to saying, ‘No comment,’” Gillott Bowe said. “When someone makes a crazy allegation and you say, ‘No comment,’ you look guilty. When bad things are happening and you don’t speak up, it looks like you’re silently agreeing.”

In this highly politicized era, public relations are especially important, as ride-hailing company Uber learned the hard way last week when a poorly timed tweet during a taxi strike over the immigration ban led to a customer revolt in which some 200,000 people deleted the Uber app from their phones. Uber — whose chief executive, Travis Kalanick, served on a panel advising Trump about economic issues before stepping down last week — was among the companies that signed the brief. 

SpaceX and Tesla were added Monday. Elon Musk, who is CEO of both companies and also serves on Trump’s business panel, had been less critical of the order than many in the industry. "As soon as we saw the brief this morning, we insisted on being added,” a Tesla spokeswoman said.

Amazon.com, which has not signed the brief, plans to file its own declaration of support for a lawsuit filed by Washington state’s attorney general against Trump and his administration regarding the ban. 

Other high-profile companies that haven’t signed the brief include IBM and Oracle, both of which have executives on Trump’s panel, and Palantir Technologies, whose co-founder, Peter Thiel, served as an advisor on Trump’s transition team and remains a supporter of the president.

Optics aside, business experts see the friend-of-the-court filing as a way for tech companies to stand up for their own business interests. After all, if the immigration ban were to expand, it could hit businesses where it really hurts: their bottom line.

“The order has had immediate, adverse effects on the employees of American businesses,” the companies said in the filing. “Several major companies reported substantial disruptions from the order because their employees were ensnared in the order’s travel restrictions.”

In an internal memo to employees, Google Chief Executive Sundar Pichai said that about 100 employees were directly affected by the ban. At Microsoft, 76 employees were identified as being citizens of the countries listed as part of the travel ban. 

“If the order stands, it is impossible for individuals and businesses to anticipate which countries may be affected next,” the brief states.

The companies warned that the instability and uncertainty the travel ban has created may incentivize immigration and foreign investment to countries other than the U.S. They also warned that multinational companies may decide to move their operations abroad, which would probably have adverse effects on the U.S. economy.

The technology industry relies heavily on foreign talent, particularly in light of the domestic talent shortage in fields such as science, engineering and mathematics. For all the industry’s talk about doing things differently, immigration and staffing difficulties are among the great unifiers.

Although the industry has rallied in the past in support of immigration reform that would make it easier for U.S. firms to hire talent from abroad — most notably with the creation of FWD.US, an immigration lobbying group founded by executives such as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer, and former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates — legal experts were struck by how quickly the industry galvanized around the friend-of-the-court brief.

“What’s so unusual here is the urgency with which they came together,” said Davis Bae, an immigration attorney at Fisher & Phillips, who represents both large tech firms and individuals. “It doesn’t happen often.”

The tech industry previously had success combating policies it has opposed, such as in 2012 when Google and other Internet giants led a successful campaign to scuttle legislation in Congress called the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act. The bills aimed to crack down on websites that traffic in pirated goods but were viewed by critics as an unwarranted intrusion on Internet freedom.

That was five years ago, back when some of America’s most powerful start-ups were still just ideas. With the technology industry now bigger, bolder and more ubiquitous than it was during the days of the Stop Online Piracy Act, legal experts believe the friend-of-the-court brief could have significant influence in court. At the very least, it marks the industry’s most vocal foray into politics yet. 

Read more: Tech industry reacts to Trump's executive order on immigration with fear and frustration »

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UPDATES:

4:05 p.m.: This article was updated to include additional companies that have signed the brief and commentary from outside experts.

8:40 a.m: This article was updated throughout with Times staff reporting.

This article was originally published at 1:25 a.m.

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