In early February, amid roiling anger over President Trump’s immigration order, Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurs found themselves in the throes of a great political awakening. Amicus briefs were signed, donations to the ACLU were announced, think pieces were thunk. “The Tech Resistance Awakens,” Backchannel proclaimed. For a moment, it seemed as though the industry might suddenly be at the center of progressive political action.
And then: crickets. Silicon Valley’s so-called resistance to the Trump administration has not only faded; it has accomplished exactly nothing.
Take last week, when the Trump administration unceremoniously killed one of the tech industry’s most beloved causes. The International Entrepreneurial Rule, which would have gone into effect today, would have allowed foreign entrepreneurs to stay in the U.S. without a visa for up to two and a half years as long as they could show they had the potential to create jobs by raising investment capital or winning government grants. The period could have have been extended to five years if the entrepreneurs hit certain milestones, such as creating at least five full-time jobs for U.S. workers.
The program’s ambitions were modest—the Department of Homeland Security had estimated that fewer than 3,000 people a year would have qualified—but it had become a cause célèbre in Silicon Valley, where many famous companies (Google, Intel, Tesla, PayPal, more than half of the so-called unicorn startups) have at least one immigrant founder. You might be an immigration skeptic, but could you really be against job creators like Elon Musk or Sergey Brin?
The answer, for the Trump administration, appears to be yes. Last Monday, DHS said it was shelving the program and would likely unravel it altogether. While the decision wasn’t a shock in Trump’s Washington, it raises questions about the tech industry’s ability to get things done there.
Venture capitalists and startup founders have been campaigning for something like the International Entrepreneurial Rule since at least 2009, when Y Combinator co-founder Paul Graham suggested that the government try to import 10,000 entrepreneurs as a job-creating measure. “I think this would have such a visible effect on the economy that it would make the legislator who introduced the bill famous,” Graham wrote. The startup visa, as it came to be known, was eventually endorsed by more than 100 venture capitalists and was taken up as a cause by senators John Kerry and Richard Lugar, who first introduced it as a bill in 2010.
The effort went nowhere, but a revived, watered-down version was adopted as an administrative rule change in January, just before President Obama left office. The idea still had bipartisan support as late as last month, when four Republican senators (Jeff Flake, Orrin Hatch, John McCain, and Jerry Moran) sent a letter to Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly urging him to keep the rule in place to “help the United States remain globally competitive.” Kelly ignored their plea, and his move has generated little backlash.
On the one hand, the lack of outcry makes sense given the other stories in the news. An administrative rule change is a lot less sexy than the prospect of collusion with a foreign power. But if Silicon Valley can’t convince Trump or the American public that a small, low-cost program that brings literal job creators to our shores—rather than, say, the banks of the Seine—is worth saving, it’s hard to know what the tech industry’s best and brightest can realistically hope to achieve.
There have been other humiliations in recent weeks, including a nothingburger of a “day of action” to support net neutrality. The online protest generated some headlines, but it won’t matter. Trump’s FCC chairman has made clear he’s nearly certain to roll back the Obama-era rules protecting individual websites from discriminatory treatment by internet providers. Meanwhile, the latest White House tech summit resulted in little more than a bunch of humiliating tweets.
Part of Silicon Valley’s problem is wonkishness. Tech’s priorities, as laid out to Recode by Mark Pincus, the entrepreneur and co-founder of Win the Future, are “pro-social [and] pro-planet, but also pro-business and pro-economy.” That mission statement almost sounds as though it means something but makes it hard to know what WTF, the group’s unfortunate acronym, stands for besides—well, you know.
The other problem, of course, is the black hole now found where the industry’s moral credibility used to be. Tech chief executive officers might have an easier time convincing the world that their views on immigration are pure if they’d been more upfront about the ways they’re using existing immigration rules. And investors might be more readily seen as the job creators that they are if they weren’t also known for enabling vile behavior. Two prominent supporters of the startup visa movement were Dave McClure and Chris Sacca, both of whom figured in the explosive New York Times report on sexual harassment in the tech industry.
Silicon Valley’s political revival is still young, and there’s plenty time for organizations like Win the Future and the United Slate, another new tech-adjacent political group, to find their footing. From there, however, it’ll be a long march.