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The Limits of Employee Activism: Google Steps Back into Immigration Mess with New Hire

Tina Casey headshotWords by Tina Casey
Brands Taking Stands
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As part of the growing employee activism trend, some workers at Google have been lobbying their company to stop doing business that supports the Donald Trump administration's immigration policies. Google’s response demonstrates just how far the employee activism movement has to go before it becomes truly effective.

Employers rise to the challenge…

Within days of taking office, President Trump issued a “travel ban” and other executive orders that challenged leading U.S. companies, especially in the tech sector, to defend the rights of immigrants and visiting workers.

The orders had a direct impact on approximately 200 Google employeesWithin a week, Google and almost 100 other leading tech companies publicly protested the orders. They also took the rare step of coordinating legal action aimed at protecting their ability to “recruit, hire, and retain some of the world’s best employees” and to “attract talent, business, and investment to the United States.”

…and employees take up the torch

The president’s initial immigration orders mainly affected people with citizenship in and around the Middle East, a region that has recently provided the tech sector with a rich pool of international talent. In other words, the president’s orders instigated several bottom-line concerns.

Apparently, those concerns are not so much in play when the policies in question deal with persons from Central and South America traveling over the southern border to the United States.

Although some leading tech companies voiced objection to the administration’s southern border policies, a number of other leading tech firms—including Amazon, Microsoft, IBM and Oracle, along with Google—have continued their business relationships with immigration agencies like U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Last June, workers at the home furnishings company Wayfair set the bar for employees who seek to protest corporate relationships with federal agencies that enforce immigration policy at the border with Mexico, but so far workers at other companies have not responded in kind.

…but tech employees need to get foxier about guarding the henhouse

Google employees have had some success in shaping company policy in recent years, with policies related to the use of its artificial intelligence (AI) technology as just one example. However, events of the past few months reveal that Google workers need to keep an eye on the company’s hiring practices as well.

As recently as last August, hundreds of workers at Google publicly pledged not work on business related to U.S. federal immigration and border control agencies that enforce policies on the southern border.

They also demanded that Google “withdraw any existing and potential infrastructure, funding or engineering resources" for CBP or ICE, CNBC reported.

The hiring of a former DHS official fans the flame of discontent

Meanwhile, though, Google was hiring from within the ranks of the very agency that its employees protested.

In a long-form exclusive earlier this week, Buzzfeed News reported that Google has hired former Department of Homeland Security staffer Miles Taylor as a “government affairs and public policy manager.”

At DHS, Taylor publicly defended the Trump administration's immigration policies while moving up the ranks. He eventually became the chief of staff for DHS Director Kirstjen Nielsen (shown above).

Google’s decision to hire Taylor in a public-facing position is quite a turnaround for a company that once vigorously protested the administration’s policies on immigration.

When saying no is not enough

The new hire is consistent with the company’s apparent aim of improving its outreach to “governments and other stakeholders” as it faces a slew of investigations, Buzzfeed reported. However, while Taylor is no longer at DHS, he still carries the weight of his association with the agency.

That weight increased earlier this week, as former Secretary Nielsen (she left the agency last April) came into the public eye again. Nielsen was a featured speaker at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women summit earlier this week, prompting other high-profile invitees—including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile—to bow out.

At the summit, Nielsen defended her actions at DHS and described herself as someone who “spoke truth to power from the very beginning.”

Be that as it may, contradictory evidence regarding Nielsen’s various public statements on the administration's family separation policy does not appear to support that characterization. If the former DHS chief intended her appearance the Fortune event to be part of a rehabilitation tour, the effort appears to have fallen short, and Taylor has been caught in the backlash.

So far, Google appears to be taking a wait-and-see position regarding the Taylor hiring. Regardless, Google employees may be justified in adding it to their list of immigration-related grievances against the company.

And, they may take Nielsen’s words to heart. At the summit, Nielsen claimed that she left DHS because "saying no and refusing it to do it myself was not going to be enough.”

That statement may not be a particularly accurate representation of Nielsen’s tenure at DHS, but it does bear on the sentiments of activist employees at Google, and other companies, who are seeking a bigger seat at the corporate policy table.

Image credit: U.S. Department of Homeland Security/Flickr

Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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