By Marissa Lang
San Francisco Chronicle, December 27, 2016 —
They heard him when he called them criminals, thugs, rapists. They saw the taco-bowl tweet on Cinco de Mayo and listened as he sought to discredit a federal judge of Mexican heritage.
And now, with less than a month to go before Donald Trump is sworn in as the 45th president of the United States, Latino tech workers are waiting to see what he’ll do next.
Trump, who built his campaign around promises to erect a wall along the Mexico border and deport millions of immigrants living in the country illegally, has forced many in the Bay Area and beyond to take stock of their priorities and devise a plan for the next four years.
A growing number of Latino entrepreneurs, tech workers and investors are vowing to use their positions — personally and professionally — to push back against restrictive immigration policies, advocate for Latino entrepreneurs and stand up to the president-elect’s caustic rhetoric.
Only about 6 percent of people working in tech identify as Latino, according to an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission report released in May, compared with the 22 percent of workers in other industries. But they may be uniquely positioned to act as a foil to Trump and his incoming administration.
That’s because, some tech workers said, working in such a progressive industry provides privileges and protections that they believe can be leveraged into political resistance.
“To me, the American experience was being welcomed and shown how I could bring value to this country. Not closing the doors to Latino entrepreneurs like myself who want to bring value to the American economy and create jobs,” said Mike Galarza, founder of Menlo Park bill-pay startup Entryless . “Now we’re going to see what’s going to happen, but the message the world got was it’s going to be harder to create companies in the U.S. and it’s going to be harder to be an immigrant here.”
Trump made overtures this month to elite technocrats and a Mexican businessman, in what many viewed as an attempt at peacemaking.
In early December, a handful of Silicon Valley leaders sat down with Trump in New York, despite urging from some of their peers to reject the president elect’s overture. The meeting was cordial, though some of those present had been — like the tech industry in general — ardent supporters of Hillary Clinton.
Trump also had dinner with Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim, a man he accused of being a part of an international conspiracy against his candidacy. The meal ended with Trump pronouncing Slim a “great guy” on Twitter, and Slim saying he left with a favorable impression of Trump, according to reports.
But Latino tech workers, who are in high demand as the industry pushes diversity goals and an ethos of multiculturalism, remain hesitant to trust a man who, they feel, vilified them and their families for political gain.
“If the government becomes less responsive, entrepreneurs will see more problems that they’ll have to solve because the government isn’t responding,” said venture capitalist Carolina Huaranca. “We’re going see more immigrants, Latinos, people of color creating solutions for problems posed by this administration. … Now more than ever, (Silicon Valley) needs to have conversations about how we can support those efforts.”
Trump has threatened to round up and deport countless people among the estimated 11 million who are in the U.S. illegally and rescind an executive order President Obama issued in 2012 that allows undocumented young people brought to the United States before age 16 to remain in the country as they devote themselves to higher education, work or military service.
He has threatened to cut federal funding to so-called sanctuary cities like New York and San Francisco, which protect those living in the country illegally from being identified to federal immigration officials. He has also considered increasing fees on temporary visas issued to Mexican CEOs, diplomats and North American Free Trade Agreement workers, potentially to pay for the wall he wants to build along the U.S. southern border.
“What’s going to happen if (Trump) implements visa caps? It’s not only technology companies that are going to be affected, but so many other industries,” Galarza said. “It’s already very hard to come as an entrepreneur and start a company in the United States that can be successful. It’s just going to get harder.”
Galarza, who moved to the Bay Area in 2009 on an exchange visa from Mexico, has since become a permanent resident and started his own company, which employs about a dozen people. He said being an immigrant has only helped him gain contacts, support and encouragement, and that he hadn’t encountered any overt discrimination until Trump began his campaign.
“If what Donald Trump said was true about all Mexicans, I never would have been able to start a company here in the U.S. and no one would have wanted to come work for me,” he said.
For the first time, Galarza seriously considered moving himself and his business to Mexico. Ultimately, he said, he decided to stay and devote himself to supporting other immigrant entrepreneurs.
“I feel that I really have to pay it forward by helping immigrant entrepreneurs who are like me, like how I was,” said Galarza, who is a member of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group.
Immigrants are responsible for launching more than half the startups in the U.S. valued at $1 billion or more, according to a study released this year by the nonpartisan think tank National Foundation for American Policy.
At a recent tech diversity awards ceremony, tech entrepreneur Laura Gómez, who founded recruitment software company Atipica, took the stage wearing a message emblazoned on her T-shirt: “I am an immigrant.”
Gómez, who illegally immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 9 years old, remained undocumented for 10 years. She remembers the fear of being found out, how it felt to be told she didn’t belong.
“The emotional, mental impact of having people chant things like ‘build the wall’ or even if we’re not stereotypical Mexican, having people tell us, ‘hey, you’re not that type of Mexican,’ that’s hard. It’s hard to recover from,” she said. “Any time I am invited to events, anywhere I am speaking, I am going to elevate my voice on behalf of all immigrants, to raise awareness and remind everyone that we’re here. We built this.”
The president elect’s attacks on Latinos, both foreign- and U.S.-born, have also hit home for those who were born here.
Huaranca, a principal investor at Kapor Capital in Oakland, said the election has made her worry about more than policy — she’s concerned about the impact Trump’s rhetoric has had, and may continue to have, on herself, her friends and her family.
Her parents immigrated to the U.S. from Peru, and she said she’s started asking her mother to speak to her in English when she’s talking on the phone in public. She’s held sit-downs with young Latinos who have begun to question what kind of future they might have in the United States.
“I can’t separate my personal from my professional in this case,” she said. “I think this has been a big wake-up call for people out here, and I am hopeful that leaders of tech companies will be taking stronger stances around immigration reform, around diversity and inclusion.”
Tlacael Esparza, a Chicano entrepreneur from California whose music-tech startup, Sunhouse, is based in New York, said he’s not sure whether Trump’s administration will impact his young business, which is run by him and his siblings, but it has already affected him personally and pushed him to set an example for others who may feel discouraged by Trump’s words.
He and other Latinos in the tech sector said they refuse to give up hope for the future — partly because they know they’ll help to shape it.
“We can’t move forward pretending this country is something that it’s not — that it was founded for and by white people. It’s a country of immigrants, a country that has been shaped by Mexicans, Chicanos, natives, African Americans, Asians, all different people of color — we’ve been here the entire time,” Esparza said. “We are America, and those of us who have the opportunity to create companies and platforms to create the future in our own image will make America better for it.”
Marissa Lang is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer covering the intersection of technology and culture. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org