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CEOs are calling the separation of children and families at the border ‘inhumane’ and ‘tragic’

"Kids are the most vulnerable people in any society,” Apple chief executive Tim Cook told the Irish Times. “I think that what's happening is inhumane, it needs to stop.” (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

This report has been updated.

Democratic and Republican lawmakers have spoken out about the Trump administration's hard-line “zero-tolerance” immigration policy, which has resulted in a sharp rise in the number of children separated from their parents at the southern U.S. border. The president of the American Academy of Pediatrics has said it “amounts to child abuse.” Church leaders have called it “immoral,” with one reportedly suggesting “canonical penalties” for those involved. Former first ladies from both parties have called for it to end.

And now, corporate America's leaders are adding their voices to the growing chorus of critics denouncing the policy or calling for Congress to act. Speaking in Dublin on Tuesday morning, Apple chief executive Tim Cook told the Irish Times that “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,” he said. Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg encouraged donations to the Texas Civil Rights Project, saying, “We need to stop this policy right now,” and made a donation to another fundraiser.

Chobani chief executive Hamdi Ulukaya, an immigrant who is known for hiring refugees, tweeted that “separating a child from a mother or father is not political. It is inhumane. It is against everything this country stands for. I have seen it in other parts of the world but never thought I’d see it in the land of the free.”

More tech CEOs, including Uber's Dara Khosrowshahi‏, Twitter's Jack Dorsey and Google's Sundar Pichai, weighed in with tweets, and Johnson & Johnson chief executive Alex Gorsky called for “an immediate end to the policy.” Goldman Sachs chief executive Lloyd Blankfein called it “tragic” while saying that “it’s easy to say what you would do if you didn’t have to bear the consequences for what you decided.” Business Roundtable immigration committee chairman Chuck Robbins, the chief executive of Cisco Systems, said in a tweet that the practice is “cruel and contrary to American values.”

Observers who study the recent wave of “CEO activism,” in which corporate leaders have spoken out on social issues such as gun control, gay rights and climate change, say corporate America has been slower to respond to the current crisis than to past ones, but the “log jam” was broken on Tuesday.

“It's no longer 'Where are they?' It’s 'What took them so long?' " said Michael Toffel, a Harvard Business School professor. “Now the risks seem lower. You have religious leaders [speaking out]. You have the first ladies on your side. How much more risk reduction can you expect?”

From pulpits across America, sermons condemn separation of immigrant families

After President Trump announced his entry ban involving several mostly Muslim countries, many chief executives, particularly in the tech industry, jumped into the debate over policy decisions about transgender members of the military or protecting the “dreamers,” immigrants protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. According to data tracked by the communications firm Weber Shandwick, 153 chief executives and companies spoke out about the entry ban early last year, and 62 companies made remarks supporting the dreamers last fall. 

But on the issue of the separation of children and parents at the border, Leslie Gaines-Ross, Weber Shandwick's chief reputation strategist, said Tuesday morning: “I’m a bit surprised that so few companies have spoken up at this point. My immediate reaction was that all this just erupted to the surface, but it’s really been in the news for six weeks.”

She and others point to several possible reasons the issue didn't take hold with companies as quickly, despite the attention it has received. One could be because the separation of children and families raises moral questions, and it's harder for companies to issue the kind of lawyer-scrubbed statements about corporate values such as diversity, equality and sustainability that many have used before.

“In this situation, you’re either for it or against it,” Gaines-Ross said. “There’s no neutral position.”

Another reason may be that the Trump administration's communication about the legal context — officials have denied that the separation of families is a policy and made false claims that Democrats are to blame for the administration's separation of families — could make speaking up more complex for corporate leaders.

“It’s a less simple one-liner,” Toffel said. “You risk it being misinterpreted, by some who believe these misstatements, that you are advocating illegal activity. That raises the stakes.”

‘I don’t think they fear this president’: CEOs blast Trump’s ‘dreamers’ decision

Also it is not as explicitly tied to their businesses as other issues have been. Drexel University professor Daniel Korschun said the main things that get companies to engage on political issues are whether they affect company performance or connect with stated corporate values. “Unless it hits one of those things,” he said, “they're going to stay silent.”

Business contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement have complicated the matter for some. Microsoft faced outrage from some on social media for saying it was “proud to support” ICE's I.T. modernization in a January blog post. It followed up with a statement that read in part: “In response to questions we want to be clear: Microsoft is not working with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement or U.S. Customs and Border Protection on any projects related to separating children from their families at the border, and contrary to some speculation, we are not aware of [cloud-based software] Azure or Azure services being used for this purpose.”

Microsoft also said, “We urge the administration to change its policy and Congress to pass legislation ensuring children are no longer separated from their families.” On Tuesday, CEO Satya Nadella sent an email to employees, published on LinkedIn, where he said, "I am appalled at the abhorrent policy of separating immigrant children from their families at the southern border of the U.S. As both a parent and an immigrant, this issue touches me personally." He reiterated that it is not working on projects related to the separation of families at the border, saying Microsoft's work "supports legacy mail, calendar, messaging and document management workloads."

Those who follow CEO activism say they expect more companies to speak out. “What’s really changed in the past couple of days is it’s become clear that the administration is not planning on backing down, and I think many CEOs felt compelled to enter into the discussion,” Korschun said.

Those who were vocal about other immigration issues, such as the entry ban or DACA, may think they have to speak up here, too.

“When a company makes a commitment to an issue, they have to remain consistent on it. They have to continue to be willing to address that issue, Korschun said. “You can’t pick and choose.”

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