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Why a Muslim registry could kill jobs for decades to come

Young Muslims protest U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump before being escorted out during a campaign rally in the Kansas Republican Caucus at the Century II Convention and Entertainment Center in Wichita, Kansas March 5, 2016.
Dave Kaup | Reuters
Young Muslims protest U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump before being escorted out during a campaign rally in the Kansas Republican Caucus at the Century II Convention and Entertainment Center in Wichita, Kansas March 5, 2016.

As the new administration mulls what steps to take on border security, it's worthwhile to consider how much a discriminatory database—the Muslim registry—will hurt us economically.

The rhetoric coming out of the Trump transition team about such a registry is ramping up. Last week, one member, Kris Kobach, talked about re-establishing a discredited post 9/11 database of non-citizens arriving from Arab or Muslim countries. Then, in a horrifying interview, Carl Higbie, a Trump surrogate and co-chair of Great America PAC, justified such an effort by pointing out that the United States had done it before, when it put Japanese Americans in internment camps.

The United States has always depended on immigrants to fuel its economy. Forty percent of the companies in the Fortune 500 in 2010 were founded by an immigrant or the child of an immigrant, according to the bipartisan Partnership for a New American Economy.

What is less well known are the contributions of entrepreneurs and business people from Arab and Muslim countries.

There are the exceptional people who have found the spotlight for one reason or another, like the celebrity CEO Farouk Shami, a Palestinian and a business associate of Donald Trump's, who came here with $71 and founded Farouk Systems, a Texas-based global hair care company. Shami's autobiography is titled, by the way, "American by Choice."

There are also communities of immigrants that have made a difference here, in ways that are crucial but aren't typically measured. In the beginning, immigrant communities are fragile, built by word-of-mouth and ease-of-travel; it's those communities that are likely to be lost in an environment hostile to immigrants.

"In a global marketplace of talent, where cities from Amsterdam to Dubai and Singapore are rising fast, people will go where they feel wanted and safe. Entrepreneurs of all races and creeds will give a second thought to coming to America."

Take Iranian Americans, many whose families traveled here after the Iranian Revolution. One study found they had more than three times the rate of self-employment compared with native-born Americans.

Many of them landed in Silicon Valley. Little noticed by mainstream America, Iranian Americans have founded, funded or been deeply involved in some of the greatest tech success stories of the last generation.

There is, for instance, Pierre Omidyar, the son of Iranian immigrants who first went to Paris and then the United States. Omidyar founded eBay. There's Farhad Mohit, a brilliant serial entrepreneur, who founded Bizrate.com and Shopzilla and is now working on another startup. There are funders, like Ali Partovi, who like his brother is an Iranian-American entrepreneur and VC. Partovi's company, LinkExchange, was acquired by Microsoft in 1998 for $265 million, and he's since gone on to become one of the best-connected angel investors in Silicon Valley, investing in or advising companies including Dropbox, Facebook and Uber, according to his LinkedIn profile.

Then there's Omid Kordestani, the current executive chairman of Twitter, who was Google's 11th employee and its first business executive, responsible for all revenue and partnerships. "Among the many flaws of this idea is the reality of people's beliefs and faiths irrespective of where they are born. For example, I actually went to an Italian Catholic school in Iran. I respect all religions but do not practice any and only believe in science!" Kordestani wrote in an email.

One of the great waves of Iranian immigration happened after the 1978-79 revolution in Iran, when it would have been easy to create an environment of fear and rejection in the United States. If that had happened, would highly educated Iranians have come here? In such numbers? Would they have been able to form the kind of community that has helped create one of America's biggest assets, its high-tech industry?

Inherent flaws and a waste of energy

Officials in the new administration, tasked with moving fast to put some of Mr. Trump's promises into action, may argue that the new database is just a re-instatement. It was damaging before, and didn't work. In the current environment, it is likely to do much more damage, because it will be seen even as an expression of bigotry.

The energy and focus wasted on labeling people by irrelevant factors, like geography, aren't being spent on what matters, like recognizing the patterns of action that show the intent to harm others. The Department of Homeland Security recommended scrapping the previous iteration of this database, called the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System. It said one of the reasons was that "information from flight manifests, travel and ID documents and intelligence was more valuable to determine who poses a potential national security risk."

The impact of a registry

In the business community, there may be no hue and cry over a registry. Most business people have little taste for controversy. But in a global marketplace of talent, where cities from Amsterdam to Dubai and Singapore are rising fast, people will go where they feel wanted and safe. Entrepreneurs, or budding entrepreneurs, of all races and creeds will give a second thought to coming to America.

How could they, in good conscience, recruit top Muslim employees from the rest of the world to relocate here? Those conversations will likely go on in the corporate sector, too. American companies with plenty of money may invest in U.S. manufacturing plants. Meanwhile, they'll build their research labs and partnerships elsewhere, in the cities and countries where the best employees want to live.

The struggle for identity

Research suggests that anti-immigrant backlashes are driven by an identity crisis. Security in this case is the convenient vessel containing the debate, but the heart of the question is a struggle about what kind of country America is.

I'm the descendent of, among many others, an Irish coal miner who landed in Pennsylvania, a German immigrant who built a bustling retail empire in Baltimore, and a British farmer who took up arms as an aide to George Washington.

On Nov. 9, a friend of mine from the Arab world sent me a sad note: "Liberty's lamp went out," it said, and I felt overwhelming grief for the stain on a part of America's identity that I particularly cherished. "It's only dimmed," I said.

Not everyone will feel as I do, and we can argue over what America's identity is or ought to be, a secure home for its citizens or a generous nation where anyone can come and prove himself, or herself. I hope it can be both.

But we should recognize the cost if we overstep in the name of security. What some people may label reasonable measures could bar or dissuade the next generation of entrepreneurs and dreamers from coming to America. History tells us they could as easily be from Iran, or Egypt or the UAE, just as much as from Ireland, Germany or Great Britain.

Immigrant entrepreneurs from everywhere have helped make America great through its whole history – and will again, if we don't keep them out.

Commentary by Elizabeth MacBride, a freelance writer and editor who writes about entrepreneurs and the Middle East. Follow her on Twitter @editoremacb.