Undocumented tech workers brace for Trump’s next move

‘Am I going to leave this country?’

Attendees working on Apple Inc. laptop computers participate in the Yahoo! Inc. Mobile Developer Conference Hackathon in New York, U.S., on Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2015.
Victor J. Blue | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Attendees working on Apple Inc. laptop computers participate in the Yahoo! Inc. Mobile Developer Conference Hackathon in New York, U.S., on Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2015.

Diane arrived in the US when she was just a child, moving from Mexico through the South, before finally settling in the Northeast. As she got older, she came to appreciate the anonymity of a big city. Public transit made it easier to live without a driver's license, a necessary result of life without a local birth certificate or social security card. That kind of bureaucratic tangle was a greater concern than immigration agents, who rarely turned an eye toward her neighborhood.

As she reached the end of high school, the tangle became more serious. She had done well in high school, but applying to college meant more forms and more questions about her background. She couldn't use her school's admissions resources or apply for most scholarships, but found her way to a school across the country. She did well at college, too, and is now part of the community around Code2040, a San Francisco-based organization promoting diversity in tech.

It's a common story, so common that there's a name for it. Diane is a Dreamer, to use the language of Congress' troubled immigration bill — a young, US-educated immigrant who came to the country as a minor. Over the past eight years, President Obama and Congress cycled through a number of attempts to help Diane and others like her, first with the now-shelved DREAM Act, and then with an executive order called Deferred Action for Child Arrivals, or DACA. Issued by President Obama, the order allowed for work permits and other protections for anyone who entered the country before the age of 16, provided they had no felony convictions and met other conditions. Still in place, it currently protects nearly 750,000 people from deportation.

If Trump repeals DACA, Diane may have to leave the country where she's lived almost all her life

Just weeks after taking office, the Trump administration is already exploring ways to undo that order, and subject Diane and others like her to deportation. Trump campaigned on reversing President Obama's immigration orders, referring to DACA as an "illegal executive amnesty" during the campaign. A draft executive order leaked in January would end the program outright, honoring work permits like the one held by Diane, but declining to renew them, eventually exposing all permit-holders to deportation. At the same time, the new president has stepped up raids on undocumented immigrants already in the country, with more than 680 people captured for deportation last week. If Trump follows through on his plan for DACA, Diane may have to leave the country where she's lived almost all her life.

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It's a struggle that could have a profound effect on the tech industry. The sector owes a unique debt to immigrants — the current CEOs of Google and Microsoft are both foreign-born, along with over a third of Silicon Valley's population. It's hard to be sure how many undocumented immigrants are currently working in tech, although both immigrant surveysand tech diversity numbers suggest the figure is low. Still, anecdotal reports show those workers do exist, and in the wake of Trump's aggressive immigration moves, their position has become more precarious than ever.

"They fear for themselves and their families."

For now, tech workers benefitting from DACA may be keeping a low profile. "Almost all of the people that work with DACA in tech are not outspoken because they fear for themselves and their families," says Laura Gomez, an early YouTube and Twitter employee who now works with diversity and immigration groups including FWD.us. She mentors a number of college students who worry that their work permits, approved under DACA, will now be used to target them and their families in future immigration raids.

"They feel like their future is at stake now," Gomez says.

Those students are part of the group that organizations like Code2040 have been working to bring into the tech industry. Each year, Code2040's fellows program shepherds a few dozen black and latino computer science students through a rigorous summer internship, giving them career guidance and a foot in the door at some of the industry's biggest companies. The program has graduated hundreds of students over the past five years, with support from Google, Andreessen Horowitz, and other top firms. Code2040 doesn't know how many of those students are undocumented — retaining the data would make the organization vulnerable to a subpoena — but its executives have long understood that many of them may be facing the same troubles as Diane. After the inauguration in January, the organization's directors sent a letter to the community at large, promising to continue to accept students regardless of their immigration status.

Vice president of programs Karla Monterroso says those students are at the core of the company's mission, and deporting them would be massively destructive. "You can have a kid who grew up here, was educated here, worked miracles to get scholarship money to get themselves through college, and now cannot apply that education at a job that America is desperately in need of," says Monterroso.

"I've been told I should be deported or exterminated."

Beyond specific restrictions, diversity groups must also fight a broader sense that immigrants aren't as welcome in Trump's America. For Code2040, that's largely translated to online harassment. A number of the group's leaders have been targeted by white nationalists on Twitter, often after major press hits or funding announcements. That harassment began during the campaign, but has only intensified since the inauguration. "As a Latina, I've been told I should be deported or exterminated or that I'm leading the white genocide," says Monterroso. "It's unfortunate. I think for us, the question is how do you understand how much pain people are in, and how that pain is being directed in really toxic ways."

In the meantime, Diane is bracing for whatever comes next. For now, she plans to stay through the end of her DACA-enabled work permit, which lasts for the next two years. After that, she'll face a hard decision: overstay her work permit, or leave her home with no clear prospects for coming back.

"Maybe I just thought that this country was better or different," she says. "I put it on a pedestal. I thought that no matter how much pain it brought me, it was still the best option to stay here rather than go somewhere else. And I'm starting to realize that's not the case."

"My community is here, all the friends that I grew up with, my sister, my dad, they're all here," Diane says. "Am I going to leave this country? Is this country even a place that is home for me?"

Note: The Verge agreed to withhold Diane's real name and precise affiliation with Code2040 out of concern for immigration action against her.