After one year of Trump, Google CEO Sundar Pichai sounds a lot different about immigration -- and that may be a good thing

Kim White/MSNBCGoogle CEO Sundar Pichai.
  • Google CEO Sundar Pichai says the company wants to be a constructive voice in the immigration debate.
  • The immigration issue hits very close to home for Silicon Valley tech companies, and Pichai’ s comments signal that the industry is rethinking its tactics to fight for the cause.

Almost exactly one year ago, Google CEO Sundar Pichai stood in front of cheering employees vowing to “stand together” and “never compromise” in opposing the Trump administration’s travel ban.

On Friday, Pichai spoke out again in defence of immigration and of the benefits that immigrants bring to the US. But the India-born CEO, himself perhaps a perfect embodiment of the cause, seemed to have ditched his firebrand approach in favour of a more diplomatic tone.

“It’s really important that we don’t make it a tech-versus-the-rest-of-the-country issue,” Pichai said onstage during a Q&A event in San Francisco organised by MSNBC when asked about immigration by the hosts Kara Swisher and Ari Melber.

Many of the big immigration issues remain unresolved, among them the travel ban, the fate of the so-called Dreamers, and the controversial visa system US corporations use to hire skilled foreign workers. Indeed, a deadlock over immigration policy in Congress helped trigger the partial federal government shutdown that began Saturday.

There’s a lot at stake for Google, which recruits engineering talent from all over the world and which counts some Dreamers – immigrants living in the US illegally who have work visas under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program – among its ranks.

Google ProtestMatthew WeinbergerGooglers took to the streets one year ago.

Still, after a year of the Trump presidency, Pichai appears to have adapted to the political climate. Instead of “never compromise,” Pichai stressed the need for Google to play a “constructive” role in the immigration debate.

“We are very open to constructively reforming the H-1B process,” Pichai said, referring to the visas that allow US companies like Google to hire foreign workers.

This softening in tone may not be the capitulation it appears to be, though.

Sure, as a publicly owned company, Google has a responsibility to its shareholders to get on with business, and it would be unrealistic to expect Google to go to the mat on any issue that doesn’t directly affect its bottom line.

But Pichai’s real message seemed to be that Silicon Valley needed to be smarter to win this battle.

“It’s up to us as tech companies to make the case as to why immigration is good for the country, not just for tech companies,” he said. “I think we have to do that better.”

Silicon Valley’s greatest strength has always been its ability to sell the world on its vision of the future.

Steve Jobs and Bill Gates put a computer on every desk.

If Google can persuade hundreds of millions of people to visit its website every day, then surely it should be able to convince citizens and politicians of the merits of a diverse society.

Pichai knows he has a good argument on his hand, and, like a good tech product, he just needs to figure out how to sell it.

The full Q&A with Pichai and YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki is set to air on MSNBC on Friday in a program called “Revolution: Google and YouTube Changing the World.”

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