Corporate America, like all of America, can look to immigrants in part for their success.
The US and its leading companies faced a stark choice on the eve of World War II—too many chose wrong. The Holocaust represents one of the world’s most despicable moments in history, when 6 million Jews were murdered by the Nazi regime. As Jews were fleeing, the United States shut its doors to these refugees. The St. Louis, a German ship carrying 900 Jews, was turned back when the United States refused entry. The Wagner-Rogers bill in 1939 sought to admit 10,000 Jewish children from Europe but was voted down in Congress.
Sadly, many American corporate leaders stood on the wrong side of history. They either fueled the fears Americans had for accepting Jewish refugees, such as Henry Ford, or aided the Nazi regime in its efforts, such as IBM’s president Thomas Watson and GM president Alfred Sloan.
US companies face the same choice now. On Holocaust Remembrance Day, President Trump signed an Executive Order banning refugees from seven predominantly Muslim countries—five of which Oxfam is currently working in to provide life-saving humanitarian relief. The order, which bans refugees from entering and originally was applied to even prevent green card holders from those countries from re-entering, harkens to the pre-WWII era when religious intolerance in the United States resulted in dire consequences for those seeking safe harbor.
While a few corporate leaders, primarily out of Silicon Valley, noted their concern over the impact of the ban on their employees, an overwhelming number of corporate leaders have remained shockingly silent. President Trump—who campaigned on his business acumen—has convened a group of leading corporate executives in a Strategic and Policy Forum to provide him with advice and counsel. Of the 19 executives who serve in this agenda-setting role, only two have spoken up about the ban (companies have taken varying approaches to criticizing the ban). It has been reported that Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, is seeking a consensus on changes to the immigration ban among fellow forum members, but the time to speak up is now. And not just about tinkering with the ban to make it less restrictive of green card holders –the whole thing needs to go. The silence from any executive is unconscionable, but from those on the Forum in particular.
Corporate America, like all of America, can look to immigrants in part for their success. The US immigrant population was more than 42.4 million in 2014, or 13.3 percent of the total population. Together with their US born children they total 81 million people or 26 percent of the overall population. Over the last four decades, the US has safely resettled tens of thousands of Muslim refugees who have not only become US citizens, but who have also enriched our country economically, socially, and culturally.When several states sought to pass bills that would limit LGBT rights, Fortune 500 companies led the fight to stand up for human rights. This included Walmart in Arkansas, Disney in Georgia, and PepsiCo and GE in Mississippi, all of whom sit on President Trump’s forum and will have the President’s ear on Friday when he meets with them. Private business has led the way on combatting LGBT discrimination, three quarters of Fortune 500 firms have policies forbidding it.
It will take courage for these companies to stand up to President Trump, but there are clear risks in not doing so. For one, as of the writing of this piece, the stock market was on track to hit a daily loss not seen since mid-October as a result of this latest Executive Order.
More importantly, however, is the foundation on which our economy is built, our values of compassion, inclusion and diversity. Discrimination on the basis of religion or country of origin is simply un-American. As an organization that has worked with human rights defenders around the world, we understand the risks in standing up and being vocal. But we expect all companies to do so, and Oxfam will be with them when they do.