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Startup CEO feared for employees’ safety in immigration outcry

(Bloomberg) --A Seattle-based software startup called Chef Software Inc. announced it would not renew its contracts with U.S. immigration agencies following days of online outcry that Chief Executive Officer Barry Crist described as “stunning,” adding that he feared for employees’ safety. “We needed to move out of the spotlight and refocus our resources on customers,” Crist said.

Chef is the first tech company to publicly sever ties with the U.S. agencies in response to pressure from activists and employees, according to the Latino advocacy group Mijente, which has been pushing the industry to distance itself from immigration authorities.

In his first interview after making the decision, Crist said that there was dissension within the company over whether it should work with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). “People’s positions on support for ICE are mixed and we have seen that in our internal discussions,” Crist said, adding that cutting the ties had cooled tensions. “Our current position on ICE has greatly reduced friction internally and externally, and allowed us to refocus on what’s best for our employees, customers and our broader community.”

In a sign of the growing schism between the technology industry and the administration of President Donald Trump, Chef faced a social media firestorm last week over its contracts with ICE and Customs and Border Protection. Chef helps companies like Facebook Inc., Hewlett-Packard Enterprise and International Business Machines Corp. manage their technical infrastructure.

The outcry had practical implications, too. When a former employee removed code that Chef was using from repository GitHub in response to its government associations, the removal caused service outages. Last week, Crist told employees in a letter that the company had made a “principled decision” to continue work with the government. But by Monday, he reversed course, writing in another letter that, after “deep introspection and dialog,” Chef would not renew its contracts after they expired over the next year. Crist said the company would meet the obligations of its current contracts.

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Chef isn’t the only tech company to face pressure from employees and activists over connections to the U.S. immigration agencies for their role in separating families at the U.S.-Mexican border. Palantir Technologies Inc. agreed to extend a contract through 2022 to provide immigration authorities with data-mining software, despite protests from labor activists in front of the company’s headquarters in Palo Alto, California. A spokeswoman for Mijente said that after Chef’s decision, “We’re calling on Palantir to follow suit.”

Other companies under scrutiny include Amazon.com Inc., whose employees wrote a letter to Jeff Bezos demanding that the company kick Palantir off Amazon Web Services and that it take a stand against ICE. And last year, more than 100 Microsoft Corp. employees asked CEO Satya Nadella to cut ties with the agency.

In the letter to staff, Crist said Chef’s government contract began in 2014 under a previous administration when “policies such as family separation and detention did not yet exist.” Asked whether the company would face any blow-back from ICE over its decision this week, Crist said, “It is hard for me to imagine that there won’t be.” He also said that Chef works with many agencies in the U.S. government and that the company remains “proud of and committed to that work.”

Bloomberg News