How Uber drivers are dealing with — and protesting — Trump’s immigration bans

Drivers are finding they have to choose between their livelihoods and their consciences.

Uber headquarters in San Francisco. CREDIT: AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File
Uber headquarters in San Francisco. CREDIT: AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File

A steady stream of protests broke out nationwide in the week following President Donald Trump’s executive order restricting U.S. entry of immigrants and refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries. Demonstrations sprung up in downtown Manhattan, in front of the White House, on college campuses, and at airports. Thousands of Americans rallied in defense of immigrants who were detained and threatened with deportation in accordance with the Trump administration’s immigration and refugee bans.

Ride-sharing service Uber got caught in the chaos and became the target of a boycott after the company was criticized for appearing to undermine a work stoppage protest by New York City’s taxi drivers Sunday. In mere hours, the #DeleteUber online campaign became a trending topic nationwide. Uber’s largest competitor Lyft saw a spike in new users and the company tried to mitigate damage by matching Lyft’s $1 million contribution to the American Civil Liberties Union by issuing a formal apology and setting up a $3 million legal defense fund for drivers who are impacted by the ban.

But while Uber is trying to navigate a public relations storm, its drivers are wrestling with larger, more personal concerns: choosing between their conscience and their livelihood.

ThinkProgress talked to three Uber drivers in three cities to get their views on the immigration bans, their company’s response, and the resulting public backlash. Here’s what they had to say:

Jonathan Gaurano, San Francisco

“It’s okay to run your business in times of crisis, however, when you promote your business during a strike when you’re not promoting a clear message of where you stand, it sends a clear message that you’re focused on making a profit,” said Jonathan Gaurano, who quit driving for Uber this week and started a CoWorker.org petition after reading Uber CEO Travis Kalanick’s statement. He now only drives for Lyft.

“He was unclear and didn’t say enough about what his stance was,” he said. “I would rather [Kalanick] say he disagreed with the ban instead of dilly-dallying around the subject.”

Kalanick, who resigned Thursday from his role on the president’s economic advisory group, wrote a blog post Sunday entitled “Standing up for what’s right,” which the public criticized as being overly concerned with the company’s financial stake. For users who wanted the company to make a bolder statement addressing the larger human rights issues underscored by the ban, Uber’s response was frustrating, especially when compared to Lyft’s $1 million contribution to the American Civil Liberties Union to fight to constitutionality of the executive orders.

Within a day, the #DeleteUber campaign was in full force. It’s unclear exactly how many people followed through, but in a statement given to ThinkProgress, a company spokesperson said they were forced to update their system to handle the surge in account deletion requests. Kalanick later signed onto a petition with other tech investors and executives denouncing Trump’s immigration ban. Additionally, Uber sent some users a message, calling the immigration “unjust” after users deleted their accounts.

But the damage was done. Uber’s ranking sank in the app store as Lyft’s rose to the number three spot, and consumers patted themselves on the back for finally breaking up with a company that has had more than its share of problems spanning labor, privacy and safety concerns for users. For drivers, however, it’s not so easy.

News of the bans hit home for Gaurano, who is the son of Filipino immigrants.

“I understand what it’s like [for someone to] wait years for a green card. It hits home because I’m consistently surrounded with an immigrant community,” Gaurano said.

“I don’t care that he’s on Trump’s economic board, I love that because it means that he has access to the president,” he said.

But that access also means Uber is held to a higher standard, he added. “Travis [Kalanick] is at a higher standard because he’s standing next to Trump. When you do something extreme it causes awareness. It becomes part of a bigger thing and that bigger thing is #DeleteUber.”

Gaurano, who started driving full-time for Uber and Lyft in 2015 after falling on hard times, said there’s a financial cost to leaving Uber and that he sits up at night wondering whether he’s doing enough, if leaving Uber and boycotting the company was enough.

“Doing the right thing and moral thing is going to be hard based on the resources that you have,” Gaurano said. “I wholeheartedly believe that using this company and driving for Uber isn’t the way to go. It’s sad, it’s a hard choice. It’s a hard choice… I just want to live a happy life.”

Ibrahim Ali, Brooklyn, New York

Ninety percent of Uber’s drivers in New York are immigrants, according to the Independent Drivers Guild. And according to survey launched by the guild, 90 percent of drivers believe Uber needs to do better.

The lure of the gig economy — making money on your own schedule, and all you need is a car or access to one — speaks to an entrepreneurial mentality many immigrants, and ride-share drivers overall, adopt to make a life and a living.

For many Uber drivers, particularly those who work full-time, pay is a constant issue. App-based drivers began to unionize amid fare cuts, Uber’s 20 percent commission, and the company’s insistence on classifying drivers as contractors rather than employees, which allows the company to avoid complying with labor regulations.

Ibrahim Ali, who drives for Uber part-time, said he’s gotten “used to” the company taking controversial positions that don’t necessarily benefit drivers.

“From my experience, Uber only responds to one of two things: the market, and regulation,” Ali said. “But cries of people asking for things and bettering drivers livelihoods, I don’t think that ranks as one of the highest things they consider. Again, they own the biggest share of the market.”

Uber still dominates the ride-sharing industry. Lyft’s business is just over one-fifth the size of Uber’s, according to ride data. That means for drivers, quitting Uber isn’t a viable solution even when the company’s stance contradicts their beliefs.

“You have to do what you have to do to make ends meet, and at the same time you don’t want to. But it is what it is,” said Ali, while driving around waiting for fares Wednesday night. “I did one hour of not working with my friends,” as a form of protest, while also prioritizing customers from the New York City-based Juno app.

Ali, who is originally from Sudan (one of the seven countries included in Trump’s Muslim ban) and drives to help put his brother through school, said he’s not going to quit Uber because it has “the biggest share of the market, the most riders” which means “at some point I have to go back to working for Uber.”

“When I heard about the ban of course it did not feel good, it did not look like it had really any thought behind it or any analysis of any sort. It only looks like a chief political move to show that [Trump is] fulfilling his campaign promises,” Ali said.

And as a result, Ali worries for his family.

“My family lives overseas, I’m originally from Sudan, my brother lives with me, and I’m putting him through school,” said Ali, who also works full-time as a chemical engineer.

Ali said he goes back to see their family whenever it is financially possible, and the ban will keep his parents, who live in Sudan but have U.S. residency and citizenship, from coming back to the States for medical care.

Peter GatKuoth Wadar Kuel, Seattle

“I came here 14 years ago as a refugee from what’s now South Sudan,” said Peter GatKuoth Wadar Kuel as he camped out in a gas station waiting for fares. “Banning people who don’t feel welcome in their own country of origin is not the right thing to do.”

“A lot of people love America a lot because of the protection of human rights,” he continued. “If you say ‘no, don’t come,’ you don’t have human rights at all.”

Kuel used to own a taxi but switched to Uber three years ago. He hasn’t seen his parents, who are now in Sudan, in 16 years. After years of trying to convince them to come to the U.S., his mother only recently agreed so she could meet her grandchildren. That’s not possible now.

“My mom is in Khartoum and I haven’t seen her in a long time. I tell her to come to America, to see my daughter. How can I get her here when she’s not allowed to come?”

Besides his family, Kuel is concerned about his fellow Sudanese and those displaced by civil war.

“I will ask President Trump to review the things that he’s putting forward,” said Kuel. “Many people now in South Sudan now…they don’t have no where to go.”

He agrees with people’s criticism that those who violate the law should be dealt with, but that a ban is not the answer.

Speaking about refugees, Kuel said, “If these people are not allowed to come, where will they go?” Kuel said of the clashing forces in Juba, Sudan’s capital. “We shouldn’t be banning anyone. We should be dealing with criminals.”

Kuel said he has no plans to quit Uber because it’s his livelihood.

“When you come here you don’t have no house, no car, no money. And after a few months maybe you have a job,” said Kuel, who started driving for Uber because the company’s presence made it harder for taxi drivers in Seattle. “All the customers go to Uber. You either join them or you get a different job.”

Kuel said the protests make it harder on drivers who don’t have citizenship because their options for work are narrower and their risk regarding law enforcement is higher.

“I think it would be difficult for someone who is not a citizen. Getting pulled over by the police. What affects one of us, affects all of us. It’s going to be hard for everybody…the problem will affect everybody.”

This post has been updated.