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Why Space Companies Are Untouched By Trump’s Travel Ban

Jason Koebler

Jason Koebler

The tech industry is stressed about losing foreign workers, but the space industry never had the choice to begin with.

Because the tech sector relies so heavily on foreign talent, Silicon Valley stands to suffer from Donald Trump's executive order banning entry to the United States for nationals of seven predominantly Muslim countries. But the tech-adjacent defense and commercial spaceflight sectors have developed much differently, thanks to a regulation that all but prevents immigrants from working in those industries.  

Though we often think of companies like SpaceX and Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin as "tech" companies, they operate under regulations that have been set up ostensibly to prevent foreign spies from stealing technology (like rockets) that could be used to develop weapons. The regulations are so strict that even dishwashers and line cooks in SpaceX's cafeteria and the accountants at Blue Origin must be US nationals.

"If you're dealing in ITAR, the easiest path to compliance is to just hire US citizens"

This complex regulatory scheme, called the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, are unpopular in the industry because it not only restricts who companies can hire but also prevents them from doing business with many foreign countries because rockets and satellites are considered "arms" under the regulations. Space companies are constantly pushing the State Department to regulate their products under the less strict Department of Commerce Export Administration Regulations.

ITAR was implemented as part of a 1976 law called the Arms Export Control Act and the regulations were toughened in 1999.  It almost entirely restricts immigrants from working for US-based space and defense companies, based on the fear that immigrants could serve as spies for foreign governments wanting to learn how to create weapons.

This means that the commercial space and defense contractor industries will be largely unaffected by Trump's ban, because almost everyone who works in the sector is a US citizen or green card holder.

Image: SpaceX

"Under the ITAR, a US Department of State Director of Defense Trade Controls export license is required prior to the release of ITAR-controlled technical data to a foreign person," Steven Brotherton, an export controls lawyer in San Francisco, told me. A "foreign person" is anyone who is not a US citizen, green card holder, or a person granted refugee status.

According to immigration lawyers and people familiar with the hiring practices at several space companies in the United States, the legal hoops and bureaucracy associated with getting a waiver to ITAR employment restrictions means that essentially no immigrants work at space companies unless they are green card holders or naturalized citizens.

"If you're dealing in ITAR, the easiest path to compliance is to just hire US citizens," Gregory Jaeger, a lawyer who focuses on export controls, told me.

"One day I have some visitors from Japan who come over and I walk them through the office—I've just violated ITAR"

That's the path most companies in the sector have taken. United Launch Alliance, a cooperative between Lockheed Martin and Boeing that makes the Atlas V rocket and regularly launches US Air Force satellites, told me that "all of our employees are US citizens or US persons." Boeing told me that it has a "very small number of employees in the US who are non-US citizens." SpaceX requires all of its employees to be ITAR compliant, and someone familiar with its workforce told me that only in extremely rare instances has it hired someone who is not a citizen or green card holder.

Continuing to saddle the commercial space industry with weapons regulations has been blamed by the industry for hampering the US satellite-manufacturing business as companies in other countries have decided to work closely with European, Israeli, Chinese, or Japanese companies that don't have export restrictions.

"Some of the leading satellite companies in the world are here and can't compete out on the open market because of the ITAR restrictions," Jaeger said. "And so the companies are constantly trying to move things off of the US Munitions List."

Even with a dishwasher, a janitor, or a custodian at an organization like SpaceX needs to have ITAR clearance

ITAR is also very easy to violate, he said.

"If I am a military defense contractor, for example, imagine I've got an office where my engineers have lots of drawings and pin them to the walls," Jaeger said. "One day I have some visitors from Japan who come over and I walk them through the office—I've just violated ITAR."

This restriction extends to anyone who has even a plausible possibility of coming across sensitive data, which is why most companies opt to make sure all employees are US nationals regardless of their role.

"Even with a dishwasher, a janitor, or a custodian at an organization like SpaceX needs to have ITAR clearance unless they are physically blocked off from key areas of the premises where sensitive information is housed," Shirley Tang, an immigration attorney in New York, told me. "The reason they need clearance is because if they are, say, cleaning someone's desk, they could have access to a computer that might have sensitive information on the screen or they may be around when other workers are present."

SpaceX, for example, has the following disclaimer in a job listing for a dishwasher: "To conform to U.S. Government space technology export regulations, applicant must be a U.S. citizen, lawful permanent resident of the U.S., protected individual as defined by 8 U.S.C. 1324b(a)(3), or eligible to obtain the required authorizations from the U.S. Department of State."

More than 100 tech companies have joined the legal case against Trump's ban and an additional 150 biotechnology companies and venture capitalists strongly opposed the order in an open letter published in Nature Biotechnology. These companies heavily rely on the H-1B visa program, which allows companies to hire skilled talent from overseas. The Trump administration has threatened to overhaul this program, which is surely behind some of the sector's outrage.

The space and defense sectors, meanwhile, have remained largely silent. Thus far, SpaceX has joined the tech companies' legal challenge, and Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides tweeted that "the best of America is open, courageous and compassionate. That's when we're strongest. The EO should be withdrawn."

No other major space or defense company has come out against the executive order, and many of the ones I asked about it declined to comment. Many space companies and all defense companies operate in a different regulatory environment than most Silicon Valley companies. They rely on US government contracts, which means few of them are willing to openly criticize the federal government.

Even though Trump's order will not affect the hiring practices of these companies, the new president's decisions will certainly impact their businesses: A $13 billion deal Boeing had lined up with Iran to sell the jets in the country is now in jeopardy thanks to new sanctions implemented by the Trump administration.

I asked the following companies for comment on their ITAR hiring requirements and specifically asked them if they opposed Trump's executive order. Here are their responses:

General Atomics (no response)
Raytheon ("No comment")
Orbital ATK (no response)
Blue Origin ("Blue Origin has nothing to contribute at this time.")
Northrop Grumman (no response)
Boeing  ("We have a very small number of employees in the US who are non US citizens (and we have approximately 10,000 employees overseas from countries all over the world).  With regards to current immigration issues, we continue to monitor the ongoing administrative, legislative and judicial actions. We value the depth and diversity of our workforce, and where there was some minor disruption, we worked to address the needs of any impacted employees.")
Aerojet Rocketdyne (no response)
Vulcan Aerospace (no response)
General Dynamics ("This isn't a subject we wish to comment on.")
Sierra Nevada (no response)
Bigelow Airspace (no response)
Lockheed Martin ("We don't have any comment for you.")
United Launch Alliance ("Because of the nature of our work for the U.S. Government, all of our employees are U.S. citizens/U.S. persons.").
SpaceX (SpaceX did not want to specifically comment for this story but a spokesperson noted that the company is formally opposing Trump's order)
Virgin Galactic ("Virgin Galactic is a US company and complies with ITAR and other regulatory requirements of the United States government. Within the limitations set by ITAR and other export controls, we aim to hire the most talented and diverse workforce possible. This includes hiring many fantastically talented naturalized citizens and permanent residents. These men and women are trusted colleagues and friends and contribute to the success of our business.")