Xconomy Q&A: Todd Schulte of Tech Immigration Advocacy Org FWD.us

[Updated 9/25/17, 1:55 p.m. Clarified 9/27/17, 10:01 a.m. See below.] Immigration policy has always been important to the tech industry, but this year is different. Under a steady barrage of nationalist, anti-immigrant policies promulgated by the Trump administration, the tech industry has been forced to respond like never before, in the halls of Congress, the courts, and the court of public opinion.

Todd Schulte, president of tech industry immigration advocacy and lobbying group FWD.us, is one of the leaders of that response. He will speak Tuesday to the Washington Technology Industry Association on the topic of the immigrant workforce, at a gathering in Leavenworth, WA, designed to bring tech closer to the state’s enormous agricultural industry, which also relies heavily on immigrant workers. [An earlier version of the headline of this story described Schulte as the “tech industry’s immigration lobbyist.” Schulte himself is not a registered lobbyist. FWD.us, a 501(c)(4) social welfare organization, works with a wide range of groups and individuals, some of which are registered to lobby on its behalf.]

Four years ago, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg launched FWD.us to organize the tech industry as a unified force pushing for immigration reform. The group is funded by a who’s who of tech luminaries and venture capitalists, including Bill Gates, Eric Schmidt, and Paul Graham.

Late last week, Xconomy caught up with Schulte—a Washington, DC, Democratic operative whose prior posts include chief of staff for New York Congressman Scott Murphy and Priorities USA, the super PAC that supported President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign—just as the Trump administration announced revised travel restrictions focused on countries with insufficient procedures to screen for terrorists and criminals, and after lower courts struck down an earlier travel ban targeting travelers from six majority Muslim countries. [An earlier version of this paragraph said the Supreme Court was set to review the earlier travel ban. The case was subsequently dropped from the court’s calendar.]

Schulte discussed the “absolutely urgent” need for action to protect the 800,000 “Dreamers”—undocumented young people brought to the U.S. as children and allowed to stay and work under the Obama-created Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program; economic arguments in favor of increased immigration, with Seattle’s tech-driven economic boom as exhibit A; the reason tech job seekers are looking to Canada, and elsewhere, rather than the U.S.; and more.

FWD.us president Todd Schulte.

The following Q&A has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Xconomy: Can you outline the principal policy goals for FWD.us, what you’re advocating now, and how they’ve evolved from a year ago?

Todd Schulte: I don’t know that our principles have evolved. I think the situation has evolved. But to go back for a second, I think our basic belief is that America has always been a country that has been made greater and strengthened by immigrants and immigration. That’s been true in the past. It’s true today. We want to make sure it’s true in the future.

And whether that is making sure that we have a legal visa system that fits the needs for today’s economy, whether it’s dealing fairly with the 11 million undocumented who are here, whether it’s what we’re very focused on right now, which is an opportunity to stop 800,000 Dreamers from all being fired and many being deported, and pass a DREAM act. We think those are our principles, and that’s really what we’ve been focused on.

X: It seems like the focus of the tech industry has been forced to turn from offense—trying to reform and expand the high-skill H-1B visa program used by the tech industry—to defense: fighting the Muslim immigration ban, protecting Dreamers, and outside of the policy realm, confronting the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment and even violence. What specific opportunities do you see to advance the agenda in the next six to 12 months?

TS: I think there’s three buckets of focus right now where there’s a lot of activity.

The first one is around the rescission of DACA leading to an absolutely urgent need for Congress to act and pass a DREAM Act.

The second is concern about a ramp up in enforcement of the general undocumented population. There’s a lot of things that go into that.

The third are kind of broad-scale attacks on the legal immigration system, whether that is the travel ban, whether that is high-skilled immigration, whether that is the RAISE Act, which is an effort to cut legal immigration.

X: The Trump administration’s order rescinding DACA created a defined timeline by which something needs to be done. Is your sense that there is indeed going to be something done?

TS: I’m really optimistic. I think you’ve seen people from across the aisle come together and say they want to get this done. The President has said this. The President said he wants a DREAM Act paired with border security. You’ve seen the Speaker [of the House] say this, you’ve seen [Utah Republican Senator] Orrin Hatch say this, you’ve seen [Democratic Congressional leaders] Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer say this.

We should be really clear. There’s only two ways this goes. Either we pass a DREAM Act or a permanent legislative solution, or on March 6, every single day for the next two years, a new 1,400 DACA recipients fall out of status with the program.

On average, [that’s] 1,400 new people every day who are unable to work legally in this country. These people work at every major company in every sector of the economy. They will all be subject to immediate deportation, and many of them will be deported. We believe that it’s wrong to deport people who on average came to this country at the age of 6, who went to our elementary schools, went to our high schools, many of whom went to American colleges, some of them serve in the American military. We think that deporting those people with the very information they gave to the government under the promise it would never be used against them is wrong.

We have to pass a DREAM Act. It’s urgent. There’s a timeline. This is when Congress actually does things. And so I believe we’ll get this done.

These ongoing assaults on the legal immigration system fall into a couple buckets: One is, you’ve seen things with the travel ban, and what came out [on Friday] is kind of an expanded travel ban that will be country-based.

You’ve seen the RAISE Act, [which proposes] the most radical cuts to legal immigration in the last 100 years. The RAISE Act would cut the family-based immigration system by 85 to 90 percent—overall cut the immigration system by 50-plus percent, up to maybe 70 percent. We think that instead of cutting our legal immigration system, we should actually be making it easier for the best and the brightest to come here. Only two of 100 United States Senators co-sponsored and supported that bill, but there are real threats to our legal immigration system. There are people out there who don’t care how people came here, they want to limit the number of immigrants coming in. And we’re opposed to that.

That’s why you see such a broad coalition working on this issue. Having an immigration system that works is going to be as big of a competitive advantage for the United States in the global economy as anything else we can do.

X: Has the tech industry that formed and supported FWD.us responded to these attacks with increased funding, increased resources for your work?

TS: The best metric is you see now over 800 business leaders from around the country and from every major sector of the economy speak up in the last couple of weeks, that we need Congress to pass a DREAM Act, or some kind of permanent legislative solution for Dreamers. That is every major sector of the economy. That’s Coca Cola, General Motors, Marriott, Verizon, Facebook, Disney, Uber, Comcast, Starbucks, Amazon, Airbnb, Alaska Airlines, the United States Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable, Warren’s office [Buffett], Bill Gates. Those are just some of the business leaders. They’re joining folks like the Pope and 3,500 evangelical leaders who’ve spoken about this. Seven hundred university presidents have said that they’re coming to DC, they want to work on Congress to do this. You see this unbelievable response.

A lot of these people are from Washington state too. Microsoft are incredible leaders, obviously, in this space.

X: Have you received the resources to your organization commensurate with that public advocacy that you just described?

TS: We’re very thankful regarding all that, but we don’t really comment on our funding in public.

X: How do you balance the messaging and advocacy work around this issue with concerns about our country’s increasing political polarization, and a perception that’s out there that this is an effort of rich, liberal, blue-state tech elites to hire more foreign workers for their own business benefits, while many Americans are left out of the tech-driven prosperity we’re experiencing in places like Seattle?

TS: I totally understand that. I’m going to list for you some of those “leftist coastal elites” who are supportive of … Next Page »

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Benjamin Romano is editor of Xconomy Seattle. Email him at bromano [at] xconomy.com. Follow @bromano

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