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Mark Zuckerberg’s immigration reform chief: ‘There isn’t a technological hack to the system; Congress has to act’

FWD.us President Todd Schulte spoke about immigration reform at the WTIA’s FullConTech in Leavenworth, Wash. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

LEAVENWORTH, Wash. — Todd Schulte believes, to his core, that the immigration system can be fixed “with one turn of the key” — but even if the solution is simple, it’s far from easy.

Schulte is president of FWD.us, an immigration reform advocacy group launched by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. He shared his impassioned thoughts on everything — from bringing foreign-born talent to the U.S. to President Donald Trump’s travel ban — with GeekWire following his keynote address to the Washington Technology Industry Association‘s (WTIA) FullConTech event today.

“I believe that there are tons of huge problems that we face as a country and things we can improve, but fixing our immigration system is the single biggest thing that, with one turn of the key, we can make better,” Schulte said.

We caught up in a cabin at a remote inn in Leavenworth, Wash. an apple’s throw from the state’s robust agricultural operations and about 120 miles from Seattle’s tech hub. The location and Schulte’s presence were no accident. The theme of the WTIA’s fall conference is The Immigrant Workforce, on which both technology and agriculture rely heavily.

During both his keynote and our conversation, Schulte was emphatic about the need for Congress to step up and pass meaningful immigration reform or “we will go to a dark place as a country.”

“We will be a better country and a better world if everybody has the opportunity to contribute, if everybody has the opportunity to reach their full potential, and because we’ve had a broken immigration system that just doesn’t work — it’s not that people did something wrong or didn’t do something, it just doesn’t work — that hurts all of us,” he said. “There isn’t a technological hack to the system. There are ways to fix around the margins here. Congress has to act. The stakes are very high right now.”

Specifically, Schulte is worried about Trump’s repeal of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. FWD.us is putting the majority of its resources behind advocating for a program to replace DACA and prevent the deportation of the so-called Dreamers who benefit from it.

Todd Schulte delivers the keynote at WTIA’s immigration-themed FullConTech. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

It’s an issue that Schulte says is eclipsing other immigration reforms, like improving the process for foreign-born talent to come work in the U.S. or start companies here. I asked him whether we should expect changes to the H-1B visa program (which big tech companies like Microsoft rely on to recruit skilled international talent) any time soon.

“Congress, right now, is much more likely to look at this real, urgent crisis with the repeal of DACA,” he said. “That is going to be the immigration piece that is going to get real, bipartisan attention right now.”

Still, the Trump administration is undergoing a review of the H-1B visa program in the hopes of curbing abuse from so-called “outsourcing firms.” It’s one of many immigration policies under White House scrutiny, including the Obama-era International Entrepreneur Rule, which allows immigrants to launch and grow startups in the U.S.

“Pushing back on the International Entrepreneur Rule, that’s a huge, huge mistake,” Schulte said.

Trump also issued a third executive order restricting travel from a handful of nations this week, adding Chad, North Korea, and some people in Venezuela. Schulte said he hopes the Supreme Court, which canceled its hearing on the original travel ban, will address the new one quickly. He called the first executive order “a fundamental violation of who we as a country.”

FWD.us is based in Washington, D.C. with coalitions doing immigration advocacy and lobbying around the country. Immigration reform has become a cause célèbre of Zuckerberg, one he writes and speaks about often. His political advocacy has sparked speculation about his ambitions for public office, so I asked the person who might actually know the answer.

“He has said he’s not going to run for president so he’s not going to run for president,” Schulte said, stone-faced.

On the prospect of immigration reform, Schulte is more optimistic.

“It’s been really great to see, not just the tech community, but so many people, I’ve never seen people as dialed in as they are right now,” he said. “People this year have said, whether it’s a core business interest or not, this is the right thing to do. We had 800 business leaders around the country in a ton of different sectors engage.”

That engagement, Schulte says, is the most powerful way the tech industry can impact immigration reform. It’s up to Congress to turn the key, but the private sector can push it to the door.

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