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RSA Conference speakers tackle tech immigration reform, travel ban

Several speakers made pro-immigration remarks at RSA Conference 2017 and called for tech immigration reform following President Trump's controversial executive order.

It was never referenced directly, but President Donald Trump's travel ban loomed over RSA Conference 2017 and led to several speakers delivering pro-immigration remarks during the show.

Starting with the opening keynotes on Tuesday, several RSA Conference speakers called for tech immigration reform and addressed Trump's recent executive order, which prohibited visitors, refugees and legal U.S. residents from seven predominantly Muslim nations from entering the U.S. Those nations are Libya, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Somalia, Syria and Yemen.

The remarks were at times subtle references to immigration and diversity, while at other times stronger critiques of Trump's actions. Zulfikar Ramzan, CTO of RSA, delivered Tuesday's opening keynote and got the ball rolling on the issue.

"Do we believe in the power of diversity? Can we address the complex cybersecurity challenges on the horizon and the massive staffing crunch that faces our industry and plagues it, if we continue to alienate half of the population across gender, race and culture? No," Ramzan said. "This year, in fact, we held our inaugural cybersecurity and diversity session at the RSA Conference. I'm asking you to join that conversation."

Brad Smith, Microsoft president and chief legal officer, offered more explicit comments on Trump's executive order and compared it to a different controversy featured at last year's RSA Conference: the legal battle between Apple and the FBI over encryption.

"Just as we came together last year in an important moment in time when everyone was focused on the Apple case, there is an obvious issue that is uniting our industry today that I think has some relevance as well," Smith said during his RSA Conference 2017 keynote. "As the country and world talk about immigration, they look at the technology sector and they recognize that, as an industry, we in many ways have brought the world together. We bring the world together in our technology and products and connections we forge with people across borders every day. But it's more than that. We almost uniquely have brought the world together under our own roofs."

Microsoft was one of more than 100 companies, including Google, Intel and Facebook, that signed an amicus brief opposing Trump's executive order and calling for tech immigration reform. Smith explained why the travel ban was particularly relevant to both Microsoft and the tech industry as a whole; he said Microsoft has employees from 157 different countries and that the company is like "the United Nations of information technology."

"And our company is not unique," he said. "Every company in our industry is like that. We have brought the world together. And it has put us in a position to forge perhaps almost a unique level of mutual understanding and respect for the needs of people around the planet. As we think about protecting the planet [and] as we think about addressing nation-state attacks, that is a powerful force that should inspire us and on which we can build."

Finally, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas.), chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, delivered the most extensive remarks on the topic during his keynote address Tuesday. McCaul initially praised the executive order and then days later qualified that support; he also found himself at the center of the controversy after former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani claimed he worked with McCaul as part of a commission to compose a "Muslim ban" for the Trump administration, which McCaul denied.

Before beginning his talk on nation-state cyberattacks Tuesday, McCaul tried to set the record straight regarding his views on immigration and Trump's executive order.

"This morning some of you are joining us from overseas, and for many others, you began your journey to America years ago," McCaul said. "I'm proud that our nation is a beacon of hope to people in all corners of the globe who seek to create, collaborate and innovate. Thank you."

"But in light of recent events in Washington, I know there is deep concern in this room about whether U.S. policies will continue to welcome that international talent. So let me say this, and we should never forget this: This is a country built by immigrants. This is a nation where the oppressed have long sought refuge, and our country is a magnet for creators and entrepreneurs who are willing to take risks and pursue their dreams. The United States must maintain that tradition, not only for our country's credibility but for the survival of liberty itself. That is why I will fight to ensure that America continues to extend an open hand to peaceful, freedom-loving people regardless of where they were born, regardless of how they worship and regardless of the color of their skin -- because that is who we are," he said, to audience applause. "And that is how we will attract the world's best thinkers to build a strong country and a more vibrant global economy."

McCaul also called for tech immigration reform, stressing the need for a "talented cybersecurity workforce on the front lines" and stating his support for H-1B visas.

"I believe America's doors must stay open to high-skilled workers who will contribute to our society and join us in building an innovation economy," he said, with the audience applauding. "And that is why I'm supporting efforts in Congress to streamline our H-1B visa process to make sure tech companies can get the right people from the right places at the right time."

While the conference itself saw no protests or disruptions regarding Trump's executive order, a pro-immigration rally occurred a few blocks away from the Moscone Center on Monday that reportedly included some RSA Conference attendees.

Next Steps

Find out what the cybersecurity skills shortage means for enterprise CISOs

Read what leaders in the open source cloud community think about the immigration ban

Discover how online recruitment software can boost tech hiring diversity

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