Policy

Mark Zuckerberg Flexes Silicon Valley's Political Muscles on Immigration


Mark Zuckerberg has spent much of the past year getting involved in political issues, from education in New Jersey to infrastructure development in Africa. His most prominent action is likely to come on immigration reform, which Facebook’s (FB) founder is pushing through the FWD.us group he formed this spring.

FWD.us had a rough start, and then immigration reform fell to the wayside as fiscal issues dominated debate in Washington. But with the government open again and the debt ceiling lifted, some observers think this is immigration reform’s moment. President Obama is pushing the issue hard, and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said on Wednesday that he may try to hold a vote on immigration reform by the end of the year.

The tech industry is jumping on the opportunity. Next week FWD.us and other business groups will meet with Republican lawmakers to push for new legislation, part of a broader effort by immigration-reform advocates. (A second group participating is the Partnership for a New American Economy, whose chairman, Michael Bloomberg, owns the company that publishes Bloomberg Businessweek.) Zuckerberg himself is hosting a hackathon for undocumented immigrants who want to help build tech tools that can be used by immigration advocates.

Silicon Valley’s main interest here is clear: Tech companies want to be able to hire all the talented foreign engineers they need. This means more H1B visas for high-skilled workers and an easier process for getting green cards for immigrants, once they’ve been hired. But FWD.us and others are making a point to talk up their support for things that have no direct impact on their businesses, such as a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. In one sense, this is just a reflection of Silicon Valley’s culture—pro-business with a socially liberal bent—but it’s also a political tactic.

“The only way to get high-skilled immigration passed, for example, is part of a comprehensive solution,” AOL (AOL) founder Steve Case said on Bloomberg TV. “It creates that broader political coalition that’s necessary to deal with it.”

Case has been playing an increasingly prominent role in Washington politics and is leading the effort to pull Silicon Valley into the fray, said Ali Noorani, the executive director of the National Immigration Forum. “It has worked for tech interests, as well as everyone else’s,” he says.

Things will be kumbaya next week, but the progressive wing of the immigration reform movement harbors suspicions about its allies in business. In the past, pro-immigration groups have blocked attempts by business to push smaller, self-serving bills on its own. And the specifics of the legislative path from here look designed to pull apart a wider coalition. Unlike the Senate, which passed a sweeping immigration bill in June, the House will deal with immigration issues by breaking them down into parts. This means that border security, temporary visas, and a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants will all be considered separately.

A former lobbyist who has advocated for business interests on immigration said this is a worrying sign that will give House Republicans an easy mechanism to leave the thorniest issues on the table while being able to say they’ve done something. The head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce recently told Buzzfeed he doesn’t think the House will pass a big immigration bill.

Noorani and FWD.us insist they’re not worried. Eventually, piecemeal bills backed by the House GOP will be packaged and reconciled with the Senate’s version. FWD.us takes the view that different approaches taken in the House and Senate amount to a question of process, according to a person familiar with the group’s thinking. FWD.us is focusing on the pressure that Republicans feel at a moment of extreme unpopularity. “All the fundamentals for why both of the parities should pursue immigration reform are still there, and in the case of the Republicans, they’re even stronger,” the person says. “This is a specific, tangible, and achievable thing they can do now.”

If not now, when? The window for change could be relatively small: At the beginning of next year, Congress will probably turn back to devouring itself over fiscal issues and then the primary season will kick off in earnest. In the end, immigration reform’s fate may not boil down to issues but to the as-yet unanswered question of whether Congress can do anything at all.

Brustein is a writer for Businessweek.com in New York.

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