Published March 27, 2014
The luminaries of Silicon Valley may not be known for flexing their political muscle, but leaders like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates continue to push and prod Congress on one issue near and dear to their hearts (and wallets): comprehensive immigration reform.
This effort appears to be the largest campaign by the idealistic Silicon Valley community on a big national issue and is being led by Joe Green, who co-founded pro-immigration reform advocacy group FWD.us with Facebook (FB) CEO Zuckerberg in 2013
“In Silicon Valley, if you don’t like the way something works, you go around it. If you don’t like the taxi system, you build Uber. But you can’t go around Congress. It’s Congress,” said Green, who said many in the tech world find Washington “somewhere between confusing and disgusting.”
“Silicon Valley is the culture of ‘Why Not?’ D.C. is the culture of ‘Why?’ You’re always going up against institutional forces whereas in Silicon Valley you’re going around them,” he said.
FWD.us is among a diverse coalition of groups urging Congress to act on immigration reform, including the Chamber of Commerce, unions, religious organizations and countless think tanks.
The 501(c)(4) group is promoting a bipartisan policy agenda that includes education reform and supporting scientific research. But the focus right now is squarely on tipping the scales in the heated immigration debate.
Visa Reform Sought
“People always ask me why do a bunch of tech guys care about 11 million undocumented immigrants?” asked Green.
He pointed to Silicon Valley’s idealistic and entrepreneurial roots as well as the industry’s location in California, where immigration is a very real issue.
Green grew up in Los Angeles, went to a high school that was 40% Latino and had a friend whose parents were deported.
He said he remembers very clearly thinking: “This doesn’t happen in America. This isn’t the Soviet Union. Peoples' parents don’t disappear in the middle of the night.”
The tech industry is one of several that also rely on immigrants as a crucial source of labor.
Silicon Valley for years has pushed Congress for visa reform as a way to attract and keep talented foreign-born workers. The industry has pushed the U.S. to offer more H-1B visas, which allow U.S. employers to temporarily employ foreign workers in specialty fields of work.
”Why do we kick out the more than 40% of math and science graduate students who are not U.S. citizens after educating them?” Zuckerberg asked in a Washington Post Op-Ed last year. “Why do we offer so few H-1B visas for talented specialists that the supply runs out within days of becoming available each year, even though we know each of these jobs will create two or three more American jobs in return?”
In addition to Zuckerberg, founding members of FWD.us include Dropbox founder and CEO Drew Houston, LinkedIn (LNKD) co-founder Reid Hoffman, Jim Breyer of Accel Partners and Sean Parker, creator of Napster and founding president of Facebook.
Economic Benefits Eyed
Nearly a year into its existence, FWD.us has learned just how difficult it can be to get a major piece of reform through both houses of a very divided Congress.
“The politics are difficult,” said Green, who noted that 80% of Americans support immigration reform. “The 20% of Americans who are anti-immigration are really, really loud about it. You have a lot of Republicans in gerrymandered districts that are 90% white” and Democrats in red states who fear a backlash, he said.
Still, last year the U.S. Senate voted 68-32 with the support of 14 Republicans in favor of an immigration reform bill. However, the legislation remains stalled in the House of Representatives, where the GOP has pushed for a more piecemeal approach.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projects that the Senate reform bill would slash the U.S. federal deficit by $197 billion over the next decade and by $700 billion by 2033. The CBO also estimates that U.S. wages would be 0.5% higher in 2033 than under existing law after initially dipping 0.1% in 2023.
“Virtually every think tank in the city has said this would be good for the economy. It would eventually bring in 11 million new citizens who pay Social Security taxes and buy things,” said Greg Valliere, chief political strategist at Potomac Research Group. “There is a compelling case to be made that it’s good for the overall economy.”
Critics have argued reform would hurt the economy by dragging down wages and adding more people to the workforce. House Speaker John Boehner has also pointed to distrust that the Obama Administration will enforce a new law.
Changing the ‘Risk-Reward Calculus’
FWD.us has sought to overcome the political obstacles by deploying cash in support of lawmakers and candidates from either party who support immigration reform.
The group funds Americans for a Conservative Direction, which backs Republicans, and the Council for American Job Growth, which works in support of Democrats.
According to an analysis by National Journal, Americans for Conservative Direction spent $4.16 million on radio, cable and broadcast TV ads in support of reform between April and June of 2013. That’s more than all of the other groups spent combined either for or against the issue.
“We decided that district by district we are going to change the risk-reward calculus,” said Green.
Green, who said he works “very closely” with Zuckerberg, believes there is a “very good chance” the House will move on immigration reform later this year, especially once primary season is over.
Valliere believes there is no better than a 40% chance a deal gets done this year.
“There are still big obstacles to overcome. I think they are going to run out of time this year,” he said.
If Congress drags its feet on this issue in 2014, Green believes immigration reform could come next year.
“Every day this doesn’t happen there is a real human and economic cost,” he said.