Appearing at the premiere of a documentary on immigration reform in San Francisco last night, Mark Zuckerberg reiterated his position on immigration reform: he is for it, but the privacy settings on what that "it" means to his advocacy group FWD.us are set pretty high. Or — more accurately — which aspects of reform he emphasizes seems to be audience-dependent, save for his consistent support of more high-tech visas.
Zuckerberg appeared in San Francisco last night to introduce the film Documented by Jose Antonio Vargas, the journalist who revealed himself as an undocumented immigrant in 2011. The documentary profiles some of the young advocates for the reform proposals included in the DREAM Act — "DREAMers," as they're known — which would establish a pathway for undocumented minors to get permanent residency if they graduate high school and go on to college or enlist in the military. The bill has been blocked multiple times by Congressional Republicans.
Zuckerberg's introduction began with his story of working with undocumented kids in East Palo Alto. He then explained his goal.
People often talk about two parts of the issue — high-skill H-1Bs, the issues that tech companies have, and full, comprehensive immigration reform — as though they're two completely separate issues. But anyone who knows a DREAMer knows that they're not. The students who, no matter where they were born, coming into this country are going to be tomorrow's entrepreneurs and the people creating jobs in the country. … These are issues that don't just touch our part of the industry, but really touch the whole country and touch what is right to do as a people.
Zuckerberg knew the audience he was speaking to, an audience that included a healthy number of technology sector executives. He led with H-1B visa reform, which was also the focal point of the FWD.us roll-out. For a long time, tech companies have sought increased numbers of annual H-1B visas, a type of visa that allows people with specialized skills to live and work in the United States. For the companies, those visas allow programmers and scientists essential to their work into the country.
After years of pushing for that increase, FWD.us was formed to advocate for the sort of comprehensive reform to which Zuckerberg refers in his speech. In his Washington Post essay introducing the group, he outlined some of the elements he'd be pushing for: "Comprehensive immigration reform that begins with effective border security, allows a path to citizenship and lets us attract the most talented and hardest-working people, no matter where they were born."
Now, the group's about page spells out both a broader and less specific mission:
- Comprehensive immigration reform that allows for the hiring of the best and brightest.
- Education reforms that produce more graduates in the science, technology and math fields and ensure all children receive a high quality education from effective teachers and accountable schools.
- Support for scientific research, which seeds the future innovation of our knowledge economy, and breakthrough developments.
That sort of vagueness offers a lot of political flexibility, of course. It means that FWD.us' advocacy arm, Americans for a Conservative Direction, can run ads like this:
To say that this is tonally different than Zuckerberg's introduction for Vargas is an understatement. That sort of thematic flexibility led to ads from Americans for a Conservative Direction that didn't mention immigration at all, prompting early supporters like Tesla Motors' Elon Musk to leave the group.
Again: From a political standpoint, this makes sense. As the House tries to figure out what, if anything, it's going to do to advance the topic, FWD.us' ability to apply pressure where needed is valuable. It recently released an ad praising Rep. Mike Coffman of Colorado for switching to a position of support on comprehensive reform. In an opinion piece for the Denver Post, Coffman explained his new position. Included in it? "Reform efforts should facilitate a more fluid and workable visa authorization system so that temporary workers for both low- and highly skilled positions can obtain and renew work permits."
But FWD.us' flexibility can't help but raise a question that Zuckerberg has left largely unanswered. If Congress disagrees with his argument that H-1B visas and a pathway to citizenship are the same issue, if it advances a bill that does the former and not the latter, how will FWD.us flex?