It's no secret that California's agriculture industry relies heavily on migrant workers. But so do high-tech companies. Out of self-interest, Silicon Valley has long pushed for higher limits on H-1B visas that allow foreign-born techies to work at places like Google and Intel.
But now high-tech companies are pulling out the stops for immigration reform, convincing Republicans and Democrats that now is the time to do something big.
Led by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, the tech sector created a bipartisan advocacy organization called FWD.us (say: “forward U.S.”).
It has just one priority: “Right now we are all focused, all hands on deck, on immigration reform,” said Rob Jesmer, the organization’s campaign manager.
Jesmer comes with sterling conservative credentials -- until recently his job was electing more Republicans to the U.S. Senate. Now he's sharing an office with people who helped re-elect President Barack Obama.
“We have a Republican House, we have a Democratic Senate and we have a Democratic president. So right now, if you want to get something done in Congress, you have to work with both parties,” Jesmer said. “Some Republicans have a hard time understanding that. That’s true if you're a Democrat -- some Democrats have a hard time understanding that.”
FWD.us is working behind the scenes, lobbying key members of Congress, including ones facing tough re-election battles in states where immigration reform -- and Obama -- are not very popular.
As part of that strategy, the group bankrolled glossy television ads, at least one of which criticized Obama’s energy policies.
“And the president says, ‘I'm for all of the above when it comes to energy.’ Those are words coming out of his mouth, they don't come from his heart,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., says in one ad. “No Keystone Pipeline, no drilling in the gulf.”
The ad was ostensibly produced by an organization called Americans for a Conservative Direction. Politico reported in April that it’s an affiliate of FWD.us. FWD.us also has an affiliated progressive arm called Council for American Job Growth. While both arms have independent boards, they each receive funding from FWD.us.
That ad, and others like it, stirred up a firestorm among environmental groups. They objected to an advocacy group with Silicon Valley roots extolling what they call "dirty energy" projects that would contribute to climate change.
“Mark Zuckerberg and FWD.us should be able to push for issues they care about without throwing environmental priorities under the bus,” said Jeff Gohringer of the League of Conservation Voters. In protest of those political ads from FWD.us, the League of Conservation Voters pulled their ads on Facebook for two weeks.
“You can't take two steps forward on immigration reform and then turn around and take two steps back on environmental priorities,” Gohringer said. “(These) are things that Facebook should really care about, and Mark Zuckerberg as well, as a true innovator that cares about climate change.”
But Silicon Valley political operative Wade Randlett doesn't see it that way at all. Randlett raised big money for Obama and other Democrats. This week he was in Washington lobbying for immigration reform. And he's more than happy to join people with whom he disagrees on other issues, including green energy.
“I don't care where you sit in the boat. If you're pulling an oar in the right direction, fantastic,” Randlett said. “I don't care where else you are going for the rest of your trip.”
Getting something major done on this issue in this political climate requires lots of strange bedfellows, Randlett said. For example, groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and organized labor both support immigration reform but for very different reasons, ranging from family reunification to economic competitiveness.
“We've got everybody from FWD.us to Catholic bishops working on this issue and everybody in between,” Randlett said.
Silicon Valley's emergence as a political player has been gradual. In their early years, high-tech companies avoided the federal government, hoping the government would just leave them alone.
Eventually Silicon Valley’s lobbying focused on issues of direct concern, such as industry regulation, protecting intellectual property and H1-B visas.
But their current involvement signals a fundamental shift, said Dan Schnur with the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at USC.
“What we're seeing now is Silicon Valley interested in and involved in advocating for issues -- not only those that impact their own bottom line, but rather those that have a much broader and more sweeping impact on American society,” Schnur said.
It's significant, Schnur said, that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg took the lead in creating FWD.us, taking up the mantle of first among equals.
“In the 1990s it was Bill Gates. In the first decade of the 21st century it was Steve Jobs. In this decade it's Mark Zuckerberg,” he said. “And what Mark Zuckerberg does professionally, commercially and politically tends to define how the Valley's going to act in those areas.”
Monday night in San Francisco, Zuckerberg and FWD.us will wade further into the immigration debate.
At the screening of a sympathetic film about illegal immigrants, the Facebook CEO will introduce the director, who is himself undocumented -- a nod to the more liberal part of a broad coalition supporting the most comprehensive changes to immigration law in nearly 30 years.
News Fix: What Is Mark Zuckerberg’s FWD.us?