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The Rough Road to Immigration Reform

The tech sector’s much-hyped lobbying effort has largely failed. It’s time for new tactics.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

This piece was updated after publication.

After a slow start, Silicon Valley has come out in full force against Donald Trump’s immigration measures. Venture capitalists and CEOs tweeted offers to match their followers’ donations to the ACLU. Uber chief Travis Kalanick backed out of a role on a Trump advisory council due to customer outrage. More than 120 companies, including Apple, Facebook, Google, and Netflix, signed an amicus brief decrying the White House’s executive order temporarily banning immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries. And all of these actions still feel like a prelude to something bigger — tech leaders are reportedly building an anti-Trump political coalition that will boost progressive candidates and causes.

This isn’t the first time the tech sector has taken up immigration as a political cause. Silicon Valley has always been pro-immigration, but that stance was long born out of financial self-interest rather than principle. When Bill Gates was the face of the tech sector, he testified before Congress about the need for the United States to “liberalize” its H-1B visa program, which allows tech companies to recruit a limited number of highly skilled foreign workers every year. Mark Zuckerberg wanted this program expanded as well, but he also thought the industry should take a wider view of immigration and offer a dose of compassion for the millions of immigrants who won’t be landing jobs in the Valley anytime soon. In 2013, he and a cadre of Silicon Valley’s most powerful executives thought they could spearhead a bipartisan effort in Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform, which would not only help them remain competitive with international firms but also provide a path to citizenship for millions of vulnerable U.S. residents. They were wrong — big time — but a look back at why their lobbying powerhouse, FWD.us, has failed to achieve its goals helps illuminate the tough battle ahead for tech companies in a deeply hostile political environment.

“A really cynical view would be that they’re just interested in their own bottom line,” Tomás Jiménez, a sociology professor at Stanford University, says of FWD.us. “That might be the main motivator, but I do think there is a larger Silicon Valley ethos that gets captured by FWD.us, which is we don’t just want to do well, we want to do good.”

The organization launched at a moment when the power of tech to “do good” seemed, to many of its most powerful magnates, boundless. The sentiment was captured in a 2013 New Yorker story about FWD.us and tech leaders’ assuredness that they could guide — and perhaps one day replace — traditional government. “Everyone in FWD.us hopes it will go beyond immigration, over time,” LinkedIn and FWD.us cofounder Reid Hoffman told The New Yorker. “But, as with an entrepreneurial startup, if we can’t demonstrate that we can do something good about this problem, then what use are we to the other ones?”

But FWD.us is not a disruptive startup — it’s an organization that plays by Washington’s rules. It emerged at a politically opportune moment, when Republicans were still shell-shocked over how hard Latino voters had broken for Obama in the 2012 election. Its focus was on whipping up enough votes to quickly push an immigration bill through Congress. Instead of releasing ads championing reform, the group sponsored ads attacking Obamacare and celebrating the Keystone XL pipeline to appease the congressional Republicans who could’ve been convinced to support such a bill. The gambit angered liberal special-interest groups, some of whom boycotted Facebook, and turned off Elon Musk, who called the efforts “Realpolitik” and pulled out of the effort. But FWD.us stuck by the strategy, which was conceived by political operatives from both the Democratic and Republican ranks. “We’re using a wide variety of tactics, some of which may ruffle some feathers,” Chamath Palihapitiya, another cofounder of the group, told The New York Times, “but we believe the passage of the bill will be worth it.”

The bill died in 2014 as far-right conservatives seized more power in the House of Representatives. In 2016, the group’s biggest backers threw their support behind an amicus brief supporting Barack Obama’s legally contested executive order offering protections for 5 million undocumented immigrants. The plan was ultimately blocked after a Supreme Court deadlock. At the same time the courts were torpedoing Obama’s plan, FWD.us was in the midst of a reported $10 million grassroots campaign to fight Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant presidential run. That effort also failed. In terms of influencing legislative, executive, and judicial outcomes, that’s three strikes for Zuckerberg’s lobbying powerhouse.

Immigration experts stress that FWD.us has done a lot to bring immigration reform into the national spotlight and to link Silicon Valley’s business interest in skilled workers with a moral imperative to help undocumented immigrants. Those who take a long view of the political landscape also point out that the organization’s chances of quick governmental success were always slim. Since the turn of the century, reform efforts have stalled out no matter which party controlled the White House or Congress. “I’m not sure if we think of [FWD.us] as some special failure above and beyond the more general inability of any organization to get immigration reform passed at the federal level,” says Deep Gulasekaram, a law professor at Santa Clara University specializing in immigration law. “What’s happened since 2001 is immigration, much like many other national legislative topics, has become subject to the extreme polarization that you see in Congress.”

Under President Hillary Clinton, FWD.us might have spent the year angling for another shot at courting congressional votes. (“Voters are mobilizing and ready to use the ballot box to fight back against Donald Trump — and lay the groundwork for immigration reform in 2017,” Todd Schulte, the group’s president, wrote three days before the election.) Instead, the path forward is much more dire. Even as Trump’s immigration ban is stuck in legal limbo, drafts of potential executive orders limiting H-1B visas and deporting undocumented immigrants who use social services have leaked. Reform may come, but not in the direction that groups like FWD.us had hoped. “The strategy changes from trying to move things forward to actually trying to just prevent the worst from happening, which is a little bit different calculation,” Jiménez says.

Schulte says Trump’s threats to immigrants have galvanized more people to engage with the organization than ever before. Mobilizing people across the country to voice their concerns about U.S. immigration policy is a key focus for the organization. “We want legislators to hear about this on a regular basis,” he says. “Are we disappointed that we haven’t yet passed immigration reform? Absolutely. Are we optimistic that in the years to come we’re going to be able to do that? Absolutely. The reason for that is the American people are on our side on this issue.”

But with a GOP-controlled White House and Congress unlikely to be moved by pleas for mass legalization, Silicon Valley will have to adopt new tactics besides traditional federal lobbying. Hoffman and other tech leaders are reportedly planning to launch a new political organization tentatively called Win the Future, which will establish a platform to connect activists and help them crowdfund money for specific candidates and causes. FWD.us already has its own activist network, which extends to nine local chapters and has engaged more than 600,000 people to voice support for immigration reform. And states and cities are currently steeling themselves against Trump’s immigrant crackdown in various ways. California, for example, has introduced legislation that would provide legal services to undocumented immigrants, while cities around the country are declaring themselves “sanctuaries” where immigrants won’t be deported. “The federal government sets overall immigration policy, but even within that general construct, states and localities have a lot to say and can seriously influence the direction of immigration policy,” Gulasekaram says. “If you’re looking for actual legislative policy gains, I think that’s the place where you’re more likely to get them.”

Solutions won’t come easily, and given the Trump administration’s with-them-or-against-them mind-set, it’s possible that immigration reform won’t maintain its bipartisan appeal if GOP lawmakers align with the president. But if nothing else, FWD.us helped Silicon Valley articulate an inclusive political stance on this issue before it mutated into a full-blown crisis. So far, tech leaders seem to be following through on their word. “This is an urgent issue,” says Schulte, “and if we’re going to fix one part of this immigration system, we need to fix all of it.”

This piece was updated after publication to include comments from FWD.us president Todd Schulte and additional information about the group’s activist network.

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly identified the school Deep Gulasekaram teaches at; it is Santa Clara University, not Cornell University.