By: Michelle Quinn
August 5, 2013 11:11 PM EDT
SAN FRANCISCO — Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said Monday night that the stakes with immigration reform are high — for both the tech industry and those who are undocumented.
“We believe this is important for the future of our country,” he said.
In the beginning, people advised him to keep the tech industry’s issues and the push for comprehensive reform separate, Zuckerberg said — advice he ignored.
He spoke before the screening of “Documented,” a film by and about Jose Antonio Vargas, a journalist and undocumented immigrant. It was the first time the Facebook co-founder had spoken publicly about the immigration push his advocacy group, FWD.us, has embraced. Zuckerberg introduced Vargas, who as a child was brought to the United States from the Philippines and is in the country illegally.
The event was also a pitch to House members — who have vacated the Capitol for the August recess — to keep up reform momentum. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) attended, as well as Groupon founder Andrew Mason, Silicon Valley investor Ron Conway, M.C. Hammer and San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee.
The comments marked a big political step for Zuckerberg, who especially before FWD.us mostly stayed out of the public limelight and instead focused on his social-networking firm.
In his traditional jeans and hoodie, Zuckerberg recounted how he was tutoring students in East Menlo Park, Calif., when he asked them what they worried about. One student said he was worried he wouldn’t be able to go to college because he was in the country illegally.
“This really touched me, and I hadn’t made the connection,” he said. The student said he hoped that “someone does something to rally the community and give us equal opportunity,” Zuckerberg said.
He said that moment spurred him to talk to tech industry leaders about addressing the issue.
FWD.us has received a lot of attention, including criticism of its efforts to appeal to conservatives in its campaign for immigration reform. Zuckerberg’s appearance at the screening was an acknowledgment of the more liberal case for immigration reform — the path to citizenship for the more than 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.
Until now, Zuckerberg has mostly kept a low public profile, giving a large donation to Newark public schools and enduring protestors at his home in Palo Alto, Calif., when he in February held a fundraiser for New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie.
That began to change in April, when Zuckerberg and his college friend Joe Green launched FWD.us, a bipartisan issues advocacy group that is focused at the moment on passing comprehensive immigration reform. Tech leaders such as Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and Google’s Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt have joined the effort. Zuckerberg announced the group’s creation with an op-ed in The Washington Post.
In its lobbying and grass-roots campaign, the group has advocated for the tech industry’s needs for more work visas and a better green card system as part of the push for comprehensive immigration reform. When the Senate Gang of Eight bill appeared to include aspects that would make it harder for tech firms to get visas, Zuckerberg made calls, including to Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).
FWD.us has sparked criticism over its tactics with some ads in support of conservative lawmakers on issues unrelated to immigration reform. One ad, for example, showed Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) criticizing President Barack Obama on the Keystone XL pipeline and health care. The organization also has produced ads touting border security and the law-and-order case for reform in an apparent appeal to conservative lawmakers.
In recent weeks, the group also has produced ads shoring up congressional leaders who support immigration reform. One video posted on the website of the group’s affiliate Americans for a Conservative Direction, and posted on YouTube on July 31, backs Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), who has shifted from being against reform to supporting it.
The group has held roundtables in Silicon Valley and in San Diego, New York, Chicago and other cities with tech executives and entrepreneurs talking about the immigration impediments they face.
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