Mike Isaac

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The ZuckerPAC Says It Cares About All Immigrants, Not Just the Techies

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at the Facebook Home launch event.Silicon Valley has a problem. There are many jobs to fill, and not enough talented engineers to fill them.

That is, at least in part, why Mark Zuckerberg and a host of tech luminaries founded and launched FWD.us in the spring. It’s essentially a lobbyist group with the aim of enacting change in this country’s problematic immigration policies.

The group has faced harsh criticism since its launch. The assumption was that these technology giants — and Zuckerberg’s Facebook, in particular — were after little more than securing more coveted H1-B visas, essentially granting an influx of foreign, skilled technology workers to fill the Valley’s talent shortage.

FWD.us wants to fight that image — big-time. And to start pushing that point home, the group co-hosted the San Francisco premiere of “Documented,” a film made by writer and activist Jose Antonio Vargas, which chronicles his own struggles with being an undocumented immigrant in the U.S.

Zuckerberg himself delivered the opening remarks.

“We talk about high-skilled H1-Bs and full comprehensive immigration reform as if they are two separate issues,” Zuckerberg said at the premiere on Monday. “But anyone who knows immigration knows that they’re not.”

Zuckerberg began by telling the crowd of a few hundred Valley types, politicos and immigration activists about a semester he spent teaching a small class of Menlo Park students about entrepreneurship. After asking the class of about 18 middle-school students what they were most afraid of, one said he was scared about whether or not he would be able to go to college because of his status as an undocumented immigrant.

That, Zuckerberg claimed, is the reason he formed FWD.us in the first place.

“This really touched me,” he said.

fwd_usRedefining FWD’s public image is especially important for Zuckerberg and others who make up the group — including famed venture capitalist John Doerr, LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffman and Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer — which since its coming-out party has suffered public attacks from detractors.

Some, like the Stanford academic and writer Vivek Wadhwa, levied complaints that the Valley’s hubris has caught up to it, and that tech moguls couldn’t charge haphazardly inside the Beltway and expect to enact change playing by old-school D.C. tactics.

That’s a set of tactics that came to light in a particularly unflattering way in May, when it was revealed that FWD.us was backing a series of political ads for conservative lawmakers who support controversial policies like Arctic oil drilling and the building of the Keystone XL pipeline. At that point, the group’s pie-in-the-sky aspirations for immigration reform were tainted with the “business as usual” feel of D.C. politicking. So much so, in fact, that key supporters Elon Musk of Tesla and David Sacks of Yammer both withdrew support from FWD.us in a very public way.

Most of all, the group looks to shake off an image of self-interest that seems to pervade the Valley, the idea that its interests lie solely in procuring the next wave of talent from outside of the country, while using activist immigration reform concerns as a front for the effort.

“When we started Fwd., we insisted — as we insist today — at comprehensive immigration reform,” FWD.us President Joe Green said during the film premiere at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. “Immigration is who we are.”

The group isn’t going away anytime soon. Lawmakers have recognized the influence of FWD.us in D.C. And with the advance of the “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act” through the Senate — a bill that would drastically overhaul standing U.S. immigration policy — FWD.us will likely only ramp up its efforts in the days leading up to the bill’s eventual journey to the House of Representatives. (That is, if the bill ever makes it there.)

“When they said forward, it actually meant all of us,” filmmaker and writer Vargas said.

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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik