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Silicon Valley Bigwigs Make Another High-Profile Run At Immigration Reform

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Thursday, April 11 2013

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg marked the launch of his much-ballyhooed new Silicon Valley advocacy group on Thursday with a letter in the Washington Post, writing: "To lead the world in this new economy, we need the most talented and hardest-working people. We need to train and attract the best. We need those middle-school students to be tomorrow’s leaders."

The new political advocacy group, "FWD," is a 501(c)4 with a roster of staffers and backers to match the exposure from an op-ed in the national news. Rob Jesmer, the former executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, is on the payroll, and Marissa Mayer of Yahoo and Eric Schmidt of Google are two among a long list of bold-faced-name major contributors.

But this marriage of Silicon Valley pizazz and bipartisan spirit — joining Jesmer on the roster is NationBuilder and Causes co-founder Joe Green, the group's president, whose first political experience was on Secretary of State John Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign — is hardly Silicon Valley's first crack at Capitol Hill.

In fact, what's most notable about the group is that it was started at all. Technology companies have long had trade associations inside the Beltway to push issues like immigration reform, which FWD promises will be the first of several policy areas it takes on. But those groups have failed to gain any significant traction over the years because politicos have refused to address narrowband issues like skilled worker visas without including them in a wider, more politically divisive reforming of the immigration system. Immigration reform has long been a passion of many of the high-profile members of the technology ecosystem, from startup founders themselves, CEOs of large companies and venture capitalists.

"I don't think them coming in all of a sudden now is going to be a game changer for immigration reform, because we're pretty far along the road," said Rey Ramsey, president and CEO of TechNet, a trade group representing technology company CEOs in Washington, D.C.. "The Gang of Eight is going to be releasing something very soon."

Ramsey welcomed them all the same.

"What I like about them being part of the mix is that they, like us, recognize the importance of bringing founders, CEOs, and senior execs to bear, and that's a big part of what TechNet's approach is," he said. "They're just turbo-charging some of that with a lot of cash that they want to put into advertising, as they've stated."

It's been reported that the group's goal is to raise $50 million to power its campaign, which will presumably go to fund advertising as well FWD's "Washington, D.C. team," where Jesmer is joined by Alida Garcia, Obama for America's national Latino vote deputy director, Kate Hansen, coming from the Democratic Governor's Association, and Scott Sloofman, who was deputy director at the Republican National Committee's war room.

FWD also gets some tech-sector edge by using NationBuilder, the organizing platform that Green signed onto as a co-founder, to solicit volunteer sign-ups, present its case, and spread obligatory infographics on social media. (FWD's website appeared to be struggling under its traffic load Thursday, as it did not load all of its graphics for some users and showed a NationBuilder error message to others.)

Using NationBuilder as a platform, the group says, "The campaign will harness the best of new and old organizing tactics. We will use online social organizing, which many of our founders pioneered, to build a movement in the tech community, while engaging in direct advocacy at the state and district level to support members of Congress, regardless of party."

The U.S.' current immigration policy "kills startups," said Craig Montuori, founder of Politihacks, a policy and advocacy group that focuses on helping startups. "It's incredibly frustrating to see great teams who are clicking, and they're making something that people want, and they're on an upward bound track, and the data says these companies should not be failing."

Aside from Zuckerberg, Mayer and Schmidt, FWD has many of the most powerful and influential people in Silicon Valley listed as supporters, including venture capitalists Jim Breyer at Accel Partners, angel investor Ron Conway, Matt Cohler, a partner at Benchmark, John Doerr at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (who founded TechNet,) Reid Hoffman, co-founder and executive chairman of LinkedIn and Drew Houston, founder and CEO of DropBox, among others.

But it would be mythology to say these CEOs weren't already well represented in Washington. Late last year Congress passed a bill with two prominent beneficiaries: Netflix, which needed privacy laws to change so it could share users' viewing histories, and Facebook, which will be receiving that data. According to, Schmidt's Google spent more than $18 million on lobbying in 2012. And after many platforms blacked out their websites in January 2012 to take a stand on the Stop Online Piracy Act, an open conversation began in the Valley about whether more companies should expand their interest in D.C. from regulations to lawmaking. There emerged two schools of thought on how that might work: Through the traditional Beltway practice of peddling influence, or by lobbying users to intervene on their behalf as they did in the case of SOPA.

FWD promises to do both.

It would also be perpetuating a myth to say all of the software industry is of one mind on immigration visas. Some software engineers resent the H-1B process as a way to get access to programmers willing to come from abroad and work for less.

So the work is internal to the industry as well as external, to sway Washington and a broader public.

"Is there more work that needs to be done, and can they help in moving this forward? My answer is absolutely yes, because there are going to be members of Congress who will have to make what may be difficult votes given the demographics of some of their communities," says Ramsey, of TechNet. "They may be able to make a difference in making it easier for a legislator to take a particular vote."