SAN FRANCISCO – Billionaire Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg formed a political action committee in early April aimed at changing the nation’s immigration policy, which he said was “unfit for today’s world.”
In the nearly four months since, Zuckerberg has hardly uttered a single public word about the issue or the new group, FWD.us, even as he took a beating from some liberals for his organization’s tactics.
That changed Monday night when he delivered his first remarks on immigration to a roomful of technology executives, elected officials, reporters and some of the immigrants whose lives would change if the Facebook executive and his supporters can persuade lawmakers in Washington to see things their way.
His foray into politics was brief, however. He spoke for only about five minutes. And Zuckerberg, who appeared at the West Coast premiere of the film “Documented,” written and directed by immigration reform activist Jose Antonio Vargas, chose to make largely personal rather than political remarks, recalling what drew him to the issue in the first place.
He said he was “touched” after meeting undocumented immigrants while teaching a class on entrepreneurship at a local high school in the Bay Area.
“After one of the classes, I asked the kids what they were worried about,” Zuckerberg, 29, said. “One of the students raised his hand and said, ‘I’m not sure I’m going to be able to go to college because I’m undocumented.’”
In another instance, he said, he asked how many of the students were born outside the United States.
“About half of them put their hands up,” he said. “It was impossible to tell the difference between them. There was no difference between them.”
The Facebook CEO also used his brief time on stage at an arts center in downtown San Francisco to combat the notion that his interest in the issue is based solely on a business-minded desire to hire more highly skilled foreign workers through a popular visa program.
“People often talk about two parts of the issue — high skilled H-1B visas that tech companies have and full comprehensive immigration reform — as if they’re two completely separate issues,” Zuckerberg said. “But anyone who knows a DREAMer knows that they’re not. The students who, no matter where they were born, coming into this country, are going to be tomorrow’s entrepreneurs and the people creating jobs in this country.
Activist Vargas, a former Washington Post and Huffington Post journalist who is, himself, an undocumented immigrant from the Philippines, chronicled his own journey to the United States and his struggle to cope with his status in the 90-minute film.
“I find his story so compelling,” said Zuckerberg, clad in his familiar uniform: a hoodie, jeans and sneakers.
He did not allude to the political wrangling back in Washington, where the Senate-passed immigration bill will face an uncertain fate in the House of Representatives when lawmakers return from the August Congressional recess. Nor did he foreshadow any of his group’s future plans.
Zuckerberg launched FWD.us, a 501(c)(4) committee, in April with the backing of a who’s who of technology leaders. He said Monday night that he was “really heartened to see just how easy it was to get so many of the leaders of a lot of the great companies out here to sign on to support not just the issues that benefit their companies but comprehensive immigration reform.”
But some Silicon Valley types who initially signed onto the venture, like Tesla Motors founder Elon Musk, severed ties with the group in protest of its decision to run television commercials praising lawmakers for opposing Obamacare and supporting an expansion of the Keystone oil pipeline and drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Those ads were an effort to give senators political cover to vote for the landmark immigration overhaul bill that passed in June.
Zuckerberg did not address the criticism during his remarks, either. But Zuckerberg’s friend, Joe Green, who runs FWD.us, called his former college classmate “one of the most deeply morally driven people that I have ever known,” praising him for his decision to reach beyond visas for technology companies.
“These are issues that don’t just touch our part of the industry but really touch the whole country,” Zuckerberg said, “and touch what is right for us to do as a people.”