Fine, Zuck's Immigration Fix Favors Facebook. Here's How He Can Do Better

Mark Zuckerberg is now wading into that thorniest of political issues: immigration reform. In an op-ed for the Washington Post last week, the Facebook CEO told the story of a young "aspiring entrepreneur" who may not be able to attend college because the boy is residing in the U.S. illegally. 

His family is from Mexico, and they moved here when he was a baby. Many students in my community are in the same situation; they moved to the United States so early in their lives that they have no memories of living anywhere else.

Such students, Zuck says, "are smart and hardworking, and they should be part of our future."

Which is no doubt true. Only Zuckerberg's very attachment to the issue colors the general public's perception of it. Is "our future" — America's future — truly aligned with that of a man whose net worth is approximately $10 billion?

Zuckerberg fails to fully make the case that the reforms he seeks — reforms that will, not surprisingly, directly benefit Facebook — are also good for most of America. This is a missed opportunity. So is Zuck's failure to address underlying fears about Silicon Valley's immigration agenda with concrete action, both at Facebook and his new lobbying outfit.

Give Us Your Tired, Your Poor, Your Talented Specialists

Fairly or not, by repeatedly linking the larger immigration issue with "the Internet," as Zuckerberg does in his editorial, he appears less concerned with America's future — or even the future of those children residing in the U.S. illegally — and more with boosting the value of his own Internet concern.

By comparison, note that Apple boasts of all the jobs it has helped create throughout the country — manufacturing, sales, engineering and transportation. "From the engineer who helped invent the iPad to the delivery person who brings it to your door." Everybody wins. 

Even worse, Zuck's editorial likely only serves to exacerbate the general population's fears regarding the corporate takeover of the nation's immigration policies. Consider his calls for more H-1B visas:

Why do we offer so few H-1B visas for talented specialists that the supply runs out within days of becoming available each year, even though we know each of these jobs will create two or three more American jobs in return? 

How does expanding the H-1B program help America and not just the Valley? Zuckerberg fails again to make a strong enough case.

Contrast Zuckerberg's efforts with those of Laurene Powell, Steve Jobs' widow. Powell is a long-time supporter of the Dream Act, which aims to provide a "path to citizenship" for children residing in the U.S. illegally, provided they graduate from college or serve in the military. (Their families, too.)

The majority of these students are not likely to work for Facebook or in the Valley — nor to ever require H-1B support. Powell and the Dream Act group repeatedly focus on both the larger moral issue of offering a path to citizenship and the overall benefit of reform to America's economy.

In politics, especially, perception matters. Already, the New York Times has implied that those with H-1B visas are effectively "indentured.:"

Silicon Valley is battling in Washington to make the immigration process easier for thousands of people... many of them Indian engineers, while also pushing to hire many more guest workers from abroad. [Emphasis mine.]

How many underemployed engineers in the American midwest, for example, read those words and reflexively thought that Silicon Valley is on the hunt for cheap labor and nothing more?

Similarly, Om Malik writes that Zuckerberg's focus on "technology and innovation centric changes doesn’t take into account the harsh reality of post industrial society & its invisible victims."

InfoWorld, however, was blunt: "American tech workers lose out in H-1B lottery."

If Congress answers the tech industry's calls to raise the numbers of visas, it could lead to a hemorrhaging of American tech jobs.

How Zuck Could Really Lead The Way

In conjunction with the editorial, Zuckerberg and a veritable who's who of Silicon Valley have launched FWD.us (pronounced Forward U.S.), a lobbying group whose mission is to promote "comprehensive immigration reforms." 

FWD.us is calling for the following:

  1. Comprehensive immigration reform that begins with effective border security, allows a path to citizenship and lets us attract the most talented and hardest-working people, no matter where they were born.
  2. Higher standards and accountability in schools, support for good teachers and a much greater focus on learning about science, technology, engineering and math.
  3. Investment in breakthrough discoveries in scientific research and assurance that the benefits of the inventions belong to the public and not just to the few.

These are all lofty goals.

But to make their case with both the American people and Washington politicos, Zuck and his compatriots need to reach out to the rest of country and to demonstrate how "what's good for Silicon Valley is good for America." So far, this hasn't been the case.

Perhaps instead of building a massive new Valley headquarters, Facebook should instead first build the world's greatest telecommuting platform. Not everyone capable of helping Valley companies can live in the Valley.

FWD.us could also work aggressively to welcome and then train America's older engineers to code for Facebook and other Valley companies. For instance, it should consider supporting these short-term "coding boot camps" across the country.

The organization can better reveal how their proposed policy changes offer direct benefit outside as well as inside the Valley. Show how "job creation" is not simply defined as a high-paying professional job in the Valley, for example. Rather, detail how such jobs create opportunity that quickly reverberates across the larger economy. 

The issue of immigration reform, for the Valley and for America, is simply too important to allow it to be viewed as nothing more than another corporate lobbying effort.

Image of Mark Zuckerberg courtesy of Flickr. Ellis Island photo courtesy of Wikimedia