The sun had barely peeked out over the horizon on a cool Monday morning in April, and the line to get into the Supreme Court was already snaking around the great, pillared institution. It had been that way all night. And the night before that, as folks from across the country, huddled in their fleece blankets and folding chairs, gradually turned this patch of sidewalk in Washington DC into their own personal campground.
They were just hours away from the moment they’d been waiting for all weekend–or maybe all their lives–when they would finally have a chance to watch the eight robed justices hear arguments in The United States v. Texas. The court’s decision would determine the fate of President Barack Obama’s executive actions on immigration, which aimed to curb the deportation of undocumented immigrants who came to the US as children as well as the undocumented parents of US citizens.
More importantly, for many of the people standing in line, it was a case that would shape their own fates and the fates of their families. For Sophie Cruz, the pigtailed 6-year-old standing at the front of the line, this decision would determine whether her parents could be taken from her at any moment. Or not. For Jose Antonio Vargas, the undocumented Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist standing right behind her, it would mean finally being able to travel back to the Philippines to see his mother for the first time in 23 years. Or not.
And then there was Todd Schulte. Standing tall in a sharp navy suit and red-striped tie, the former chief of staff for President Obama’s Super PAC Priorities USA was as nervous as anyone about the day’s hearing. But unlike Vargas or Cruz, Schulte wasn’t there to fight on behalf of himself or his mother, his father, or his wife. Instead, he was there to fight on behalf of Mark Zuckerberg, Reid Hoffman, Bill Gates, and dozens of other bold-faced names from the technology sector.
Schulte is president of FWD.us, the D.C.-based advocacy and lobbying firm Zuckerberg launched back in 2013 to build bipartisan consensus around immigration reform. That means a path to citizenship for current undocumented residents; the expansion of high-skilled worker visas; and the creation of an e-verify system for new immigrants. With his deep connections to legislative and lobbying communities, Schulte has spent the last three years trying to reconcile Silicon Valley’s unique brand of scale-fast solutionism with Washington’s cautious, back-scratching pragmatism. Today, after a few years of disappointments, bad press, and high-profile departures, FWD has found its footing as a major player in the immigration debate, and Schulte now sees a real opportunity to pass comprehensive immigration reform in 2017. A lot of that has to do with his focus on organizing and messaging. A lot of it has to with the activists and grassroots workers who staff FWD.us’s nine field offices. And a lot of it also has to do with a politician whose anti-immigration policies are so radical, and so extreme, that he’s done more to galvanize bipartisan support for immigrant rights than all of Silicon Valley’s billionaires combined: Donald Trump.
A Rocky Start
For as much as Silicon Valley’s technocrats talk about changing the world, they also have a longstanding tradition of focusing on scientific or market-based solutions rather than legislative ones. Case in point: The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, which Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan launched last year. Through the CZI, the young couple plans to spend their substantial fortune–some $45 billion–on such broad goals as curing disease and personalizing education. Just this month, the group announced a $3 billion commitment to eradicate disease by the end of the century. Before that, Zuckerberg joined forces with Bill Gates on a project to invest in clean energy startups, the kind government funds don’t reach.
With these projects, Silicon Valley’s new kingmakers don’t need to beg for grants or kiss Senatorial ass. It’s the DIY approach to saving the world. But the country’s immigration system is a different beast. Tech billionaires can’t just invest in thousands of new visas. They need laws to back it up, and changing policy requires good, old-fashioned realpolitik lever-pulling. Which is to say: lobbying.
The early days of FWD.us have all the trappings of a Silicon Valley startup, right down to the poignant origin story. As the narrative goes, Zuckerberg was teaching a class on entrepreneurship at an after school program near Facebook’s campus, when he met a student who told him he wouldn’t be able to go to college because he was undocumented. “These students are smart and hardworking, and they should be part of our future,” Zuckerberg later wrote in a Washington Post op-ed about this aha moment. The Facebook founder called some of his fellow billionaires–LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman and venture capitalist Ron Conway among them–and asked them to invest in a new immigration organization that would help push a comprehensive immigration reform bill through Congress.
According to Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, tech leaders have long had a reputation for being in the immigration fight for themselves, interested solely in expanding the number of H-1B visas for foreign coders. Of course, that’s partly true, but according to Conway and others, Zuckerberg’s motivations seemed far more emotional. “He told me this moving story and said, ‘Will you support me?’ We’ve got to do something about this,” Conway, an early Facebook investor, remembers.
While Zuckerberg rallied the rich in Silicon Valley, he tapped his former Harvard roommate, Joe Green, as FWD’s first president, and Green sketched out a plan for how to conquer Washington. For that, Green turned to Schulte to be his second in command. The two had kept in touch ever since Green crashed on Schulte’s floor on his water polo recruiting visit at Harvard. Schulte brought years of experience working on Capitol Hill as a chief of staff for Rep. Scott Murphy (D-NY) and a knack for spin and messaging. (Ask Schulte, “How have things been with you?” and before long he’ll be talking about the “stark contrast” America faces in November.)
It didn’t take long for FWD to run into trouble. “95 percent of the blowback we got was in the first three weeks,” Schulte remembers.
At the time, FWD was spending millions of dollars advertising for Congressional candidates on both sides of the aisle who supported immigration reform. But often, those ads had nothing to do with immigration–they were merely in support of those candidates who were sympathetic to FWD’s mission. One spot, for instance, touted Lindsey Graham’s support for the Keystone XL pipeline to help get him re-elected to the Senate. To practiced DC hands, this was a perfectly logical, tactical move–Graham was a reliable vote in favor of immigration reform, and since he couldn’t campaign on that issue in the deep red districts of South Carolina, FWD chose to help him by promoting an issue that would fire up his constituents.
To Schulte, the move made total sense. “Lindsey Graham’s in favor of the Keystone Pipeline. Lindsay Graham’s voters in the primary are in favor of the Keystone Pipeline,” Schulte says. “We weren’t trying to change anyone’s mind.”
But to the Valley’s clean energy advocates, however, this was a betrayal of their core, collective values, and soon enough, famous founders like Elon Musk and David Sacks announced they were leaving the organization over concerns it was deploying the same morally dubious campaign techniques as some of DC’s biggest lobbyists.
After a little more than a year, FWD developed a reputation as an expensive mess, not because of incompetence but because it found itself at odds with the tech industry’s special brand of moral absolutism. “It was a culture clash,” says Jose Antonio Vargas, who profiled Zuckerberg in The New Yorker before coming out as undocumented himself and launching his own immigration advocacy firm, Define American. Of FWD’s tactics in those dearly days, Vargas says that “for some people it’s a very cynical way of looking at the world. But cynical works in DC.”
Conway considers that time part of the political learning curve. “It’s not something that Silicon Valley is used to,” he says of Washington’s transactional nature. “But FWD.us never thought for a nanosecond about folding its tent because this is too hard or this is pretty awkward.”
Schulte admits FWD could have “done a better job” explaining its strategy early on, but he doesn’t apologize for the strategy itself. “Look, I play to win,” he says. Besides, pleasing Silicon Valley was never really FWD’s goal. “We support people who I disagree with, personally,” he says. “Our job is to pass immigration reform.” By 2014, Green, who declined to comment for this story, resigned from the group, leaving Schulte to take over.
Even without some of its deep-pocketed backers, FWD still had $45 million to spend on pro-immigration reform ads in 2013 and 2014, according to one well-placed source. And though a high-profile bill eventually failed in the House of Representatives, FWD’s investment helped establish its DC bona fides. “FWD didn’t just say, ‘We’re going to send a press release that says we care about the undocumented community,'” says Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum. “They said, ‘We’re going to bring resources to bear that prove we care about the entire undocumented community.'”
That meant money, of course, but FWD also hosted a 700-person screening of Vargas’ film Documented. It convened a hackathon for undocumented coders at LinkedIn’s headquarters, attended by Zuckerberg himself. And it endeavored to showcase all the talent that goes unappreciated when people have to live in the shadows.
“When we’re talking about immigration reform and making sure the best and brightest and most creative can come here and start companies, FWD.us is really the cavalry,” Colorado Rep. Jared Polis says of FWD’s early days in Washington. “When it was time to bring in the cavalry, they showed up.”
Through it all, FWD remained decidedly bipartisan. It hired pollsters on both sides of the aisle as well as a Republican, Rob Jesmer, to be its campaign manager. It launched two subsidiaries: the right-leaning Americans for a Conservative Direction and the left-leaning Council for American Job Growth. It ran ads defending Republican New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, despite her pro-gun stance, even as it ran ads applauding Democratic New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen’s record on veterans. And in 2013, Zuckerberg, himself, donated $2,600 each to Republicans like Sen. Marco Rubio and Sen. Orrin Hatch, as well as Democrats like Sen. Chuck Schumer and Sen. Cory Booker. When pressed about FWD’s strategy, Zuckerberg proudly defended it. “That approach — of actually trying to work with people on both sides — is what makes us unique,” he wrote in a Facebook post. “It may sound crazy, but most political groups don’t do it.”
Until last year, FWD showed no interest in choosing sides in the red-blue divide. Then came a certain Republican nominee for president.
A New Face for FWD
It took Trump about two minutes into his campaign announcement speech last June to call Mexican undocumented immigrants rapists and drug dealers. But ask Schulte, and he’ll tell you it took 117 seconds. It sounds more immediate that way.
Schulte was about a year into his tenure as head of the group when he realized FWD needed to stand up to the unexpected Republican frontrunner. In the years since the immigration reform bill died in the House of Representatives in 2014, FWD had begun hiring DREAMers–undocumented people who came to the US as children–and advocating for President Obama’s executive actions for undocumented immigrants. The more Schulte got to know these people, the more his attachment to their cause grew.
“It’s fucking brutal to talk to volunteers who will show up and say things like, ‘I don’t want to go into year 33 being undocumented,'” he says.
Plus, Trump had name-checked Zuckerberg in his immigration plan, calling Sen. Marco Rubio Zuckerberg’s “personal Senator,” for his support of H-1B visas, which Trump said would “decimate women and minorities.”
So, by mid-August 2015, around the time Trump went on Meet the Press and said that the families of undocumented immigrants in the United States also “have to go,” Schulte lost it. It was just days after Schulte’s daughter was born, a late-stage delivery that required an emergency C-section, and as he sat in the hospital in the middle of the night, waiting to go home with his own family, he dashed off a memo to FWD’s funders and its staff excoriating “the anti-immigrant voices yelling for mass deportation.”
“It’s possible I was just going through the most stressful moment of my entire life, and fired off a nasty screed because of that,” Schulte says. But a few days and a little polish later, FWD published the memo in full. It was a risky move, at the time, considering that in August, Trump was still considered by many to be, at best, an aberration, and at worst, a joke. And while tech leaders have recently lined up in droves behind Clinton, back then, with 17 Republican candidates left in the race, few in Silicon Valley had publicly picked a team.
Zuckerberg, in particular, has taken great pains to appear neutral. As he should. He sits atop the most powerful media platform in the world. This summer when news broke that Facebook might be snubbing conservative news outlets in its Trending Topics section, Zuckerberg had to summon a coalition of conservative leaders to Facebook’s headquarters to make amends. The most he’s said publicly about the election, came during a speech at F8 earlier this year when he said, “I hear fearful voices calling for building walls. Instead of building walls, we can help people build bridges.”
But behind the scenes, Schulte says, FWD’s founders have “been involved in every major strategic decision we’ve made.”
According to Conway, who has personally donated to both Republican and Democratic members of Congress, they had already heard enough. “I would imagine that most of the founders and funders of FWD.us are horrified by Donald Trump’s comments,” he says. “On this issue, I think we have to be outspoken.”
Instead of spending tens of millions on advertising against Trump, which would barely dent the roughly $11 billion which will be spent on advertising this election cycle, FWD has spent about $10 million over the last year trying to counter the candidate’s anti-immigrant narrative by sponsoring grassroots activism around the country. That means holding voter registration events and hosting a panel of undocumented immigrants at the Democratic National Convention. It means creating videos about what life would be like under Trump’s deportation force. It means starting a celebrity-driven social media campaign with the hashtag #IAmAnImmigrant and sending out rapid response emails and Tweets each time Trump says something extreme about immigration. It means getting tech leaders, including Zuckerberg, to writing an amicus brief to the Supreme Court, announcing tech leaders’ support of Obama’s immigration executive actions. It means conducting poll after poll to show that the majority of Americans increasingly oppose Trump’s policies, and then taking those polls to Republican members of Congress who need to distance themselves from Trump if they want to stay in office. It means actually showing up on the steps of the Supreme Court–granola bars and poster board in hand–to rally with all those hungry, tired people. And it means letting those people do the talking.
Zaira Garcia is one of them. That day at the Supreme Court, it was Garcia’s face that was printed on the many posters and picket signs that flooded the sidewalk. And it was Garcia who choked back tears as she stood at a podium outside the court, telling thousands of people what it was like to live with the fear that her parents, two undocumented Mexican immigrants, could be deported at any moment. Garcia joined FWD last year to help lead the group’s chapter in her hometown of Austin, Texas, and since then, she has emerged as the public face of FWD, telling her story to anyone and everyone who will listen.
“I feel that my parents have a very beautiful story. It’s also a very sad story,” she says. “And it’s a story we don’t hear, because people are scared to tell it.”
Garcia, and others like her, are now a vital part of both FWD’s mission and its message. “People can support Donald Trump for a variety of reasons,” Schulte says, “but the number of people who want to say to Zaira or people who came here when they were two-years-old, get the fuck out of here, they’re low.”
In the end, the eight-person court split the vote, leaving Obama’s immigration legacy–and Garcia’s family–in limbo and laying the groundwork for the next president to chart the future course of immigration.
Throughout my reporting for this story, Schulte has repeatedly made one thing clear: that Trump is ultimately good for FWD’s cause because his policies are so extreme, they make immigration reform seem like the only logical solution in comparison. “Two-thirds of the Republican party supports what we’re trying to do,” says Rob Jesmer, FWD’s campaign manager and former executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “I think at some level the Republican party’s sick of talking about this, and they just want to be done with it.”
But this is about more than the message. What started as a political play on the part of Silicon Valley’s kingmakers and even Schulte has become an emotional one too, and FWD’s mission is now as tied to the fates of undocumented farm workers as it is to the fate of foreign technologists. It’s part of a broad coalition of immigration causes, and each time someone–like Trump–threatens even a branch of that coalition, FWD becomes that much more motivated to fight.
Of course if Trump does lose in November, Schulte and his team will celebrate. But, really, that will only be the beginning of another fight: the fight to take another pass at comprehensive immigration reform with new legislation in 2017. Just as it did in 2013, Zuckerberg, Schulte, and the rest of FWD.us. will try to find champions on both sides of the aisle to support a bill that will bring this debate beyond pure talk. Then the battle will begin again.