On February 25, President Obama announced the White House would be "as aggressive as we can" in giving temporary resident status to 4 million undocumented people in the US. If you've been in the country for five years or more, have kids who are legal residents, and if you can pass a criminal background check, you are the kind of immigrant the President wants to keep around.
You are not, however, the kind of immigrant singled out by Mark Zuckerberg as worthy of a green card. In April 2013, Facebook founder Zuckerberg, along with early employees of tech Goliaths like Dropbox, LinkedIn and Microsoft, created the immigration reform non-profit FWD.us. FWD.us's mission: "Building a grassroots movement" of everyday people to pass immigration reform.
That may not sound particularly controversial, but some immigration and labor activists are calling out FWD.us for favoring a specific type of immigrant: White-collar tech workers whom tech world titans could pay less than their American colleagues. (Eventually, this could mean lower wages for everyone.) While about half of the 65,000 worker visas issued in 2014 under Zuckerberg's favored immigration program, H-1B, go to the tech industry, the other half go to people working in various other occupations such as architecture, food service, and health care.
In October 2014, the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) released the results of a year-long investigation, describing people who get H-1B work visa status as "indentured servants." If FWD.us gets its way, those numbers will triple in size each year (raising the annual number of new visas issued from 65,000 to 180,000). From the CIR's report:
“You can pretty much see a leash on my neck with my employer,” said Saravanan Ranganathan, a Washington-area computer security expert here on an H-1B visa. “It’s kind of like a hidden chain … and you’d better shut up, or you’ll lose everything.”
Under H-1B, workers who travel to the U.S. are often trapped working for lower wages than their American counterparts. Since the H-1B is not transferable to other companies, employees will get booted from the country if they leave their jobs. (This also puts them at a heavy disadvantage when negotiating raises or more flexible working terms.) Plus, many tech corporations — among them, Apple, Cisco Systems, and Verizon — use "job brokers" to recruit foreign workers, brokers who have a serious record of stealing wages, making positive negotiations with their employers vital to their financial stability and continued residence in the US. As the numbers of these visas keep growing (and the tech giants of FWD.us are banking on it), the ability to keep employees from aggressively negotiating will likely deflate wages for everybody, regardless of nationality. In February, the power utility Southern California Edison replaced hundreds of its IT staff members with H-1B workers who will be paid $40,000-$45,000 less per year than their American counterparts, according to DC's Economic Policy Institute.
Zuckerberg and friends pooled a reported $50 million in startup funds to launch FWD.us. So far, a lot of that cash has gone to the group's marketing budget. A current campaign, #Freedom2Innovate, incorporates quotes from politicians like Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat who represents Facebook's backyard in Northern California. On top of red, white, and blue graphics, Lofgren declares FWD.us's reform "will drive innovation in Silicon Valley and throughout the nation." Another FWD.us supporter, Rep. Scott Peters (CA), calls these favored immigrants "talented workers who are educated" who will "start innovative ventures." While all that marketing is helping to gain political support for more H-1B visas, it doesn't account for the many different lived experiences of immigrants in the US today.
Yasmin Nair is a writer and activist with the Chicago-based economic and racial justice group Gender JUST. For years, Nair has criticized the mainstream immigration movement's focus on "good" immigrants — the educated, "innovative" ones who Lofgren and Peters and Zuckerberg want to grant visas to — as opposed to the "bad ones" who didn't make it to college, don't come from nuclear families, and/or might even have a criminal record. As Nair wrote in a December 2013 takedown of the mainstream immigration reform movement:
There are real consequences to focusing so much on…simply ending the deportations of the "good" immigrants…an entire movement has had to shift the focus…from interrogating an exploitative system to making that exploitative system work more efficiently.
In an e-mail to me, Nair explains what those "real consequences" are, and how the creation of the "good immigrant" ideal has made it harder to help undocumented people on the ground. "I can speak from the experience of the many, many people I've worked with that it's impossible to even get an appointment at a small or mid-size immigration [law] firm if one does not have this kind of narrative to bolster one's case," she says.
"When you give the 'good' vs. 'bad' narrative a dollar, you are advocating for the mistreatment and criminalization of the immigrants that get left out," adds Luis Aguilera Garcia. Garcia organizes with GetEQUAL, an LGBTQ rights organization that is currently campaigning to free a Guatemalan transgender woman, Nicoll Hernandez-Polanco, from an ICE detention center in Arizona. (See Fusion's recent report on the mistreatment of trans asylum seekers for more on this issue.) Some immigrants simply don't have access to the "bachelor's degree or its equivalent" required under H-1B; effectively, the system perpetuates the disadvantages of those who can't afford higher education.
The most overt sign that Zuckerberg and gang are in the immigration reform game for more than just altruistic reasons came in 2013, soon after FWD.us's launch. One of the group's first efforts was to create a subsidiary group called Americans for a Conservative Direction (ACD). Leading up to the 2013 off-year elections, ACD dipped into FWD.us's robust coffers to buy thousands of dollars in TV ads for FWD-friendly politicians like Republicans Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio. It also bought ad time on conservative talk radio shows like Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, airing messages that are downright xenophobic.
In one radio spot, a WASP-y female voiceover actor worries about illegal border crossings:
Our border is unsecure, our laws are unenforced. We don't know who's here, what they're doing or even why.
Next, she namechecks right-leaning lawmakers such as Rubio and insists on upping the $10 billion-plus the US already devotes to regulating its borders every year.
It all starts with real border security: more fencing, more manpower and high-tech surveillance.
"To focus on border security rather than the criminalization, transphobia, and xenophobia against immigrants—I want to remind everyone that we are all immigrants," stresses Garcia. According to him, Zuckerberg and Co.'s list of priorities "is telling us that you do not care about our basic human rights."
Toshio Meronek is an independent journalist focusing on politics, the Bay Area, disability, and LGBT/queer issues.