Despite setbacks, tech industry presses on immigration reform

March 26, 2014, 1:00 PM UTC
A Central American immigrant riding on top of a freight train en route to the Mexico-U.S. border in August 2013

FORTUNE — Facing long odds, the U.S. technology industry is continuing to push Congress to enact comprehensive immigration reform this year.

The effort, led by Joe Green, president of the bipartisan group, got off to a rocky start. After it ran ads in support of the Keystone XL pipeline and in opposition to the Affordable Care Act to give cover to conservative Republicans who came out in support of immigration reform, came under fire from many prominent Silicon Valley figures who support environmental causes. Some members even left the group.

Despite the setbacks, the well-funded continues to press on. This week, it highlighted polls that suggest Republicans will not be hurt with their core voters for supporting immigration reform, and organized ThinkFWD events in San Francisco and New York to highlight issues like the role of the tech industry in strengthening the middle class.

Green spoke with Fortune’s Miguel Helft about the organization’s efforts. Below, an edited transcript of the conversation.

Fortune: It does not look like immigration reform will pass this year. What’s the plan? This has been the defining issue for

Green: We disagree with the premise of the question.

You think it can pass?

I do. When we started this, our basic analysis was that this issue was a fundamentally political challenge. There is a large amount of policy consensus among members of Congress. If you look at the undocumented, which is the politically most difficult part of this, all but a handful of people believe we are not going to deport 11 million people. So we should legalize them. There is some questions to how and if they should become citizens — we believe that they should be able to earn citizenship.

The political fear on this is that Republicans in gerrymandered House districts could lose a primary [if they vote for comprehensive immigration reform]. All of our work has shown that’s unfounded.

I do think most members of Congress believe it is the right thing to do economically, ethically for the country, and both parties have political reasons to do it.

Hasn’t House Speaker John Boehner said a vote is unlikely on this?

He said it is going to be challenging. He put out his principles and clearly got some pushback from the Republican conference. But when I was in Washington, I met with a lot of conservative Republican members who are saying, “This is something I want to do.” This is not an electoral issue for Republicans. There are a few Republicans who could lose their race if they don’t support immigration reform, people in heavily Latino districts. There is nobody who is going to lose their race because they do support immigration reform. Because of that, this is the perfect time to do it.

If this makes so much sense, why is the consensus that it’s dead for now?

If you believe that Republicans want to do this, and you look at when it could happen, it certainly won’t happen in 2016 in the middle of a presidential election. So it’s either now or early next year. And in many ways, it is easier to do it now than in 2015. I believe the logic will prevail. It’s up to the Speaker. If he wants to hit “go,” they can hit “go.” The votes are there.

What is the tech industry doing to get the Speaker to hit “go”?

We are doing the same stuff we have always done, which is a combination of support and pressure.

We’ve been building lots of tools. In November we did this hackathon of “dreamers” [undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children]. Mark Zuckerberg, Reid Hoffman, Andrew Mason, and Drew Houston were coding alongside them. The hackathon was all about building tools around immigration.

One of the tools they built was Push4Reform. It’s a profile for every member of Congress and where they stand on immigration. Then we attached advocacy tools, to let you Tweet, post on Facebook, call, and a letter-writing tool — you can write a letter, we will then print it and mail it to your congressman. We’ve had SEIU send it around.

We just launched Push4Reform en Español. That tool has been extremely useful.

Is there any thought of separating broad immigration reform from the issues the tech industry really cares about — those around H1B visas and green cards?

From our inception, we’ve been a group about comprehensive reform. Mark [Zuckerberg] had been publicly asked, “If you had to choose between more H1B visas and a path to citizenship …” — and it’s unequivocally the path to citizenship.

I believe you do need to solve this issue holistically. I don’t think you can, or should, separate those things.

Despite some optimism, there is a possibility that reform won’t pass this year. What’s the strategy if it doesn’t happen?

We are going to keep at it. Should this move into a 2015 issue, we are going to be there. We are fortunate that we are pretty well resourced. I am very proud that you have a lot of the people in tech putting up a lot of their own money on behalf of some of the least powerful people in our society.

A lot of your funders are powerful businesspeople. When they want something to happen, it happens. Have they talked to you about their experience with this?

They are people in the business world who are used to what they want happen. But they are also entrepreneurs. When they were starting out, everyone told them they were wrong. The single most important trait of an entrepreneur is the ability to ignore everyone who is telling you you are wrong and keep moving ahead.

What other issues does care about?

The big question facing America and the American economy is we are transitioning from a primarily industrial economy to a primarily knowledge-based economy. There are a lot of really good things about this, but it creates a lot of challenges. If we cannot figure out how to reinvigorate the middle class and reinvigorate the American Dream, we are in real trouble. As the tech community, as folks who both are benefiting from this change and also understand it, that it is our responsibility to help people make that transition.

We have no intent in taking on any other legislative priority before we are done with immigration reform. But my hope is that in the future, we can identify other issues that the tech community has a perspective on, and we can really bring some support to bear.

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