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How Billionaire Techies Hope To Reshape The Immigration Debate

The immigration policy overhaul group founded by Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg is considered the most well-funded immigration reform group in the country.
Bloomberg via Getty Images
The immigration policy overhaul group founded by Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg is considered the most well-funded immigration reform group in the country.

This post was updated at 10:25 pm E.T.

The immigration-reform advocacy group founded by Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg — (pronounced "forward U.S.") — and funded by fellow Silicon Valley entrepreneurs including Microsoft's Bill Gates and Yahoo's Marissa Mayer — is rolling out a plan for the 2016 election that will include "substantial" investments in battleground states.

This primary campaign season, the immigration conversation has been dominated by hard-line rhetoric about border walls, mass deportations and birthright citizenship, and now Donald Trump's Muslim immigration ban. FWD.us says it's trying to refocus the conversation on comprehensive immigration reform.

"We are making the case over the next year that immigration reform needs to be something that gets done right away under the next presidency," said
Todd Schulte, president of FWD.us. "That starts with making clear the awful and absurd policies of mass deportation that we're hearing."

FWD.us won't be targeting a particular candidate. But with a focus on mass deportations, it's clear one immediate target for these tech billionaires is a fellow billionaire — Donald Trump, and the immigration rhetoric his campaign has sparked this primary season.

"The stakes are incredibly high," said Schulte. "Embracing this mass deportation agenda is absolutely toxic."

Schulte said the rules of the game have changed since the 2014 midterms, and this election cycle, there's a whole new side to the immigration debate.

FWD.us would not disclose its spending plans, but it is considered the most well-funded immigration reform group in the country.

In 2013 and 2014, FWD.us spent $10 million on digital, radio, tv and cable advertising, according to a spokesman with the group. Schulte said the group intends to spend similar amounts of money this election cycle. Records indicate it also spent $1.3 million on lobbying activities in 2013 and 2014.

"One role that FWD.us did is put a big voice out there on TV, with a serious amount of money behind it, to fill a void that otherwise exists on the campaign airwaves," said Elizabeth Wilner, who tracks campaign ads with the research firm Kantar Media. "It's not typical of something we've seen in the past," she added. "It's only fairly recently that business has made it their business to take a side."

The group's current mission this election season does not focus on huge ad expenditures; instead, FWD.us is working on voter education through research, engagement and polling, with just one lofty goal in Schulte's words: "Pass immigration reform right out of the gate under the next president, plain and simple."

FWD.us launched in 2013 with a splash (and an estimated $50 million). It was considered an ambitious big-money venture with the potential to legitimately move the dial on comprehensive immigration policy overhaul.

"In a knowledge economy, the most important resources are the talented people we educate and attract to our country," Zuckerberg wrote in an op-ed announcing the group. "A knowledge economy can scale further, create better jobs and provide a higher quality of living for everyone in our nation."

But the group made some rookie mistakes out of the gate with early ad buys and roundtables that reportedly alienated key constituents.

And then comprehensive immigration overhaul hit a roadblock in the House of Representatives, which failed to pass legislation. As it became increasingly clear that immigration legislation was stalled, the group seemed directionless.

Now, there's a newfound immediacy to FWD.us and its mission as immigration policy has become an increasingly partisan issue in the primary season.

At the same time, groups trying to limit immigration, such as NumbersUSA, are also pouring resources into the election.

And, if you've watched any of the debates recently, you might have noticed one of their ads:

In fact, Wilner with Kantar Media says she has historically seen more TV ad spending against immigration than for immigration.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Asma Khalid is a political correspondent for NPR who co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.
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