With A Little Help From Mark Zuckerberg, Joe Green Applies High Tech Strategies To Immigration Advocacy

Joe Green of FWD.us speaks onstage at the TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2013 at The Manhattan Center in New York City.

Joe Green of FWD.us speaks onstage at the TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2013 at The Manhattan Center in New York City.  (2013 Getty Images)

Joe Green, a 29-year-old, bespectacled Silicon Valley tech whiz, is not what you envision when you think of an immigration advocate. Even so, Green, Mark Zuckerberg’s roommate at Harvard and the sixth user on Facebook, is becoming a major player in the immigration reform fight, combining social media, high tech and political advocacy to build momentum for a comprehensive measure that would provide a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants and expand visas for foreign workers. 

Green is co-founder and president of Fwd.us, a political advocacy group funded by Zuckerberg and other high-tech executives, and he recently spoke to Fox News Latino about navigating D.C. politics and how his interest in immigration issues developed.

FNL: It is said about you that even in college, you were interested in political issues, political causes,  combining that with your interest in technology. How did interest in politics begin?

JG: When I was a kid I got interested in politics.

I went to Santa Monica High School, there were 3,500 kids, minority-majority.  It was a very diverse environment. I had a lot of friends who were undocumented.

I ran for the Santa Monica School Board when I was 17, and I got elected.

(Green’s campaign focused on a living wage for Santa Monica hotel and restaurant workers, many of whom were immigrants.)

When I got to Harvard, I realized that [the diversity at Santa Monica H.S.] was a rare experience.

At Harvard I got a chance to study with Marshall Ganz, who worked alongside Cesar Chavez. I was taught old school community organizing.

What you learn is that community organizing is all about friendships. And the Internet is all about relationships.

I ended up being someone who cares a lot about politics who also worked in tech.

(Barely out of his teens, Green started several online projects that combined social media and political causes. Among them were Causes, which used social networking to raise money for nonprofits, and NationBuilder, which facilitates political organizing.)

FNL: High tech increasingly is getting involved in the immigration reform movement. Many people say it’s driven by a desire to find workers. Explain the role of high tech on this divisive issue.

JG: High tech is a very idealistic community, interested in making changes [for the better].

But it is also a very politically disconnect community. The folks in tech are somewhere between uninterested and suspicious of Washington. Their single biggest challenge in growing their companies is finding the right people. In the start-ups I had, 75 percent of what I spent was on payroll. You’re constantly struggling and competing to find the right people.

We’re in this transition from the industrial era to the knowledge era. We as a country have to adapt to that. What are the policies we can pursue to make the knowledge economy more inclusive?

(Early this year, Green teamed up again with his old Harvard roommate, Zuckerberg, persuading him to get involved in the issue of immigration reform. The result was Fwd.us, a political advocacy group that has as one of its key targets changes in immigration. The group is funded by Zuckerberg and several other high-tech executives.)

FNL: Tell us about Fwd.us and its involvement in immigration reform.

JG: When I was working on NationBuilder, I got to know a lot of political operatives. I said “What could we do to be helpful [in the immigration reform push]? If we helped, what would it look like? We have people in tech who are willing to devote a lot of resources.”

When you look at the immigration reform issue through an outsider’s eyes, it’s not really a policy challenge. It’s a political challenge.

[Fwd.us’s involvement] would have to be [about] helping to create political support. So we came up with this structure, that is pretty unique, built on being political, but being on both sides. It was important that we had credibility. As a bunch of tech guys, they [politicians] were probably not going to trust us.

(Green and others with Fwd.us have met several times this year with both GOP and Democrat leaders in Congress.)

The Republicans said “We can’t be in the position of helping Democrats.” And we heard the same thing from Democrats.

So we created “Americans For A Conservative Direction,” and we also created a liberal group. They’re separate groups, with separate boards and directors, but we fund all of them. The conservative group decides how to help Republicans (who advocate for immigration reform) in their own language.

FNL: Many people with more conservative views object to parts of immigration reform, particularly parts that focus on expanding work visa programs and providing a pathway to legal status for undocumented immigrants. What would you tell them?

JG: I’ve had the chance to speak at tech conferences in other countries, and the thing you hear over and over again is that the biggest difference they see between their countries and America is embracing risk and acceptance of failure. It’s OK to fail in America. If you’re an entrepreneur, that’s really important. That comes from being a nation of immigrants.

My grandfather’s parents came from a little village in Romania. They’d never been two or three miles from their village, but they decided they were going to get on a ship for several weeks to go half way around the world, to a country they never even seen a picture of. Everyone and everything they’d ever known they would never see again.

That is riskier than starting an entrepreneurship; if you left everything behind, what do you have to lose?

My ancestors did not have any formal education when they left their home countries. That’s true of most people who come to America. As entrepreneurs, we identify with that. We should encourage people who have that will. Why put artificial roadblocks?

FNL: Fwd.us recently made the headlines for holding a hackathon in Silicon Valley for more than 20 young college-age undocumented immigrants who worked on programs – focused on immigration reform – with you, Mark Zuckerberg, other executives and coders. One of the most notable things was that you all stayed with the immigrants during nearly the whole time, working with them on the projects.

JG: Mark and Drew’s [Houston, founder of Dropbox] reaction on stage showed that they were genuinely impressed. We were blown away.

All the [immigrant] teams finished, and they finished with something impressive. In a typical hackathon, only 30 or 40 percent of teams actually finish.

What’s amazing about those kids is that they have overcome big major obstacles – not getting financial aid, not being able to attend college at in-state tuition [rates]. That grit and determination that comes out of that experience is something that you can’t teach. Hackathons are really about how much grit and focus you have.

FNL: You and Zuckerberg and other CEO’s at the hackathon picked three winners. What has happened since, and what happens from here with those kids and projects?

JG: Many of the groups want to keep working and we want to keep helping them. We have a large online distribution ability.  

FNL: There were high expectations about immigration reform passing this year, but that fizzled. Congress is very divided on the issue. Do you think it can still happen?

JG: Immigration reform is one of the most important political things we can do. It’s the right thing to do morally. Even Republican primary voters support this issue. It’s time to do this. Every moment you wait there’s a real human impact.

There’s a lot of stuff that America is not the best at, but when you travel around the world you see that America is pro-immigrant. That is not something that people in most countries share.

You can’t become Japanese, or French. We are better than almost anybody else at welcoming people from around the world. But here’s the idea that here, you can become American.

Elizabeth Llorente is Senior Reporter for FoxNews.com, and can be reached at Elizabeth.Llorente@Foxnews.com. Follow her on Twitter @Liz_Llorente.