Top Tech Philanthropists Take Different Tacks on Immigration

Earlier this week, Salesforce.com founder Marc Benioff and his wife Lynne announced a $500,000 commitment in support of immigrant children that have flocked to the U.S. in recent months from places like El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

The funding will be used to secure legal representation, trauma counseling and other services for unaccompanied minors who have ended up in California, and is part of a public-private partnership launched by the California Endowment that has currently raised more than $2 million.

This gift isn't surprising, falling in line with the Benioffs’ main philanthropic cause: helping kids. They’ve put more than $200 million in recent years into building state-of-the-art children’s hospitals in San Francisco and Oakland, and donated millions more to schools, libraries, health centers, and children’s museums. One can only assume that the “other services” they are supporting for these children include ensuring these kids are healthy and properly cared for.

Related: See IP profiles on Marc and Lynne Benioff.

The Benioffs aren’t the only tech philanthropists tackling immigration issues, though. In fact, the tech industry in general has long been supportive of immigration reform, particularly when it comes to fast-tracking immigration for highly skilled laborers, engineers, programmers, and scientists. So who are the other tech philanthropists taking on immigration? 

Mark Zuckerberg

Facebook cofounder Mark Zuckerberg is probably the most outspoken on the issue, since he waded head-first into the immigration debate with the creation of FWD.us in 2013. It quickly became one of the biggest and most active groups pushing for immigration reform.

It is interesting to see how Zuckerberg and the Benioffs have taken such radically different approaches to the same issue. While the Benioffs are focused on the immediate individual needs of children who are coming here alone, many of whom are travelling thousands of miles, fleeing violence in their home countries, Zuckerberg is playing the long game. Through his policy and advocacy group, he is looking for a big-picture fix that will provide a pathway to citizenship for those already here, reduce the strain on the system, and reunite families, all of which the organization claims will create millions of jobs, reduce our national deficit, and make the U.S. more competitive in a global economy.

Even though he’s chosen a different route, Zuckerberg’s motivation also comes from kids. While volunteering to teach a class on entrepreneurship at a school in Menlo Park, Zuckerberg asked students what they were most worried about. "I'm not sure I'm going to be able to go to college because I'm undocumented,” he recalled one boy saying. The response really stuck with Zuckerberg, and became a big part of why he decided to champion this particular cause.

"You will win people over in their hearts," Zuckerberg has said of immigration reform..

There have been mixed opinions on the tactics of FWD.us, which has caused some liberal groups to pulls ads from Facebook, and techies like Tesla Motors founder Elon Musk, and chief executive of social networking company Yammer, David Sacks, to cut ties. There have also been mixed opinions about how successful the group has been, though even FWD.us President Joe Green admits that with polarization and obstructionism causing immigration reform to stall out in Congress, the group is “down, but not out.”

Of course, Zuckerberg knew how contentious the issue could be when he got into it, and so do the Benioffs. "I am expecting to get a lot of negative reaction because of the politics involved," Lynne has said, although the Benioffs are focused less on the politics and more on the human need in an area where people are more open to the idea of immigration reform.

It should be noted that Zuckerberg is also involved in other initiatives that focus on the human dimension. Recently, for instance, he and Priscilla kicked in funding to support a new scholarship fund co-founded by Donald Graham, TheDream.US, that helps young immigrant youth in legal limbo, so-called DREAMERS, to attention college. (See our coverage here.) The couple's recent big pledge of $120 million to struggling Silicon Valley schools will also benefit the immigrant kids who are heavily represented in those schools. See IP's full profile of Mark Zuckerberg

Bill Gates

While Zuckerberg has been the most visible leader on immigration lately, some of the biggest money going to this issue has come from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Gates, of course, started speaking out on immigration long ago, coming from the vantage point of a top tech employer. Not surprisingly, he's been a supporter of FWD.us.  

But his foundation comes at the issue from other angles, typically through education, and it's made grants to a number of groups in this space, including kicking in millions of dollars for TheDream.Us fund mentioned above, supporting immigrant rights in the Pacific Northwest, backing immigrant integration in Florida, and supporting research by the Migration Policy Institute on undocumented youth and education. See IP's full profile of Bill Gates

Andrew Grove

The former Intel President, Chairman, and CEO was involved with immigration issues long before they had the high profile of the last several years. Having fled his native Hungary during the 1956 revolution, the immigration issue is more personal for him, which explains why he’s been supporting the International Rescue Committee in the Immigrant Legal Resource Center in San Francisco for more than a decade.

Grove has stepped up his giving in this area recently, too, supporting the same initiative that the Benioffs just donated to, as well as advocacy groups such as the New Americans Campaign and CitizenshipWorks. See IP's full profile of Andrew Grove

Laurene Powell Jobs

The widow of Apple founder Steve Jobs, and the ninth richest woman in the world, typically keeps her philanthropy low profile, but has been uncharacteristically outspoken on this issue.

Much like Zuckerberg, Powell was motivated through personal experience. A proponent of education, she created College Track to help underprivileged youth graduate from high school and succeed in college. Though the program was largely successful, she quickly learned that many of the students she was trying to help were undocumented, and thus ineligible for citizenship or for state or federal college assistance.

Describing the situation as "a purgatory that [these children continue to] find themselves in," and “one of these issues that seems discordant with what our country stands for," Powell Jobs commissioned Academy Award-winning filmmaker Davis Guggenheim to produce a 30-minute film entitled "The Dream is Now" to raise awareness and support for immigration reform, holding screenings for groups of elected officials and at college campuses across the country, and making herself available for interviews. See IP's full profile of Laurene Powell Jobs 

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So who else might get more involved on immigration issues? Well, we’ve already mentioned Elon Musk and David Sacks, but there are plenty of others who have given some indications they could step up, or are doing so already. Google cofounder Sergey Brin is one, though his support so far has been limited to helping Jews looking to escape anti-semitism. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings have been contributors to the FWD.us effort, though so far they appear to be content taking a more passive role. Pierre and Pam Omidyar have contributed to TheDream.US fund. 

Surely we've missed other tech philanthropists who are getting involved on immigration. Overall, it's hard to think of a cause that better reflects both the interests and values of a tech elite that, yes, needs skilled workers, but also wants to make the best of the human capital that is already in the United States and, at a broader level, believes deeply in an open global system.