By Monica Lam and Angela Hart
It’s always interesting when celebrities get involved in political debates. Often they’re mainly amplifying a message that others have articulated, and adding the heft of their reputation to that cause.
At Monday night’s screening of “Documented,” a film by undocumented immigrant Jose Antonio Vargas, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg weighed in publicly on the immigration debate. In remarks preceding the film, Zuckerberg talked about his evolution from a Silicon Valley entrepreneur with a stake in how many H1-B visas get issued to someone who wants to play a broader role in the debate — a debate that includes farm workers and less educated immigrants.
“These are issues that don’t just touch our part of the industry but really touch the whole country,” he told the 700 or so in the audience at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, an invitation-only event.
The overall message of the evening was that the youth — the young, the innovative, the daring — are behind immigration reform. Zuckerberg talked about his conversations with his wife, which he credits with getting him involved more personally in the issue. “Our dinner conversations were largely about Facebook on the one hand, and kids on the other,” he joked.
Introducing Zuckerberg was Joe Green, head of the nonprofit advocacy group FWD.us, founded by Zuckerberg and a roster of other Silicon Valley upstarts. Green, who was Zuckerberg’s roommate at Harvard, turned down the opportunity to help start Facebook and instead finished school and worked on John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign.
Green has come under fire for his group’s early forays into politics. But he seemed nonplussed, running onto stage with youthful exuberance, his curly hair waving and hip-nerd glasses perched on his handsome face. “It is extraordinary to look across this room and see such a diverse group of allies who all have a stake in immigration reform,” he said as he welcomed students and their families, elected officials and tech innovators.
Filmmaker Vargas, who was born in the Philippines, continued in the same vein. Earnest yet defiant, he wore a blazer and jeans, and talked about his love for his country, the United States. “I am an American,” he said. “I’m just waiting for my country to acknowledge it.” Vargas, who shared a Pulitzer Prize for his work as a journalist, revealed his own status as an undocumented immigrant in a 2011 New York Times essay, much of which is reprised in his film.
In the audience were many members of San Francisco’s progressive vanguard. City Attorney Dennis Herrera said he hopes the debate over immigration — a divisive one on Capitol Hill — can bring people together. “I think how we deal with the whole issue of immigration is critically important to who we are as a society and as a country,” he said.
City Supervisor David Campos, who recently announced his intention to run for State Assembly, said his own story as an undocumented immigrant is reflected in the film. “When I was growing up as an undocumented child, that was just not something we talked about,” Campos said. “It’s incredible to see all these faces here tonight, many of whom are undocumented themselves.”
Among the undocumented faces was Dean Santos, a student at Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont. “Vargas’ story is my story,” Santos said. “The more people we can get to put a human face on what being undocumented looks like, the better chance we have of moving forward as a country.”
Other big names in attendance included musician MC Hammer and NFL Hall of Famer Joe Montana. They entered the auditorium following a private reception held in a cordoned-off upstairs gallery of the arts center. Outside, a mobile photo studio took photographs that were later blown up in black and white and plastered on the walls of the center.
As the lights dimmed and the film began, the mood was rosy, with immigration largely viewed as positive. While there are many who don’t agree with this view, last night’s event pushed the FWD.us agenda: Immigration, as imagined by the talent of Silicon Valley, is as simple as letting other talented people into this country who will soon love it more than wherever they came from.