Todd Schulte has only one thing on his to-do list, but it’s a big one.
As the president of FWD.us, the immigrant rights advocacy group founded by Mark Zuckerberg, Schulte has long been focused on a way to shield the “Dreamers,” the children of undocumented immigrants, from being deported. But this week’s turn of events clarified that mission for him. “Tuesday,” he says, “was a devastating devastating, devastating, devastating day.”
On paper that repetition may seem trite, but in conversation it was an apt way to express the heaviness of the situation. That morning President Donald Trump had Attorney General Jeff Sessions deliver the news that his administration was rescinding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, the Obama-era executive order that shields Dreamers from deportation.
“There are no take-backs on DACA,” Schulte says, days after he and his team watched Sessions’s press conference from their office on Mass Ave. in D.C. Still, despite a sense of defeat, FWD quickly sprung into action.
The organization spent this week mobilizing its base–it held press conferences, highlighted its past research and advocacy work, and continued to put pressure on Congress to finally pass the Dream Act–immigration reform that would provide formal ways for children brought illegally into the U.S. to receive proper, legal immigration statuses, including permanent residency.
Schulte, a veteran Democratic political strategist, has been with the organization since its early days, some five years ago. Cofounded by Mark Zuckerberg, FWD has tried to become a prominent voice for immigration reform with tens of millions of Silicon Valley dollars in its coffers. But despite the support and a sympathetic Obama administration, the organization has stumbled and struggled in its efforts to pass sweeping legislative reform.
In the Trump era the fight is harder than ever. In speeches, the candidate and newly elected president would sometimes allude to rescinding programs like DACA, which forced FWD to shift from proactive to reactive.
Rather than counter the candidate himself, FWD spent about $10 million last year trying to fight his anti-immigrant narrative with a grassroots activist approach across the U.S.: voter registration events, panel discussions, videos, celebrity-driven social media campaigns, public opinion polls and reports—essentially anything it could do to make people care. At the same time it’s been walking a delicate tightrope of presenting immigration reform as a bipartisan issue while also facing up to the realities of a hyper-partisan president who opposes the issue.
Federal lobbying reports show that the group has spent about $390,000 on lobbying Congress this year, equal to what it spent during all of last year. It spent $480,000 on lobbying in 2015—the year that President Obama signed DAPA, or the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents order—and $720,000 in 2014.
Which is all to say that FWD–and Schulte–had a good feeling this week was coming for a while. “Since election night people like Stephen Miller and Jeff Sessions have been trying to force the president to do this,” he says.
“Most Of Them Have Never Spoken Out Before”
I first met Schulte earlier this summer at a FWD-run hackathon in lower Manhattan where young people were asked to build digital tools to protect the local undocumented community. After chatting for a few minutes about politics and his organizing, he brought up DACA. Schulte described the danger rescinding it would pose, and we talked about the difficulty of explaining issues like this to an already harried, overloaded populace. How does an advocacy group communicate to citizens that they need to call their lawmakers about one specific cause when there are a slew of issues–trans rights, environmental protections, racial discrimination, police reform–that also seem to demand our immediate attention.
Trump’s decision has forced the issue to the fore: The country cares about DACA, at least for now. Schulte says FWD is seeing a burst of newfound interest. In the last three days, the number of people visiting its website and using it to make calls to Congress was triple its previous traffic record, Schulte tells me.
With more people rallying around the issue, FWD has a clear message: “Either we pass a Dream Act or our country, starting on March 6, will lose 1,400 people a day–every one of them will be subject to deportation.”
It’s a bleak directive, yet it seems to be resonating with a larger number of people, and Schulte has spent this week trying to make sure everyone hears it. The coming weeks will mean more of that, including lobbying, meetings on Capitol Hill, press conferences, and various events. That’s all old hat; this time, though, FWD has a bigger audience and more supporters.
“We have over 600 business leaders around the world speaking out on this issue,” Schulte says, including Warren Buffett, Mary Barra, and Jeff Bezos. “Most of them have never spoken out before.”
In a Facebook post on Tuesday, Zuckerberg called the decision “particularly cruel”; the following day he held a Facebook Live event with DACA recipients, some of whom worked for FWD.
And while Schulte’s job hasn’t changed since last week, FWD now faces a very stark imperative: It has six months to light a fire under America’s ass in order to get an immigration reform bill passed. “I’m going to be working around the clock with this,” he says, skipping over the fact that his fervent round-the-country travel means he’s hardly seeing his 2-year-old daughter. “If we don’t get this done, the consequences will be devastating.”
All this with a team made up of a considerable amount of DACA recipients, or Dreamers. I ask about the emotional toll the political fight is taking on those employees. “I run an organization that is made stronger because we are allowed to hire DACA recipients,” Schulte says. “I am a DACA beneficiary,” he says, referring to his team. He pauses and adds, “it’s hard.”
For the Dreamers he works with, whose job is to advocate–as immigrants–for immigration reform, there’s a clock ticking. “I want to be supportive of them,” he says. He adds that the organization is preparing for the road ahead; “We’re doing everything we can to prepare for every eventuality.”
Despite the bleak outlook, Schulte remains optimistic. He points to more Republican allies coming out of the woodwork to voice their support in the last few days. “A lot of our job is continuing to highlight these voices,” he says. The other part is trying to force Congress to hold a vote. In spite of all of his and FWD’s efforts, the fate of reform and the group’s big ambitions will ultimately be determined by six months of political dealmaking—or quagmire.
“Either we will come together and pass a Dream Act, or head into a dark dark place.”