What the CEO of Facebook Has in Common With a Michigan School Administrator

They both see that the struggle over an immigration-reform bill is not just a question of partisan positioning. 

Yesterday The Atlantic's editor in chief, James Bennet, interviewed Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook at a public session at the Newseum in Washington. You can find more about the event, plus a full video of the interview, here. That is how I watched it last night, from Vermont. A clickable version of the first part of the interview (with pre-roll ad) is below.

The whole thing is worth watching, on topics ranging from Facebook's concept of privacy, to the NSA/CIA's concept of the same thing, to the tech elite's understanding and misunderstanding of American politics. But the segment that starts around time 5:40 in the clip above really drew my attention.

In it, Zuckerberg explains why he has become an advocate for cleaning up America's immigration laws -- which in turn was the reason he had come to D.C. for the first time in three years, to make a case to politicians. He said that he wasn't just motivated by the usual (and correct) tech-world argument that U.S. companies do better, and so does the U.S. as a whole, if America continues to attract and welcome an outsized share of the world's talent.

Instead Zuckerberg said that his views had changed after he began doing volunteer-teacher work in a local public school. He found that one of his best students wasn't interested in going to college, not for any academic reasons but because of a legal barrier. The student's parents had made their way to the U.S. illegally when he was little. He grew up here and sounded and looked like other American students. But because of his undocumented/illegal status, he would not be eligible for admission to most colleges or for financial aid if he did get in. As Zuckerberg learned, this limbo affects a lot of students who are already in America, whose only legal transgression was to have been brought here when little, but whose gray-zone status keeps them from taking a major step toward future employability.

I noted this point, and Zuckerberg's stress on it, because it was so similar to what I heard from a very different source. As I noted last month, Brian Davis, a career public-school teacher and administrator in Michigan, now supervises an increasingly "majority-minority"  public-school population in the small town of Holland, on the shores of Lake Michigan. Like any school administrator, he had his funding and standardized-test challenges. But a point he stressed to me was almost identical to Zuckerberg's. As a reminder from last month:

"The other big factor is the proportion of students and families who are undocumented." [Davis] said that -- by definition -- he didn't have a precise number, but "From talking with adults or asking students about their friends, the number is higher than anyone might expect. It could easily be 30 percent or greater."

Then he said, "The sad part is that we don't usually find out until it's time for students to apply to college. And then the students say, 'You know, I'm not really as interested as I used to be.' They have to fill out papers to be eligible for scholarships -- and unless you have the financial means to go to college without help, which most families don't regardless of ethnic background, that's the end of it."

"Say I have an older brother, who has just finished high school, and he finds out he can't go to college," Davis said. "What incentive is there for me to do well in school?" This is all the more so, he said, when the mother or father in the family is deported. 

I'm struck by how many press accounts of the struggle to pass an immigration-reform bill concentration on its ramifications for national politics. Will Republican opposition to a bill compound the party's problems in drawing a non-white vote? What does the standoff show about Obama's strength, or Boehner's, or Rubio's or Cruz's, or anyone else? Meanwhile, a billionaire from Silicon Valley and a public-school veteran from small-town Michigan see the ongoing reality of senselessly cruel disruption to young people who already live here, speak the language, and would like to improve themselves.