SAN FRANCISCO — Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg brought undocumented immigrants to Silicon Valley to “hack” for immigration reform.
Twenty immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally as children began taking part in a 25-hour “hackathon” Wednesday at LinkedIn’s Mountain View, Calif., headquarters.
The young software programmers broke into small groups to spend all night coming up with new applications as part of an effort to put the spotlight back on what they say is an urgent need for Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform.
Silicon Valley tech companies are pushing for legislation that would overhaul the nation’s immigration laws and loosen restrictions on visas for skilled workers such as engineers.
Zuckerberg called immigration “one of the biggest civil rights issues of our time.”
“We are at a critical moment in the movement,” he said. “It is really important to keep pushing ahead.”
Despite the technology industry’s efforts to put pressure on the Republican-led House to vote on immigration reform before the end of the year, observers say it’s likely that the issue will spill over into 2014 and possibly 2015.
“The tech industry has made some headway but not nearly enough” to blast through the bottleneck in Washington, San Jose State University political science professor Larry Gerston said.
Zuckerberg and other young technology leaders who have put millions of dollars into an effort to reform immigration may be big fish in Silicon Valley “but not when they start swimming with the big boys over in the Potomac,” Gerston said.
Joe Green, president of Fwd.us, Zuckerberg’s lobbying group, said Silicon Valley is not shrinking from the challenge of getting this kind of legislation — whether a comprehensive bill or a series of smaller bills — through Congress. The House has refused to take up the comprehensive bill that the Senate passed in June.
One of Fwd.us’ tactics is to influence the national conversation by showcasing enterprising young undocumented immigrants who surmounted steep odds to learn how to code, Green said.
Among the apps the “dreamers” are building include one that will help high-profile people share their support for immigration reform with their fans and followers on social media and another that would educate undocumented immigrants on their rights using virtual game play.
“We didn’t take this on because it’s easy. But we think there is a lot of common interest in getting this done, far more than the headlines suggest,” Green said. “Leadership from both parties have said publicly that they want this to happen. They need to get moving on it. But we do believe it will happen.”
Technology veterans including Zuckerberg, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman and Dropbox co-founder Drew Houston were on hand to advise the young coders Wednesday.
Zuckerberg organized his first hackathon in his Harvard dorm room, and Facebook employees routinely pull all-nighters to build new products and features. Fwd.us borrowed the concept from Silicon Valley as a way to draw attention to young undocumented immigrants who call themselves Dreamers.
Justino Mora, a 24-year-old UCLA student, said his group would focus on building a mobile app to tell people who their representatives are in Washington, where those representatives stand on immigration reform and ways in which people can take action, either by signing a petition or sending a message to their representatives.
Fwd.us has pledged to get the projects up and running.
“I am definitely frustrated with Washington but I haven’t lost hope,” Mora said. “I have a lot of faith not only in the democratic system but in the American people and in the immigrant rights community.”