SAN FRANCISCO -- Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg is bringing young undocumented immigrants with engineering chops to Silicon Valley to “hack” immigration reform.
Twenty young immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally as children are taking part in a “DREAMer Hackathon” on Wednesday at LinkedIn’s Mountain View, Calif., headquarters.
The young coders will break into small groups to build technology during the marathon programming session to push Congress to pass immigration reform. Technology veterans including Zuckerberg, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman and Dropbox co-founder Drew Houston will be on hand to advise them, and Fwd.us, Zuckerberg’s lobbying group, has pledged to get the projects up and running.
Zuckerberg organized his first hackathon in his Harvard dorm room, and Facebook employees routinely pull all-nighters to build new products and features. Now Fwd.us is borrowing the concept to press for a comprehensive overhaul of the nation’s immigration policies.
Among the young immigrants who will code for 24 hours straight is 24-year-old Justino Mora from Los Angeles.
Mora’s group plans to build a mobile app that will 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.
Mora said he is excited to meet Zuckerberg and the other technology leaders.
“They have an amazing record in the tech sector. They know what works,” he said. “We have a different type of experience. We come from communities that are dealing with a broken immigration system. The combination will come up with very powerful tools that are going to change the discussion on immigration.”
The hackathon comes as Fwd.us tries to refocus attention on the issue of immigration reform, which has stalled in Washington. Zuckerberg’s group wants to change U.S. immigration policy and loosen restrictions on visas for skilled workers such as engineers and scientists.
“We hope that momentum coming from our hackathon — and the technology it creates — can help move immigration reform forward,” Fwd.us President Joe Green said in a blog post announcing the hackathon.
Zuckerberg visited Capitol Hill in September to press members of Congress in private meetings to support an immigration overhaul. The legislation has bogged down in the GOP-led House of Representatives months after the Senate passed a bill that eventually would grant citizenship to millions of undocumented immigrants.
Zuckerberg wrote in an op-ed piece in the Washington Post in April that he was inspired to launch Fwd.us after teaching a class on entrepreneurship in an after-school program.
“These students are smart and hardworking, and they should be part of our future,” Zuckerberg wrote.
Mora crossed the U.S. border illegally from Mexico with his mother, brother and sister when he was 11, fleeing poverty and physical abuse from his father.
He worked his way through high school and graduated with nearly a 3.9 grade-point average. He was a captain of the cross-country and track-and-field teams and a youth group leader with his local Catholic church.
Mora said he was thrilled to get acceptance letters from his “dream” colleges, only to realize that because he was undocumented he was not eligible for financial aid. He attended community college instead.
He became involved as a political activist for immigrant rights, including the California Dream Act, which gives undocumented students state-funded scholarships.
Last year he received authorization to live and work in the United States as part of the reprieves granted by the Obama administration to young people who were brought to the U.S. by their parents. Mora went to the White House along with eight other immigrants in May to tell his story in person to President Obama and Vice President Biden.
Mora said he had never seen a computer before he came to the U.S. In community college, he took his first computer science class.
Now he builds websites and he is pursuing a double major in computer science and political science at UCLA. He says one day he wants to open his own business that would put technology in the hands of advocacy organizations.
“What motivated me was what my mom taught us: that education is the key to success and to a better life, and that education allows people not only to improve their own skills but also stand up for one’s rights and to advocate for the rights of the community,” Mora said.