By VINDU GOEL
November 21, 2013
Can 20 young programmers, all of them brought to the United States illegally as children, hack an immigration overhaul out of its deep freeze in Congress?
Probably not. But they’re sure going to try.
On Wednesday afternoon, the men and women, all in their late teens and twenties, convened at the Silicon Valley headquarters of LinkedIn, the business-oriented social network, for a 25-hour “hackathon” to develop software applications to spotlight the challenges faced by the nation’s roughly 11 million illegal immigrants and help push stalled immigration legislation. A wide-ranging bill has passed the Democratic-controlled Senate but has made little progress in the Republican-led House of Representatives.
Fwd.us, the Washington-based advocacy group that organized the event, also brought in some of its star backers to inspire and advise the programmers during the marathon. The luminaries included Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive and co-founder of Facebook; Reid Hoffman, chairman and co-founder of LinkedIn; Drew Houston, chief executive and co-founder of Dropbox; and Andrew Mason, former chief executive and co-founder of Groupon. (Employees of the sponsoring companies are also assisting.)
“We are at a critical point in the movement where it’s really important to keep pushing ahead,” Mr. Zuckerberg said in opening remarks to the group. “I think this is one of the biggest civil rights issues of our time.”
Mr. Hoffman noted that dreamers — immigrants and their children — have always been responsible for a large percentage of new businesses and new jobs created. “This is one of the things that is very core to our American identity,” he said.
The term dreamers also has a particular meaning in the immigration debate. The word is often used to refer to people who were brought to the United States illegally as young children, grew up here and consider themselves Americans. Last year, President Obama issued an administrative order that temporarily halted deportation proceedings for hundreds of thousands of such immigrants and allowed them to apply to legally work in the United States.
The energy of the young programmers at the hackathon was infectious, and their personal stories were certainly moving.
Sarahi Espinoza, 24, a Mexican immigrant who came to the San Francisco Bay Area with her family in her teens, was putting herself through community college when her father was diagnosed with stomach cancer. She said she dropped out of school and became a nanny to support him until he died in 2011. (Ms. Espinoza’s mother has been been back in Mexico for eight years to improve her own chances of winning legal status.)
Ms. Espinoza has taught herself to code and is now back in college while also working, legally, for the Girl Scouts of America. And on Wednesday, she was part of a team that was developing a comic video app that would allow people to shoot themselves doing something goofy and say “this is less crazy than not passing immigration reform.”
“You don’t want to go on an app and see sad, depressing stories,” Ms. Espinoza said. Instead, her team wanted to tap into the aesthetic of the TV show “Jackass” to draw attention to the issue of overhauling the country’s immigration system while making people laugh.
After listening to the group’s initial project description, Mr. Hoffman said he was looking forward to seeing the results. Comedy is risky, he said in an interview. “It will either work or it won’t work.”
Mr. Hoffman, who is a prominent start-up investor at Greylock Partners, said that by breaking the hackers into nine teams working on different ideas, Fwd.us improved the chances that someone would come up with something great. “One of the things about entrepreneurism is to have multiple shots on goal,” he said.
Other projects include a a visual guide to the challenges faced by illegal immigrants and a map that would show where members of Congress stand on immigration legislation, with a tool to make it easy for their constituents to contact them.
Demonstrations of all nine projects are scheduled to be shown on Thursday evening, with the tech executives and other judges picking the winners. (It will be webcast beginning at 10 p.m. E.S.T.)
“This is hard and nobody’s denying that,” Joe Green, president of Fwd.us, said in an interview. He was talking about overhauling the immigration system, but he might as well have been talking about programming, too.