A few minutes into the assault, the Dreamers’ smiles begin to fade and their eyes begin to dim. But still the reporters keep coming, cameras and mics thrusting at the group of undocumented immigrants, sitting in table clusters at the LinkedIn headquarters. Some of the teens and twenty year olds shrink in their seats, others begin robotically repeating their stories.
“I’m from Guatemala, I came here when I was four…”
“I had to turn down scholarship money for college because I didn’t have a social security number…”
“I haven’t seen my parents in ten years…”
It’s the opening hour of the FWD.us hackathon, a publicity stunt to promote the Silicon Valley immigration lobby group headed by Joe Green and backed by the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates.
Hundreds of Dreamers — undocumented immigrants who were brought to the US as children, and nicknamed courtesy of the DREAM Act — applied to the hackathon and twenty or so were chosen and flown to LinkedIn’s Mountain View headquarters for the event. They will spend the next 24 hours coding applications to “help” immigration reform: a virtual game that teaches undocumented immigrants their rights… a website to connect Dreamers in college to Dreamers in high school. As the event gets underway, Reid Hoffman, Mark Zuckerberg, and Drew Houston are walking around meeting the hackers and giving them encouragement for their projects.
“Hackathons are a historied part of what we do in Silicon Valley,” Zuckerberg tells the crowd. “The essence of a hackathon is that great ideas can come from anywhere. It doesn’t have to be from someone running a company or someone who is not from this country… that’s the essence of the American dream.”
The stories of the Dreamers in attendance are powerful and compelling. PandoDaily be running a profile of one of them — Kent Tam — tomorrow. One 19-year-old, Henry Lopez, told me the story of how he first learned he was undocumented. “I started asking the questions [my parents] wouldn’t really bring up. Why can’t we go on vacation? Why aren’t we seeing my grandma or my aunt?” His parents told him that if they vacationed to Guatemala, they could never come back. For a long time Lopez thought that anyone who went on a vacation to Guatemla could never come back.
Lopez isn’t the only one at the hackathon with a story like this. Several of them haven’t seen their parents in years. Others have had to turn down scholarships or university acceptance since they couldn’t take out loans.
The hackathon and its celebrity backers makes for an excellent story. Which of course is precisely the point. It’s a story that has brought the New York Times, Bloomberg and, well, PandoDaily to point our cameras and our readers towards FWD.us.
FWD.us could use the good press. The lobby group launched in March of this year with a seemingly simple purpose: to convince Congress to reform immigration laws to allow skilled immigrants to work in the United States. The purpose fit squarely with Silicon Valley’s dire talent shortage and struggles to find and hire qualified American developers.
But within weeks of its inception, FWD.us seemed to be stuck in reverse. Major supporters like Elon Musk distanced themselves from the group, which also suffered backlash after funding political commercials with anti-environment agendas.
As Hamish McKenzie reported here on PandoDaily, some began to question FWD.us’ tactics in pushing immigration reform at the expense of other issues, and worried that Joe Green’s leadership might botch the execution so badly that the money raised would go to waste.
Those were the sort of questions that couldn’t be answered immediately and, despite the negative press, FWD.us stayed its initial course. That’s not a surprise to those who’ve covered Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg has learned the art of apologizing, but almost never backing down. And despite the coalition of the powerful; this is still ultimately Zuckerberg’s cash and Zuckerberg’s college chum.
There were previously high-profile events like the premiere of the documentary “Documented,” by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Jose Antonio Varga, who was a Dreamer himself. And now, a hackathon ostensibly meant to throw technology at the problem…. or at least favorable press at it.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Many people in the Valley desperately want immigration reform and photo-ops are a big part of politics. Putting a human face on immigration was the entire point of Varga’s documentary. One problem: They apparently didn’t communicate the real end game to the Dreamers.
At the LinkedIn hackathon, the torrent of media attention is overwhelming, perhaps even baffling. 19-year-old Lopez told me he knew there would be reporters but he wasn’t expecting so many. After the initial onslaught, several of his fellow hackers have started refusing to answer questions. To the organization’s credit, the FWD.us staff members were quick to defend the hackers, turning away reporters when the hackers said they were done talking.
It’s not that the Dreamers don’t want to bring attention to issues around immigration, they’re just less keen to serve as talking heads, regurgitating their personal stories on demand. They’re here to hack, not to flack.