Dreamer Kent Tam

Dreamer Kent Tam

“Does your mom know you’re doing this hackathon?” I say.

“It’s kind of hard with the language barrier. I don’t know how to say ‘hackathon’ in Chinese,” Kent Tam says.

“Does she know who Mark Zuckerberg and Reid Hoffman are?”

“No I don’t think so. She just knows Facebook as this thing young people go on.”

Kent Tam is a 24-year-old UCLA graduate. He was chosen for the prestigious, selective FWD.us Dreamer hackathon happening today at LinkedIn’s headquarters. When we spoke he was about to meet the dream team — Zuck, Hoffman, and Dropbox’s Houston. He had also just spoken to his mother on the phone, but he didn’t tell her what he was up to. “I don’t think she’s ever heard of Google,” Tam says laughing.

His smiles bely his difficult situation: he hasn’t seen his mother in six years or his father in ten. Because he’s a Dreamer — an undocumented immigrant brought to the US as a child — he doesn’t know when he’ll see them again. Leaving the US to visit them means getting banned from the States for a long time.

Tam moved here from Hong Kong when he was nine, after his parents split up and his mother needed the support of her family based in San Francisco. They overstayed their visa limit and decided to flout the law and live here permanently.

“People post hateful stuff [about Dreamers]. They don’t understand that when I’m nine and my parents tell me, ‘Hey  we’re going to America,’ I’m not going to be like, ‘Hey no I’m staying here,’” Tam says. “I’m 9 years old, what do you expect me to do?”

As Tam grew up in American schools, the country became more and more like his home. Eventually he reached a point where he knew if he returned to Hong Kong he’d feel like a foreigner.

Once he approached 18, Tam started applying to universities. Some schools accept students without a social security number, so his undocumented status didn’t stop him. He got accepted to UCLA, and around the same time, his parents reconciled. His mother decided that once Tam went off to college, she would return to Hong Kong to live with his father.

It was a hard decision. It meant leaving Tam, potentially forever.

Tam’s story is similar to many at the FWD.us hackathon underway at LinkedIn’s headquarters. As we’ve covered, FWD.us is an immigration reform lobby group with strong roots in Silicon Valley. With the backing of the likes of John Doerr, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg, it’s purported goal is to change the national immigration laws to make it easier for tech companies to hire skilled foreign workers.

Yesterday we took a look at the current FWD.us hackathon in the context of the group’s tumultuous history, examining how the PR stunt fits into the organization’s attempts to recover from early mistakes.

But today we thought we’d explore hacker Kent Tam’s story.

The Dreamers accepted to the hackathon — only twenty or so out of hundreds who applied — each have their own compelling tales of how the US’s byzantine immigration policy has impacted them. From students who had to turn down elite universities because they couldn’t take out loans to those who have been separated from their family for decades, the hackers provide an emotionally packed punch behind FWD.us’ immigration agenda.

More than that though, the hackers are representative of the untapped computer science talent that Silicon Valley could desperately use. Dreamers, after all, are practically American. Many of them have grown up in the States since childhood. Some didn’t even know they were undocumented immigrants until they went to get their driver’s license. So the FWD.us hackers — most of whom are studying computer science or programming in some capacity — represent homegrown talent that Silicon Valley hasn’t been able to hire because of immigration policies.

That said, the statement FWD.us is making with the hackathon is a little confusing. The law that keeps Silicon Valley from hiring Dreamers got subverted in June 2012. That was when Obama signed the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals memorandum (DACA). DACA allows undocumented immigrants who moved to the US before the age of 16 to get work permits. And with a work permit, they could get a driver’s license and stop fearing deportation around every corner.

Granted, it’s not even close to a concrete path to citizenship. The work permits are temporary, and not every Dreamer is guaranteed one. But those who do secure them are eligible to work for Silicon Valley. It’s a policy change that came about before FWD.us was even a thing.

Tam’s DACA work permit took a full year to process and just became official a month ago. In fact, prior to coming to the FWD.us hackathon he hadn’t flown on a plane since the age of nine. “What if they flip through my passport and ask, ‘Why are you here?’ I would rather err on the cautious side,” Tam says.

Six years ago, he moved himself into the UCLA dorms by bus, not plane, from San Francisco. He was alone, because he had said farewell to his mother at the airport a mere week prior. He remembers that day clearly. “I cried,” Tam says. “Even now when my mom calls me sometimes she’ll be sobbing, ‘I haven’t seen you in so long,’” Tam says.

He faced his fair share of obstacles once he got to LA. Without documents, Tam couldn’t get a steady job and had to scrimp and scrounge to get by. He also couldn’t get a driver’s license, a major problem in the public transportation-less city of Los Angeles. He took buses everywhere.

Although Tam loved LA, he missed his parents and struggled to make ends meet. He didn’t know any other Dreamers, and he didn’t feel comfortable disclosing his undocumented status to many people. There were moments he got close to giving up and hopping on a plane to Hong Kong. But he knew if he did that he wouldn’t be coming back to the place he had called home for most of his life.

After graduating with a degree in computer science from UCLA two years ago, he picked up contract jobs coding to get by. “I was doing contract work because people are less strict with having to see paper with contract work,” he says. One job in particular he’d commute two hours each way by bus.

It’s been a tough journey for Tam, but the story ends happily for now. Although he still doesn’t know when he’ll be able to see his parents, with his brand new work permit he was able to start interviewing at big tech corporations like Yahoo and Google. His dream companies.

If FWD.us winds up succeeding, people like Tam will have a much easier time getting citizenship. For Tam, that means seeing his parents without fear of being able to return to the States. After FWD.us’s early mistakes, it was easy to forget one fact: the human stakes of what it’s fighting for are high.