(The Hill) – With the movement on immigration reform at a standstill in Congress, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and other top Silicon Valley executives joined together on Wednesday to urge lawmakers to press ahead with their work on fixing the country’s immigration system.
Zuckerberg, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman and Dropbox CEO Andrew Houston were on hand to help kick off a “hackathon” event at LinkedIn’s headquarters, where a group of 20 young immigrants who came to the country illegally as children, often called “Dreamers,” will spend the next 25 hours coding Web tools aimed at advocating for immigration reform.
“I think this is one of the biggest civil rights issues of our time,” Zuckerberg told reporters and the room of young coders from across the U.S. “We’re at a pretty critical moment in the movement right now where it’s really important to keep pushing ahead.”
The three tech executives, along with Groupon co-founder Andrew Mason and immigration rights advocate Jose Antonio Vargas, will judge the young immigrants’ final work on Thursday afternoon and determine which project wins for “best design,” “best advocacy app” and “best storytelling app.”
FWD.us, the political advocacy group co-founded by Zuckerberg that’s funded by many of the tech industry’s most powerful executives, is hosting the event to show Congress that it’s not backing down from its push for passing immigration legislation that includes a path to citizenship for the more than 11 million immigrants living illegally in the United States.
By highlighting the stories of the tech savvy “Dreamers” and the struggles they’ve faced because of their illegal status, the group, which counts Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt as contributors, is aiming to convince on-the-fence House Republicans that giving these young immigrants an avenue toward citizenship is good for the economy, and in alignment with the country’s history.
“Immigration is critically important to us,” Hoffman said. “It’s important to the U.S., not just the future, but it’s been a key portion of our identity and our past.”
“It’s the right thing. We are a nation of dreamers, the American Dream,” the LinkedIn co-founder added. “And it’s the right thing, in terms of economics.”
But getting an immigration bill to the president’s desk will be an extremely tall order. Last week Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) dashed any hopes of the House tackling immigration legislation this year after he said the lower chamber has “no intention of ever going to conference” with the Senate on the sweeping bill the upper chamber passed in June.
After the GOP’s image took a hit during the government shutdown fight, some tech representatives had hoped House Republicans would unite around moving immigration legislation to the floor before the end of the year. But with the federal government’s botched rollout of the ObamaCare website dominating Congress’s current policy agenda, immigration has more or less been punted to 2014, and some are planning for the issue to resurface in the spring.
Additionally, next year’s midterm elections will inject another dose of politics into the mix.
FWD.us co-founder Joe Green put a positive spin on the House pressing the pause button on immigration legislation, noting that 30 House Republicans had publicly come out in favor of some sort of pathway to citizenship after the August recess.
“This is the closest we’ve been [to passing immigration reform] since 1986,” Green said in opening remarks at the hackathon. “There’s still a long way to go to get legislation through the House, but a lot of progress has been made.”
Green later told The Hill House Republicans have told FWD.us that they intend to tackle the issue.
“I think they want to do it. We’ve heard that from their leadership; we’ve heard that from many prominent members, and we do really think they want to do that, but it’s time to get moving,” he said.
At the hackathon, there was also a hint that the fast-paced tech industry, which develops new gadgets and apps at breakneck speed, is getting a little impatient with how long it’s taking Congress to update the country’s immigration rules.
Dropbox’s Houston said lawmakers should look to Silicon Valley’s hackathons, where computer programmers work through the night to complete a big technical project, as an example of how to get things done.
“People would be shocked [at] what you can accomplish in 24 hours. When you go from talking about something and arguing about something to actually doing something … and I think our friends in Washington can take note of that,” Houston said.
Time was also the theme of a new set of ads that FWD.us rolled out this week.
“Americans are tired of empty rhetoric. It’s time for every leader to come through on their promises and fix our broken immigration system,” the ad says.
The tech industry has long pushed for Congress to make more visas and green cards available for highly skilled and educated foreign workers, arguing that they want to retain top foreign talent educated in the U.S. This time around, tech is joining the push with other industries and labor groups for a comprehensive solution.
Green said the idea for the hackathon was conceived after 19 year-old George Mason University student Dayana Torres met Zuckerberg after he spoke at an event hosted in Washington by The Atlantic earlier this fall. Torres, who came to the U.S. illegally with her family from Colombia at age nine, talked to Zuckerberg about coding since she’s majoring in computer science.
“I look up to him in terms of being a leader on immigration reform, but also for being a great programmer,” said Torres, who found out she lacked citizenship documentation when she was 14.
During the hackathon, the college sophomore said she’s working on a team that’s aiming to build an online map that features other “Dreamers” and their stories.
“The point of that is to inspire people who have just found out about their undocumented status — that they can get somewhere, and they’re not alone,” Torres said. “That’s exactly what would have helped me, so I’m so happy to be a part of a group of people who can provide this for new ‘Dreamers.’ ”