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Hacking Away: Tech Companies Enlist Immigrants to Put a Face on Their Message 

Wednesday, Nov 27 2013
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If Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg intended to drum up sympathy for his immigration-lobbying group, FWD.us, he couldn't have picked a better representative than 24-year-old Sarahi Espinoza. Perky, doe-eyed, and petite, she stood before a throng of journalists last Wednesday at LinkedIn headquarters in Mountain View, the setting of Zuckerberg's pro-immigrant hackathon, DREAMerHack. He and other FWD.us strategists had set forth 20 undocumented immigrants to sit for 24 hours and code, while TV cameras rolled in the background and campaign flacks gushed about them on Twitter. FWD.us had cast the event as a first step toward reform. Critics deemed it a Silicon Valley sideshow.

Espinoza, who works as a Girl Scout instructor while attending community college in nearby Los Altos, was happy to serve as an ambassador. Standing before the crowd in a dress shirt and beret, she told a heartfelt story about coming to the U.S. from Michoacan, Mexico, at age 4, and resettling in East Palo Alto. She'd attended grade school in Redwood City and nursed dreams of going to UCLA, until officials at the Federal Financial Aid office explained that as an undocumented immigrant, she'd be ineligible for funding. Then Espinoza's father got stomach cancer, and she deferred enrollment at Foothill College in order to take care of him. Instead of studying computer science, she took a low-paying job as a nanny.

At this point in the narrative, she burst into tears. Zuckerberg, who was sitting behind her with FWD.us' other founders — Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn, Drew Houston of Dropbox, social entrepreneur and campaign president Joe Green — knitted his brows anxiously. After half a minute of silence, the audience applauded. Espinoza wiped her nose.

"I am one of the million undocumented people in this country whose family is separated due to this immigration system," she said. Her mother is back in Tijuana with no Internet access, and a green-card petition apparently stuck in limbo. Her father passed away. Espinoza finally resumed her first semester of community college this year, launched her own website, and said she hopes to code her way to a better life.

"For some of us in this room, immigration reform means a secure future, a permanent solution to our lives that doesn't include the fear of deportation," she said, glancing up from her notes to punctuate the statement. "Thank you for fighting for our families' future, and let's get to hacking." Zuckerberg beamed.


In all likelihood, his campaign will do little to help Espinoza. But she's already done loads to help him. Maligned for its self-serving approach to political policy, FWD.us faces derision from progressives and various Silicon Valley oligarchs who've defected from its ranks — including Tesla CEO Elon Musk and Yammer CEO David Sacks. Opponents say that although the campaign pays lip service to comprehensive immigration reform, its real objective is to raise visa quotas for cheap, temporary "guest workers" from India, so that they'll depress IT wages overall.

Progressives balked in April when the campaign began running ads to support such conservative hobby horses as the Keystone XL pipeline and drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It seemed that the Valley's newly minted billionaires were content to tack from one side to another, so long as they pushed their own agenda through.

No surprise, then, that FWD.us' biggest enemy isn't the power structure on Capitol Hill; it's the tide of public opinion. Its strategists have adopted an insistently rational view of political partisanship, forming separate liberal and conservative branches to curry favor with politicians across political lines. Both Green and Zuckerberg preached about "clearing a path to citizenship" during their opening remarks at DREAMerHack, though they failed to explain what the phrase means. In reality, it seems, their goal is to cut labor costs and spread the idea that social media will set us all free. Especially if they could farm out that job to 20 undocumented immigrants.

Given its hawkish aspirations, FWD.us must have known it needed a soft public face — someone a little less polarizing than Mark Zuckerberg. It found that in Espinoza and several other hackathon attendees — called "dreamers" in the campaign's branding argot. One of them, a 19-year-old Guatemalan named Henry Lopez, also regaled the crowd with pieces of his autobiography during the hackathon's keynote ceremony. Lopez wore a gray blazer and a T-shirt with the word "Undocumented" printed below its neckline. He said that in middle school, he learned that college would not be a possibility — but that he eventually got a scholarship to George Mason University anyway.

"About three weeks ago, if anyone told me that Mr. Zuckerberg would be introducing me to share my story, I would completely repudiate that," he said.

Hoffman, Zuckerberg, Houston, and Green all listened raptly. No matter what happened during the 24-hour hackathon that followed, their message had already resonated. Five days later, President Obama would stump for immigration reform in San Francisco's Chinatown and rehash many of FWD.us' talking points.


Hackathons — timed competitions in which teams of programmers collaborate on software projects — once enshrined all the most populist elements of Silicon Valley culture. Traditionally, the idea was to put a group of geeks together, ply them with caffeine, and allow great inventions to materialize. Neuroscientists have used hackathons to build applications that study the human brain; food economists have challenged hackers to solve problems in the meat industry. The city of Palo Alto holds its own hackathon each year to promote civic engagement in the ascendant tech economy.

Yet as the form grew increasingly mainstream, its purpose also shifted. These days, it's common for hackathon sponsors to treat these events as branding exercises rather than laboratories for innovation. Look no further than the Dreamforce hackathon at Moscone Center last week, where two Stanford alumni clinched a $1 million grand prize by making a mobile app on the Salesforce.com platform. But Zuckerberg and his ilk managed to add a new layer of crassness by turning DREAMerHack into a tech-themed press junket, powered by immigrant programmers who would help soft-pedal the campaign's message.

It seemed to work. Reporters at many outlets were spoon-fed stories about hackathon participants, "dreamers" all, who'd come to the U.S. from Guatemala and Mexico, most of whom are unlikely to benefit from FWD.us' proposed legislation. A 2012 report by the Department of Homeland Security showed that 64 percent of the guest workers granted H-1B visas last year came from India. Only 1.2 percent hailed from Mexico.

The three winning teams at DREAMerHack created a slew of products that FWD.us has promised to help market, among them a viral Facebook app, a video game, and a smartphone app to help people call their local congressmen. But the event's real winner was Zuckerberg, who treated the whole event as a giant photo-op, and managed to be seen glad-handing with as many undocumented kids as possible. Espinoza and Lopez both left empty-handed, but in all likelihood, they'll stay on message.

Meanwhile, Espinoza's mother remains in Tijuana, awaiting an update on her green card petition. According to the 24-year-old coder, the petition is caught in a broken system.

About The Author

Rachel Swan

Rachel Swan

Bio:
Rachel Swan was a staff writer at SF Weekly from 2013 to 2015. In previous lives she was a music editor, IP hack, and tutor of Cal athletes.

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