Sarahi Espinoza Salamanca and her team of designers and coders have the next 25 hours to build a website. Not just any website, but one that’s engaging enough to influence the national conversation around immigration policy.
“What we’re doing now is making these really silly ridiculous videos,” Salamanca explains, “and saying ‘Hi my name is Sarahi and I’m about to pie myself in the face’ – and like I do it – ‘and what’s crazier than this? Not passing immigration reform.’”
We’re at the FWD.us “DREAMer Hackathon.” Twenty DREAMers and mentors from local tech companies, all in one big room, scrambling to write code that can inspire change: Things like a website for celebrities to share pro-reform messages, or an app that locates and tweets at your Congressperson.
There are about 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. The DREAMers here today come from all over the country. Sarahi Salamanca lives in East Palo Alto; her parents brought her there from Michuacan, Mexico when she was four.
“I didn’t know why we were crossing this desert at this night with all these people,” Salamanca remembers. “But then later as I became older they explained that they were coming here and we took that risk because we needed a better life and we could find that here in America.”
Salamanca went to high school in Redwood City. When she realized she couldn’t apply for financial aid at her dream school, UCLA, she enrolled in community college. But then her dad got sick, and she quit school to work. She’s back in school now, and has started her own website offering education advice to other undocumented students. That’s how she learned to code. She says she’s excited to be at the hackathon, but not because of the competition.
“The point here is not to see who’s gonna win and who makes the best thing, but to see if someone can make something to move reform forward,” she explains.
Surrounding the DREAMers are dozens of reporters. Off to the side, there’s a cooler full of energy drinks. And there’s also this other kind of energy, generated by the presence of the lords of Silicon Valley’s tech industry: Mark Zuckerberg is checking in with all the teams; LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman is walking around offering advice.
The jargon-filled conversations are a little hard for an outsider to understand. It’s also not immediately clear how these projects can affect national policy.
“I think there’s two main ways,” says Joe Green, head of FWD.us. The first way, he says, is to help the public understand what it’s like to be undocumented.
“And that’s what we’re great at in tech, is telling different stories and pushing them out through lots of different channels on social media, etc.”
Green says the second way to make change is to communicate directly with Congress. Still, sending tweets isn’t the same as convincing legislators to act.
“It’s probably never been more difficult than it is now to get major legislation through congress,” says Green. “But we’re not here because this is easy, we’re here because this is important.”
There are a lot of reasons the FWD.us founders say they care about immigration reform – and why Congress should care, too.
“About half of the top tech companies were founded by immigrants,” explains Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. “So these are issues that don’t just touch our part of the industry, but really touch the whole country and what is right for us to do.”
For Sarahi Salamanca, reform means possibly seeing her mother again. Eight years ago, she says, her mom got some bad advice and left the country to try to get a visa. She hasn’t been allowed back since.
“We were always told as kids that you’re not supposed to talk about where you’re from and that you’re undocumented for the same reason of the fear of being separated,” she says.
Salamanca recently qualified for DACA – Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. That’s the grace period President Obama granted DREAMers last year. It got her a social security number, a two-year work permit, and some reassurance that she won’t be deported, at least for now.
“It’s a little bit of relief but it’s not like the whole way through, where we’re, like, now we can be like the citizens and it’s fine,” Salamanca says. “We’re not there yet.”
At the hackathon, though, Salamanca can focus on doing something concrete to try and change her situation. She gets back to work.