Carlos Vargas and his fellow immigrant techies faced a challenge — how to drive home for the American public the experience of being here undocumented, and the flawed immigration system that often works against solving the problem of 11 million people living off the radar.
The challenge was put to them by Fwd.us, a political advocacy group co-founded by Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg and that has among its top issues an overhaul of the immigration system.
Vargas was one of only 20 chosen from hundreds of young undocumented applicants to travel to Silicon Valley to be part of a 25-hour marathon coding session under the supervision of some of the most skilled techies in the country.
On Thursday, after giving a presentation of an app called “Undoculife,” which puts people in a virtual world where they would get into the role of an undocumented immigrant and experience situations that they do, Vargas and his team were chosen as one of three winners by a panel of judges that included Zuckerberg, Groupon co-founder Andrew Mason and Dropbox’s Drew Houston.
“So much of helping people experience these things is about interactivity,” Zuckerberg said to Vargas and the others about Undoculife. “I think you guys really nailed it and as you build more levels [to the virtual world], this is going to be great content that people can share around and share with Congress.”
For Vargas – whose father was a bus driver in Puebla, Mexico, and mother a housekeeper who brought him and three siblings across the border in 1990 when they were little – being a winner seemed a surreal ending to a surreal adventure.
The winning prototypes will get continued support from Fwd.us for developing the apps and publicizing them.
“It's not every day we stand in front of tech giants and display our talent,” said Vargas, a 28-year-old from Staten Island, N.Y. who manages the website and social media network for DRM Action Coalition, an immigration advocacy group. “We came together as Dreamers and stood in front of tech giants and displayed the power of the DREAM movement.”
DREAM stands for Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, a federal proposed measure that would give a path to legal status to undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as minors.
“We could have not accomplished what we did tonight without the support of our community and, of course, the amazing talent of our mentors and the amazing advocate groups like Fwd.us and its founders,” he added.
The other two winning teams proposed projects that allow users to contact their congressional representatives through social media or a cell phone, and share their stories about dealing with immigration problems and government agencies with other immigrants. Fwd.us plans to make one of the winning apps, called Push for Reform, part of its website.
All of the coders’ apps included a feature that would let people share content on Facebook, Twitter or other social networks.
Earlier in the week, Vargas had spoken to Fox News Latinoabout how momentous the hackathon, as such coding marathon are called, was in his life.
He had grown up in a poor home, and never met his father, who died a month before he was born. He and his three older siblings and their mother slept in one small room in a modest home in Puebla. Finally, seeing no way out of a life of hardship and constant lack of basic necessities, Teresa Galinda made the decision to risk a 15-day trek across the U.S.-Mexico border with her four children.
Zuckerberg has been an increasingly vocal proponent for comprehensive immigration reform. His activism has been driven by the high-tech industry’s interest in an expansion of visas for high-skill workers, and more recently, by his closer alliances with Dreamers.
FWD.us this week bought a mid-six-figure, English and Spanish-language ad titled “Why We Wait” on national cable television which expresses frustration with the failure of Congress to pass a comprehensive immigration reform law.
Earlier this year, Zuckerberg appeared at a screening of “Documented,” a movie about undocumented immigrants and spoke about the need for immigration reform. In the San Francisco appearance, Zuckerberg said his interest in an overhaul of U.S. immigration policy surpassed just bringing in more high-tech workers from overseas.
In many ways like The Sims – a popular life simulation video game – Undoculife puts people in a virtual world in which a player is an undocumented immigrant and encounters a series of daily situations that are colored significantly by their legal status.
In one scenario that Vargas’ team showed at their presentation, a father goes to work only to be asked to work overtime. The father tries to explain that his young daughter has a recital that he does not want to miss, but the boss dismisses the concern and keeps insisting that he work.
The supervisor suggests that he may call immigration on him, but he then counters that he will call the Labor Department to report the employer for wage and hour violations. The employer tells him to enjoy his daughter’s recital.
The idea, the team explained, is not only to show everyone what an undocumented immigrant experiences, but to show such immigrants what options and rights they have when dealing with a problem.
Fwd.us communications director Kate Hansen tweeted “Team #Undoculife creates scenarios of everyday challenges undocumented immigrants face easy enough f/ everyone to understand-even Congress.”