Zuckerberg awards 'Dreamers' for immigration lobbying apps

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Dropbox CEO Drew Houston doled out awards on Thursday night to online applications built by young immigrants during a 25-hour marathon coding session at LinkedIn’s headquarters.

The “hackathon” event sponsored by Zuckerberg’s political advocacy group, FWD.us, brought together a group of 20 young tech-savvy immigrants who came to the United States illegally with their families as children and are not citizens.

Coders of the winning apps received prizes such as Microsoft Surface tablets, Cisco Webcams, Facebook apparel and free storage space from Dropbox.

The aim of FWD.us's hackathon is to pressure the House to break its logjam on immigration legislation by highlighting the technical talents of young immigrants who are living in the country illegally -- often called “Dreamers” in relation to the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (Dream) Act — like the coders participating in the event.

The participants were charged with creating Web applications that would help FWD.us lobby for Congress to pass immigration reform and get stories about the struggles of immigrants with the country’s immigration system shared virally online.

Zuckerberg, Houston and a team of judges that included FWD.us co-founder Joe Green and Groupon co-founder Andrew Mason selected which of the eight Web applications by the young coders had the best design, storytelling and advocacy features.

The winning application for the storytelling category, called Undoculife, puts people through real-world scenarios that immigrants living illegally in the U.S. confront in their daily lives. The app is set up as a virtual world where players are undocumented immigrants and must make decisions based on challenges that pop up in the course of the app.

For example, a player would have to choose whether to go to his daughter’s recital after he finishes up work at one of his two jobs or agree to stay late at work when their boss asks, even though they won’t get paid overtime. The app also aims to educate immigrants living in the U.S. illegally about their rights, such as fair treatment in the workplace.

“So much of helping people experience these things is about interactivity,” Zuckerberg said to the team of coders that created the Undoculife app. “I think you guys really nailed it and as you guys build more levels [to the virtual world], this is going to be great content that people can share around and share with Congress.”

The feedback from the judges, particularly Zuckerberg, could serve as a guidepost for political groups as they look for new ways to spread their cause’s message across the Web and influence members of Congress.

“I was really impressed by the quality and how much you got done,” Zuckerberg told the young hackers after they presented their finished work. “I think everyone is really blown away by the progress and the execution.”

All of the coders’ apps included a feature that would let people share content on Facebook, Twitter or other social networks.

FWD.us plans to incorporate one group’s app, called Push for Reform, into their website. The app lets people contact the congressional representatives for their district via social media or phone. It also grades each lawmaker on their support for immigration legislation by culling data from the Sunlight Foundation and FWD.us.

Two groups of hackathon coders created Web platforms that let young immigrants who are living illegally in the U.S. package their stories into content that can be shared across social networks and the Web. One of the apps, called Noble Paths, lets people share their experiences with the long process of applying for green cards and citizenship on an interactive Web timeline.

“There have been a couple of projects that have focused on telling stories and producing content that you can share through networks and share to your representatives [in] Congress. There isn’t enough content that can spread throughout the Internet that really touches people emotionally on this,” Zuckerberg said during the app presentations. “I think this is one of the things that you need in order to be able to really rally a lot of people [around immigration reform], and other movements have had that.”

Despite the push from high-profile tech executives like Zuckerberg and LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffman, it will be an extraordinarily heavy lift to get an immigration bill through the bitterly divided Congress. The House isn’t expected to move on immigration legislation before the end of the year and some Washington observers expect it will won’t return to the issue until next spring, or even later.