They were born one year apart, into vastly different worlds.
Carlos Vargas, 28, began life in poverty in Puebla, Mexico, where he shared one small bedroom with his widowed mother and three siblings. His mother, who crossed the U.S.-Mexican border illegally in 1990 with her four children, held multiple jobs here to make ends meet.
Mark Zuckerberg, 29, started his life in Dobbs Ferry, an affluent New York suburb of tree-lined streets and meticulously tended lawns rimming million-dollar homes. Zuckerberg, also one of four children, is the son of a dentist and a psychiatrist.
But if countless circumstances separated Vargas and Zuckerberg, a mastery of technology and a keen interest in seeing U.S. immigration laws overhauled created a bond.
On Wednesday, the two men will join forces in Silicon Valley, where Zuckerberg is hosting a hackathon in which the Facebook chief executive, as well as other kings of the Internet – Dropbox’s Drew Houston, Groupon founder Andrew Mason and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman – will work with undocumented high-tech wiz kids on building tools to help immigrants and the push for immigration reform.
(Hackathon is the term given to a marathon event in which programmers collaborate on software projects.)
Vargas is one of 20 people chosen from hundreds of applicants across the country to be part of the two-day event at LinkedIn headquarters. They are scheduled to work with some of Silicon Valley’s best and brightest coders to develop tech tools relating to immigration causes.
“It caught me by surprise to be chosen,” Vargas said in an interview with Fox News Latino days before his flight to California. “Here I am, and in just a few days, I’m going to be speaking with Mark Zuckerberg about Facebook and immigration. This moment, the hackathon, could be history, we could create something that helps the push for immigration reform.”
I want to help the immigrant community. I want reform for other immigrants, for fathers that got deported. This hackathon, I hope, will be the break that we need, the break that will bring exposure and awareness about the need for immigration reform.
- Carlos Vargas, Staten Island college student
The gathering will give the immigrants and the high-tech executives access to resources that each of them needs from the other.
The executives have an almost endless supply of money, staff and technology.
The immigrants have excelled in technology and engineering.
Perhaps even more important, with English as their primary language and their American upbringing, they have -- in a way that eluded their elders -- mobilized masses and put together campaigns for immigration reform.
Twin Passions: Immigration And Computers
Vargas was just five years old when his mother, Teresa Galindo, brought him on the 15-day trek across the border.
The Staten Island, N.Y. resident has been part of the Dreamer movement, founded by young immigrants who pushed for Congress to pass a measure that would give undocumented people who were brought as minors a chance to legalize their status.
They changed immigration activism, casting aside the anonymity that undocumented advocates insisted on, and identifying themselves fully -- unflinchingly stating their first name and last name -- and wearing shirts at rallies that declared “undocumented and unafraid.”
But most of all, Vargas and other Dreamers, who grew up posting and tweeting, turned to social media as the engine of their immigration reform campaign.
Vargas developed his passion and gift for computers early, spending his time on them while friends were on the basketball court or soccer field.
“If it wasn’t for social media, a lot of work we’ve done wouldn’t have been possible,” said Vargas of Dreamers. He manages the website and social media network for DRM Action Coalition, an organization that advocates for immigration reform.
When Vargas applied to be part of the hackathon, he wrote in his essay that immigration reform was not just an issue in the news to him.
“I said it’s about my life,” he said.
Vargas and others in his hackathon team of six are working on a mobile app that lets users search for people who are detained in federal immigration facilities. The app also would help those facing deportation launch campaigns.
Vargas is majoring in marketing economics and computer engineering at the College of Staten Island. He is track to graduate in the spring.
The degree will cap years of taking just a few courses here and a few courses there while earning the money to pay his full tuition.
Zuckerberg has been an increasingly vocal proponent for comprehensive immigration reform, driven by the high-tech industry’s interest in an expansion of visas for high-skill workers and, more recently, his growing alliances with Dreamers.
He founded a pro-immigration-reform lobby group, FWD.us, which 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.
It is the latest public push in a year in which Zuckerberg has maintained a high profile on the issue of immigration reform.
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 bringing in more high-tech workers from overseas.
"There are 11 million undocumented people who came here to work hard and contribute to the country," Zuckerberg said, "and I don't think it's quite as polarized as people always say."
Hopes For the Hackathon
At the hackathon, the coders and their fellow undocumented techies will divide into teams of about six to brainstorm ideas, map some out, and then decide on which are the most viable and worth investing resources.
“We hope the hackathon sheds light on just a small fraction of the many talents of the undocumented immigrant community, and how our broken immigration system prevents 11 million people from realizing their full potential,” FWD.us President Joe Green wrote in a blog post.
Vargas, who has a portrait of Thomas Jefferson hanging near the desk where he spends hours on his Mac, badly wants to see the Silicon Valley gathering kick into gear projects that will resurrect immigration reform efforts in Congress.
“I want to help the immigrant community, I want to do something bigger than for myself,” Vargas said. "I want reform for other immigrants, for fathers that got deported. This hackathon, I hope, will be the break that we need, the break that will bring exposure and awareness about the need for immigration reform.”
Vargas’s mother said she is bursting with pride about her son’s meeting with giants of high-tech.
It is also a remarkable twist of fate. Her son will be in the kind of rarified setting that is the kind that the Other Half inhabits -- people who own the homes, for instance, that she and her friends have toiled in.
“When we crossed the border, the way that I kept them focused during all those days was by telling them that we were going to a better land, a land where there were many opportunities. I told them they could have a great life if they worked hard,” said Galindo, who could only get as far as the third grade in Mexico.
She felt afraid when her sons, Carlos and older brother Cesar, became visible advocates in the Dreamer movement. But she threw her support behind them, adding that “faith that things will turn out well” – a spiritual view that long has guided her – helped allay her fears.
Vargas, who never met his father, a bus driver who died a month before he was born, said he is glad he put aside his one-time shame over his status. He is glad, too, that he did not to listen to a high school guidance counselor who said he’d never be able to keep studying because he was undocumented.
"When they were young, my sons told me 'I can't go to college because we don't have papers,'" recalled their mother. "I said 'Yes you will go to college. One door may close, but another will open.'"
Vargas was one of thousands of Dreamers who got a work permit and a driver’s license under an Obama administration program that allowed for a two-year reprieve from deportation for those brought illegally as minors.
What does he hope to say to Zuckerberg?
“I’d like to say ‘Thanks for the support for immigration reform, there are a lot of people’s lives at stake, not just Dreamers,’” Vargas said.
“I’d say that our families, our parents, are what made Dreamers possible. I’ll say ‘It’s still a long fight ahead of us. Please stay with us, stick with us.’”
Elizabeth Llorente can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org
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