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High School Robotics Team Demonstrates Tough Road for Undocumented Immigrants

A new book and film highlight the story of four brilliant teenagers who try to chase the American dream

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In 2004 an underdog team of four undocumented Mexican-American teenagers managed to win a major student underwater robotics competition, beating the likes of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The team—Lorenzo Santillian, Christian Arcega, Oscar Vazquez and Luis Arranda—from Arizona’s Carl Hayden Community High School had little funding and no experience in similar contests, but they won the Marine Advanced Technology Education Robotics Competition, sponsored in part by NASA and the Office of Naval Research. Their scrappy and self-admittedly “ugly” robot Stinky impressed the judges by locating underwater objects, collecting samples and measuring distances in the water better than its competitors.

When Wired editor Joshua Davis wrote about their story for the magazine back in 2005, he expected a feel-good piece about an upstart team beating the odds, but what he found was more complicated. The students all struggled to continue their education past high school because they were not legal U.S. citizens. Although Arizona was the only home most of them knew, they didn’t have many of the rights their fellow students took for granted, including access to in-state tuition rates for college.

Davis stayed in touch with the students over the years and his new book, Spare Parts: Four Undocumented Teenagers, One Ugly Robot and the Battle for the American Dream (Farrar, Straus and Giroux Originals, December 2014), tells their story to date. A film about the team, also called Spare Parts, is due out in January 2015. Many of the students are still held back by their undocumented status. They could benefit from proposed laws such as the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, which would give young people who came to the U.S. as children a path toward permanent residency, but that bill has not yet passed.

Scientific American spoke to Davis and Hayden High robotics team member Oscar Vazquez separately. An edited and condensed transcript of the two conversations follows.

Josh, when did you realize this story was not just about a high school robotics team, but larger immigration issues?
Davis: In my reporting I started to find out there was a subtext. It wasn’t just that these kids were impoverished. It was that they had many fewer opportunities because they were undocumented. This was clearly a major factor in the lives of these students. I said, “Can I talk about this?” All of them had to make a decision, and they all felt like this was important. One of them, Oscar, said this is a Rosa Parks moment, when you just have to do something.

What impact did the original Wired article have on their lives?
Davis: Back when the story was published all these kids wanted to go to college but had no hope of doing so. Even though they had lived in Arizona most of their lives they did not qualify for in-state tuition and as a result couldn’t afford any of the state schools. When we left them Oscar was putting up drywall; Louis was a file clerk. When Wired readers read the story they e-mailed me, and called the magazine, saying, “Where can we send money, how can we help?” We ended up getting over $100,000 of donations to send these kids to college. Oscar ended up graduating from A.S.U. [Arizona State University] with a degree in mechanical engineering. Louis and Lorenzo went to cooking school and now run a catering company.

But after graduating college Oscar had a tough time trying to become a legal citizen.
Davis: Now that he had gotten a degree, he decided he needed to do the right thing. After age 18 and a half, if you are found to be living in the country illegally, you are not only deported but then banned from reentering the country for 10 years. Oscar crossed over the border, went to Juarez and said he’d like to apply for citizenship. He said, “I’m a graduate of A.S.U., I have a degree in mechanical engineering, I’m a robotics expert. The clerk who interviewed him asked if he had ever stayed in the U.S. illegally after the age of 18 and he said, “Yes, I did, this was why.” He was summarily denied entry to the U.S. for 10 years.

That went on for a year, he found a job at a car parts manufacturing factory in Mexico and eventually [Illinois] Sen. Dick Durbin was able to intervene and have the ban overturned, and Oscar returned to the U.S. To him that meant he was finally able to fulfill his original dream, and enlisted in the U.S. Army.

Oscar, what are you up to now?
Vazquez: I got out of the U.S. Army in August. Now I work in Montana for BNSF [Burlington Northern Santa Fe] Railway. I am a foreman in a locomotive diesel shop. It’s kind of like I run a Jiffy Lube for locomotives.

How did you end up in Montana?
Vazquez: That’s where they offered me a job and I took it. The whole family’s here with me. My wife Karla and I have two kids. Samantha is six and Oskar is two.

Josh, how are the other robotics team members doing?
Davis: Christian is unemployed, he’s looking for work. He doesn’t have a college degree [the scholarship money was still insufficient to cover the cost], and so it’s a little hard for employers to perceive him intelligently even though to people who know him it’s apparent. Luis has a night job—he cleans U.S. courthouses. Lorenzo is a chef at a nice restaurant in Phoenix. The two of them have a catering company.

Oscar, how does it feel to finally be a U.S. citizen?
Vazquez: When I went to get my Montana license, it did feel good. I definitely appreciate it and I don’t take it for granted. I grew up with a bunch of boundaries that I couldn’t cross. There were a lot of things I couldn’t do because of that, so now when I can it’s just a great relief. It’s hard to describe. Just growing up and knowing you can’t do something really changes your mentality.

Are you involved in immigration activism?
Vazquez: I try, but it’s been a tough for me to participate. I’m still hoping that the laws can change. The solution for the “DREAMers” [young people who would qualify for the DREAM Act, if it were passed] is not permanent and they don’t know if they’ll be able to change that or what. It’s kind of a Band-Aid right now. I hope that more of them can get the opportunities that I did, especially those that want to serve in the military. I would definitely like to see some change, there’s still more to do.

What do you hope readers take away from the book, and from the movie they’re making?
Vazquez: Hopefully, it opens their eyes to the talent that’s out there; that, just based on prejudices, [immigrants] are not being allowed to grow and become what they should be. I would hope we could give them opportunities so they can use their full potential.

Josh, what do you hope people take away from this story?
Davis: I want to put a face on the debate. I want people to be able to meet these young people and understand why they are here and what they want, because in lieu of that, I think some Americans rely on stereotypes. They hear reports about crime and that is their first instinct when they think about immigrants. And I don’t think that that’s accurate.

On a more specific level, a lot of these kids have great, amazing talents, specifically in science and technology, and at a time when America needs that talent more than ever, when STEM is a huge issue for the country going forward, we should be doing everything we can to encourage that kind of talent.

We’re a country of immigrants. We all know that. These immigrants oftentimes are the people who work the hardest and contribute the most because they are trying to achieve the American dream—and for them, the American dream is the freshest. I saw that time and again in my reporting. These kids who are first-generation or even were born in another country but have chosen America to be their adopted country are extraordinarily hardworking and absolutely committed to doing great things. I would like to live in a country that welcomes that spirit.

This article was originally published with the title "Book Review: Spare Parts."