Five months after the competition, Arizona State Representative Russell Pearce gives a talk in Washington, D.C., stating that current immigration policies in the U.S. are too nice to immigrants, and that they aren’t good for the country or for the immigrants themselves. Many voters in Arizona seem to believe that immigrants have come to the country to leech off the government, looking for welfare and free education—not for work.
Instead of finishing with the ceremony, Davis returns to the issue of immigration. As he has shown through the story of the four Carl Hayden students and their families, the fear he describes here is unfounded and based on harmful stereotypes.
A month before Pearce’s speech, voters in Arizona passed Proposition 200, a bill that barred illegal immigrants from receiving public benefits like welfare and education. Sheriff Joe Arpaio continues to form civilian posses made up of more than three hundred civilians to hunt for illegal immigrants and scare them out of the country.
The harmful stereotypes are pervasive, however, and Proposition 200 attempts to prevent undocumented immigrants who were not born on American soil from achieving the American Dream.
The debate over immigration only gets more heated as time goes on. In 2006, President Bush orders 6,000 members of the National Guard to patrol the U.S.-Mexican border in the hopes of preventing migrants from crossing. But New York mayor Michael Bloomberg tells Congress that these patrols will not defeat market forces of supply and demand, nor human desire for freedom and opportunity.
Bloomberg’s statement to Congress affirms that immigrants are not only simply looking for jobs that are available in the United States, but they are also working for the freedom and opportunity that Americans often claim should be available globally.
Eight months after the ROV competition, Oscar is working on a construction site as a day laborer. He feels stuck. He has thought about college, but he doesn’t know how to afford it. Cristian has a similar problem. He dreamed of going to college, but when the air conditioning unit in his family’s trailer broke, the three thousand dollars of family savings he had hoped to use were spent on a new one. After graduation, Luis works two jobs and tries not to think about changing his life.
At first, the boys become victims of their immigration status and also of their economic status. Even though these boys have been fortunate enough to excel and have good teachers, they still lack the resources to further their education and capitalize on the potential that they have shown.
In April 2005, Davis publishes an article in Wired detailing the championship. Many readers write to express their support for Carl Hayden, and eventually individuals contribute $120,000 to a scholarship fund set up by the school district.
The article also makes the four students the face of a generation of undocumented immigrant kids who were born elsewhere and grew up in the United States. In 2004, there are an estimated 1.4 million children who fit this description. Despite this large amount, they are largely invisible: no one wants to risk deportation by being in the public eye.
Davis highlights the particularly difficult situation of undocumented immigrants: that it is very difficult to advocate for themselves and bring about change, because they could then be targeted for their immigration status.
The Carl Hayden kids don’t think that their story will attract much attention, but immediately additional media requests pour in. ABC’s Nightline asks to broadcast their story and focus on their immigration status. Despite their worries, they agree it is important to speak out.
The students realize that it is important to speak out because they understand that they can help to change the negative stereotypes that people have about undocumented immigrants.
In 2005 and 2006, the Carl Hayden robotics team wins the top prize at Dean Kamen’s FIRST competition in Arizona. They are a top competitor both years at the national championships. They place third at MATE in 2005 and second in 2006, beating MIT both times. In 2007, the event is in Canada, effectively preventing undocumented students from attending. To compensate, Fredi and Allan start their own underwater-robotics competition.
The Carl Hayden team’s continued success shows the importance of good teachers, and also implies how many kids can have the same potential as the students who participated in the 2004 MATE competition if they put in the same time and dedication to their work.
The win in 2004 inspires the kids that come after them at Carl Hayden. The team swells to more than fifty members, and year after year, they dominate in competitions. They also try to get younger kids excited about robotics, going to local elementary schools and showing off their robots.
The competition thus not only gets the students who won excited about science, but it also energizes the students who come afterward, making them curious about robotics and giving them the confidence that they might have the same potential.
The team’s rising profile brings in new supporters: in 2005, a group of businessmen in Oregon and Washington decide to help, forming a foundation that provides scholarships for the robotics team. Between 2005 and 2010, the foundation spends $720,000 and sends twenty-three kids to college. Still, Fredi worries that many of the kids will have difficult lives even if they do graduate from college.
Fredi’s worries are well-founded, as even Oscar and Cristian—who are able to get to college—still have a difficult time. Though they may have been able to overcome odds in the competition, overcoming institutional prejudice and laws is a much bigger hurdle to surmount.
Allan and Fredi urge Cristian to apply to MIT, but his family wants to keep him close and the school seems too expensive. Arizona State University is a safer choice, as he will qualify for in-state tuition and can pay the rest with the scholarships. Still, ASU is difficult. Cristian finds the lectures and the work mind-numbing. He fumes to Allan and Fredi that it’s a waste of time.
Even without the added difficulty of Cristian’s immigration status, the financial burden of going to a school like MIT makes it an impossibility for Cristian and students from similar backgrounds, showing the inequality that prevents many from achieving the American Dream.
When the Nightline segment airs, Russell Pearce explains in response that voters shouldn’t focus on a small group of students, because one has to take the emotion out of it and look at “the damage to America overall.”
Pearce statements show how he and many others disconnect the issue of immigration from the individuals affected by the policies. But, as Davis has shown with the continued success of the Carl Hayden team, the students may not necessarily be exceptions to the rule.
Midway through Cristian’s freshman year, an Arizona state senator sponsors Proposition 300. The law seeks to prevent state colleges and universities from offering reduced in-state tuition to undocumented residents who grew up in Arizona. The state senator argues that it isn’t fair for citizens from other states to pay the full cost, while undocumented immigrants are given subsidized tuition.
Just like Proposition 200, Proposition 300 seems to be based on the idea that undocumented immigrants aren’t really “Americans” living in Arizona, when for many of them (including Cristian), it’s the only place they have ever really called home.
Proposition 300 passes in November 2006 with 71% support. Cristian’s tuition quadruples as a result. Unable to pay it, he decides to drop out. He takes classes at Gateway Community College and finds work at Home Depot. At home, he sets up a small laboratory and invents new machines at night from scavenged parts.
Cristian’s trajectory is probably the most disappointing, because of all the students he seemed to have the most talent for the work, yet the policies that Arizona passes make it impossible for him to take advantage of that talent.
In May 2006, Lorenzo graduates from high school, but his father Pablo doesn’t show up to the ceremony. He then enrolls in Phoenix College’s Culinary Studies program. Luis also goes to cooking school. Together they form a catering company and find odd jobs to add to their income. Even then, Lorenzo isn’t able to save his home, and in 2009 his family is evicted. Meanwhile, Davis notes, the MIT students from the 2004 MATE competition excel in prestigious engineering jobs and research institutions.
As Davis continues to chronicle the students’ lives after the competition, his comparison between them and the MIT students is significant. He points out the unfairness in the fact that the Carl Hayden students show just as much promise as the students from MIT, and yet they are not met with the same opportunity.
In February 2005—before the Wired story breaks—Oscar falls in love with Karla Perez, a junior at Dysart High School and the cousin of a friend of his. They make constant excuses to see each other. When Karla asks Oscar if he can take her to her prom, he says he cannot—he doesn’t have the money. Karla goes to her prom alone but meets up with Oscar later in the night. They kiss for the first time, and seven months later, they are married.
Karla and Oscar’s marriage eventually deals an additional injustice to him: both Karla and their daughter Sam are American citizens, and yet Oscar can still be deported at any moment and separated from them; he also does not receive an easier path to citizenship.
The money sent in by Wired readers allows Oscar to enroll full-time at Arizona State University. He majors in mechanical engineering but finds it to be detached from the work he had done previously. He asks for a grant to start a robotics team at the school and establishes himself as a leader—but nothing can change the fact that he does not have a visa or residency, even though he is married to a U.S. citizen, with a daughter on the way who would also be a U.S. citizen.
Again, Davis makes clear the disconnect between the policies being enacted by the U.S. at this time and the promise and hard work exhibited by kids like Oscar, who cannot become a U.S. citizen even though he considers himself to be wholly American.
Proposition 300 drives Cristian out of college, but Oscar had already distinguished himself at the university, and a variety of groups within the school rally to fund his education. Luis even gives him the remainder of his own scholarship money to help fund his final two years.
It seems particularly confounding that groups within the school itself have to rally money to save its own student from dropping out of school because of a government policy. This points to the disconnect between these policies and actual realities on the ground.
In May 2009, when Oscar graduates, President Obama gives the graduation speech for ASU’s fiftieth commencement. Christine Wilkinson, the university’s vice president, singles Oscar out onstage, asking him to stand in front of 70,000 people and President Obama, and then describing his achievements.
Oscar’s graduation adds to the irony of his situation, as he is singled out in front of President Obama as an exemplary student, but even this exemplariness cannot ease his path to citizenship.
Obama tells the class of 2009 not to give up the endeavor to “find the greatness that lies within each of us.” Oscar listens intently. He realizes how upset he would be to lose everything he loved if he were deported and barred from the U.S. Thus, he resolves to deport himself.
Despite the fact that it will be difficult to return to Mexico, Oscar decides to do the honorable thing—yet he is still ripped from his wife and his newborn daughter in the process, demonstrating again the damage the policies render on undocumented immigrants.
On September 1, 2009, Oscar walks back into Mexico for the first time in ten years. He and Karla go to the U.S. consulate and he applies for residency. When the clerk asks him if he’s ever lived illegally in the United States, Oscar refuses to lie, and says yes. The man tells him that his application will be denied. He could apply for a waiver in eleven weeks and present his case. In the meantime, he must stay in Mexico.
Oscar continues to be punished for circumstances he cannot control: not only is he not a U.S. citizen, but he is also prevented from becoming one because of the fact that his parents had chosen to bring the family to the United States.
Oscar returns to his childhood home. He finds a job picking beans for $3.80 a day. It’s hard work, and he starts the morning in freezing weather and ends it soaked in sweat. Eleven weeks later, Karla returns to Mexico. She helps him get cleaned up to present his case to the consulate. They wait in line for six hours and he presents all of his documents, including a copy of his ASU diploma and letters of support from Karla, Allan, and Fredi. He will get a decision back in seven to ten days.
Contrasting the opportunity Oscar has in Mexico with what he has in America, it’s not difficult to see why people come to the United States. Oscar would appear to be the ideal candidate—family in the U.S. who are citizens, a history of success in college, leadership in the ROTC—and yet, as will soon become clear, he is denied.
A week later, Oscar receives the official word. He has been found ineligible for a visa and is banned from the United States for a decade. Karla returns to Phoenix, sobbing on the bus. Oscar leaves his childhood home and boards a bus for a factory town where Karla’s uncle lives. He no longer dreams of doing important work or building robots; he only wants a job.
It is particularly devastating that when Oscar decides to deport himself, even after doing the honorable thing, he still cannot return to the United States, demonstrating how arbitrary the policies are when one might think that he would be a prime candidate for approval.
Oscar is hired to supervise a portion of an assembly line at a car parts factory for $22 a day. After a month, he starts to look for opportunities in other countries—maybe he could move the family to Europe. He tries to sound chipper on the phone with Karla, but he’s also depressed by the violence outside his home.
Davis reminds readers how little Oscar makes in Mexico, in effect demonstrating that increased opportunity is such a crucial part of why people choose to come to America—especially because, unlike Europe, it does not cost nearly as much money to get there.
Allan calls Oscar, who tries to get him not to worry. But Allan’s wife Debbie quizzes Oscar on his living conditions, and he has to admit that he has no furniture. She promptly loads their car and drives down with a bed, sheets, towels, a TV, dishes, pans, chairs, and a couch. Oscar is overwhelmed with emotion when they arrive. Debbie tells him he’s not alone.
Allan becomes not only a lifelong mentor for Oscar, but also a friend, providing his former student with the ability to restart his life in the midst of what seems like a hopeless situation.
Oscar’s supporters start a letter-writing campaign to convince the government to reverse his decision. CNN picks up the story. In Washington D.C., the story catches the attention of Senators Dick Durbin and Orrin Hatch, who believe that America is squandering a resource by overlooking the talents of people like Oscar.
American citizens remain deeply divided on the issue, highlighting again the importance of representation. Because people can see Oscar as an individual rather than a broad stereotype of an undocumented immigrant, it is easier to sympathize with his situation.
In 2001, Durbin had introduced legislation that would provide a pathway to citizenship for young immigrants who had been in the United States for at least five years and were attending college—it was called the DREAM Act. The bill had failed to even make it to a vote. In 2010, Durbin reintroduces the bill and talks about Oscar on the floor of the U.S. Senate.
Senate Republicans block the vote. Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions states that the DREAM Act is a reward for illegal activity, and the legislation is tabled again. Durbin feels that it is unfair to punish students whose parents brought them as children. Even if he can’t change their fates as a whole, he contacts the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services and asks them to reconsider their stance on Oscar’s application.
The DREAM Act comes to prove how little has changed about the immigration debate, even after nine years and a new president has been elected.
In July 2010, Karla checks the mailbox as she leaves to visit Oscar for three days. Amid a stack of bills is an envelope from Immigration. When she arrives in Mexico she tells him that his residency application has been approved. Oscar is speechless.
Oscar is able to overcome the odds of navigating a vast and often ambiguous immigration system, but many people—including Lorenzo and Cristian—are not so lucky.
Oscar returns to the U.S. in August 2010, after a year in Mexico. Allan and Debbie throw him a big welcome-home party in their backyard. Lorenzo and Luis bring the food. Oscar’s return has also drawn a lot of media attention, and he has a job offer from a company that designs lifesaving medical devises.
It is easy to see how, were it not for the media attention garnered from the MATE competition, Oscar may not have had the good fortune of a Senator intervening on his behalf.
Two months after his return, Oscar realizes that he can now join the Army. With a college degree, he can even apply for Officer Candidate School, but he wants to serve as a soldier. He enlists, starting out at the bottom of the military hierarchy. Oscar doesn’t mind: he wants to work hard and doesn’t believe in shortcuts.
Armed with his permanent residency, Oscar is finally able to fulfill his version of the American Dream—the opportunity to work hard in order to achieve success.
In May 2011, Oscar is training to be a cavalry scout when he becomes a U.S. citizen. He swells with pride at the ceremony and takes the citizenship oath: to renounce loyalty to any foreign state and to support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States.
Oscar’s citizenship oath is very literal when he vows to “support and defend the Constitution,” because he will soon do so in the Army—proving how much he loves and wants to fight for the United States.
On November 29, 2011 Oscar boards a plane for Afghanistan and is deployed to a remote outpost at the base of a mountain. Every morning he is greeted by rockets from the Taliban. One day, he is sent into the mountains on a search-and-destroy mission. It is Oscar’s first combat experience, and he feels an immense sense of accomplishment.
Oscar’s version of the American Dream has also meant giving back to the country to which he had always felt he belonged, and which he loved so much. The army serves as a way to do that, and his accomplishments are well-earned.
In the fall of 2013, Hollywood begins filming a movie about the Carl Hayden robotics team. The film ends when the awards for the 2004 MATE competition are announced. In reality, Davis writes, life is more complicated. The attention paid to their victory had coincided with a backlash against immigrants in Arizona. Propositions 200 and 300 had a direct impact on Oscar and Cristian. Oscar ultimately graduated from college; Cristian did not.
In pointing out the differences between the film and his book, Davis notes that life is not, in fact, like a movie. The kids may have accomplished something extraordinary, but they still face discrimination not only from other citizens but from the laws of the country itself, which have a huge and direct impact on their lives.
The atmosphere in Phoenix is polarized after 2004. Joe Arpaio orders officers into predominantly Latino neighborhoods and tells them to enforce all traffic laws, so they can pull locals over for minor offenses and then deport anyone who is there illegally.
Arpaio continues to enforce discriminatory policies, targeting undocumented immigrants and other Latinos by overly enforcing minor crimes in order to deport people.
Arpaio’s actions draw the attention of the Justice Department, which determines that the Sheriff’s office is discriminatory. In 2011, the government revokes his authority to detain immigrants. However, that authority is granted to other law enforcement officials in Arizona State Bill 1070. This law provides penalties to people who shelter, hire, or transport unregistered immigrants and requires law enforcement officers to question individuals suspected of being in the country illegally.
Even though Arpaio is condemned for these practices, other law enforcement officials still enforce discriminatory and unjust policies. It is also worth noting that Arpaio was convicted of contempt of court in 2017 because he continued these discriminatory practices, but was then pardoned by President Trump.
Many immigration reform bills have failed in Congress, and the DREAM Act has stalled on arguments that allowing children to achieve legal residency creates an incentive for families to enter the country illegally. In June 2012, President Obama issues an executive order deferring the deportation of immigrants who would have qualified for the DREAM Act. Lorenzo and Cristian apply for protection under the order, which buys them temporary safety. But, as Davis writes, “the next president could quickly end the program.”
The DREAM Act is another example of how immigration policies change between various administrations. President Obama’s executive order (DACA) was believed to be unconstitutional by President Trump and as of 2018, stands in limbo in several state courts, which continues to cause upheaval and uncertainty in the lives of many people and particularly children.
There are signs that the anti-immigrant movement has driven away migrants, as shown by declining public school enrollment in Arizona and construction projects that have slowed in Phoenix due to lack of labor. To some people, Davis writes, these are positive developments.
Davis points out some of the actual fallout from slowing immigration, but also demonstrates that this actually causes labor shortages. This implies that immigrants aren’t taking jobs that American citizens want or hold, contrary to what many people argue.
The movie provides a happy ending. It even shows Lorenzo’s father Pablo arriving at the MATE awards ceremony, hugging Lorenzo and crying with joy. Davis describes how he had stood next to the real Lorenzo during the filming of the scene. When the director yelled cut, Lorenzo stared at his feet and said to Davis, “My father would never do that.”
Davis finishes the book by implying that glamorizing the lives of these students, such as the way the film does, actually prevents them from achieving success because American citizens do not understand the difficulties they continue to face due to immigration policies.
Ten years after beating MIT, Lorenzo works as a cook at an upscale restaurant in Phoenix. Oscar completed his tour in Afghanistan and left the Army in 2014. He works as a foreman in the locomotive shop at a train company. Luis empties trash cans at the federal courthouse during the week; on the weekends he caters events with Lorenzo. Cristian lives at home and continues to invent things in his room.
While in some ways, Lorenzo, Oscar, Cristian, and Luis are able to make good on their parents’ desire to give them a better life with more opportunity, the book has made a compelling argument that if they were simply allowed to become citizens in their own country, they could do so much more.
Fredi still teaches at Carl Hayden and coaches the robotics team. The team continues to collect top honors at regional, national, and international competition. Fredi started receiving three-fifths of a coaching stipend ($240 a month) in 2008, six years after starting the program. Allan retired in 2006 and now volunteers his time to help the robotics team.
Davis finishes by noting one final injustice: that the two people who have provided many classes of students with so much time and energy, still remain largely unrecognized and uncompensated for their inspiring work.