While Davis shows how the Carl Hayden students are able to overcome almost insurmountable odds in their competition, there is also a less hopeful theme concerning the United States’ immigration policies and the detrimental effect they have on the students’ lives. Even as the students show immense promise and ingenuity, they and other immigrants are still stereotyped, discriminated against, and have their potential cut short. Davis points out the tragic irony in the fact that the students and many other undocumented immigrants simply want the quintessential American Dream—the idea that every person should have an equal opportunity to achieve success and prosperity through hard work, determination, and initiative—but are denied this opportunity simply because of the technicality that they were not born on U.S. soil.
The book’s first few chapters document the reasons that each of the students’ families come to the United States, and their journeys to get to Arizona. Here Davis shows that they are in fact risking everything and working exceptionally hard to make sure that their children have a better life, contrary to many of the stereotypes that people hold about them. Lorenzo’s mother Laura brings Lorenzo to the U.S. to receive better medical attention for a head injury he experiences as a child. But once they are in the U.S., they decide to stay so that the family might get better opportunities to work: Laura works as a hotel maid, while Lorenzo’s father, Pablo, works as a landscaper. Oscar’s father, Ramiro, goes to the United States without the rest of his family so that he can send money back to support them. When they have enough money, Oscar and his mother Manuela join Ramiro, traveling to the U.S. for eight months before deciding to come over permanently. The second time they enter the U.S., they risk a dangerous journey with two coyotes (people who smuggle immigrants across the border). Cristian and Luis have similar stories: their fathers go to the U.S to find better working conditions so that they can support their family better. The families soon realize that America will give their sons more opportunities for success, and so the rest of the family moves with them. Cristian doesn’t remember much about crossing the border because he sleeps in the car on the way there, but Luis and his mother Maria Garcia sneak through a hole in a chain link fence on the border, risking getting caught or separated. By highlighting the difficulty and danger inherent to coming to the U.S., Davis underscores these immigrants’ strength and the depth of their desire for better lives and opportunities—laudable qualities that, in theory, are essential to fulfilling the American dream.
Davis contrasts these personal stories with perceptions and laws enacted in America: he notes throughout the book that many people are prejudiced against immigrants, believing that they are lazy, involved in crime, and draining resources from citizens. The actions taken by legislators and law enforcement reflect this deep prejudice. As the story progresses, Davis gives background info on the raging immigration debate in America. In 2004—the year of the robotics competition—Arizona passes several laws, including Propositions 200 and 300, which make it impossible for undocumented immigrants to receive public benefits, despite the fact that most of them pay taxes. Senator Dick Durbin proposes the DREAM Act in 2001, which tries to provide a pathway to citizenship for young immigrants who had been in America for at least five years and were attending college, but the bill fails to even make it to a vote. When he reintroduces it in 2010, Senate Republicans block the vote. The lawmakers are uncompromising when it comes to giving children a helping hand, because they argue that it is a reward for illegal activity. Durbin points out, however, that it is unfair to punish children for the actions of their parents.
Even beyond the laws, there is deep discrimination that runs rampant in the country’s citizens and law enforcement. Joe Arpaio, the sheriff of Phoenix’s county, views Mexicans as “disease-carrying criminals.” He creates civilian vigilante posses to literally hunt for undocumented immigrants and inspires others to do the same. There are constant law enforcement raids in which police use discriminatory policies to find, arrest and deport people—once as many as 432 in one night.
After illuminating the discrepancy between American perception and reality regarding immigrants, Davis finishes by showing readers how those policies fail Lorenzo, Cristian, Oscar, and Luis. Even though the students show incredible promise, they are unable to escape the consequences of policies that make it impossible for them to go to college or hold down steady jobs. Lorenzo and Luis do not go to four-year colleges, instead, attending culinary programs and starting a catering business together. When that doesn’t make them enough money, they pick up odd jobs in restaurants or taking out the trash.
The students win the robotics competition in 2004; in April 2005, Davis breaks their story in Wired. Cristian goes to Arizona State University with financial help from readers who want to chip in, but because of the newly-enacted Proposition 300, tuition quadruples after freshman year and Cristian is forced to drop out. Thus, the most promising member of the group is forced to work at Home Depot and content himself with inventing things in his room at night. Oscar’s story is a little more successful: he is also able to go to Arizona State University with financial help from the Wired readers. When he experiences the same tuition increase, the school is able to support him for his final year. Following college, however, he still worries about his job prospects. Realizing he wants to do things the right way, he deports himself and then applies for residency in the U.S. His residency is denied, however, until Senator Durbin steps in to help him get the decision reversed.
After Davis publishes his article, and while he is still writing Spare Parts, a movie is made about the Carl Hayden students in 2013. Davis finishes his book by noting how different his ending is from the movie. While the film ends in triumph at the robotics competition, the book ends on a much more melancholy note, documenting the struggles that the students face after the competition. In ending this way, Davis calls for change in U.S. immigration policies. Even though these boys are brilliant, and all of them consider themselves American, the current policies fail to allow them to live out their potential. They prove themselves completely capable of achieving the American Dream—if only America would let them.
Immigration, Prejudice, and the American Dream ThemeTracker
Immigration, Prejudice, and the American Dream Quotes in Spare Parts
There were teams from across the country, including students from MIT, who were sponsored by ExxonMobil, the world's largest publicly traded company. The Latino kids were from Carl Hayden Community High School in West Phoenix.
He had lived in Phoenix for six years and thought of himself as an American, even though he’d been born in Mexico. His parents had snuck him into Arizona when he was twelve. No matter how many push-ups he did or how fast he ran, he couldn’t outpace the fact that he was a fugitive, living in the country illegally, and therefore barred from enlisting.
As a NASA employee, she had become accustomed to working with engineers who conformed to a sort of industry standard: white, well educated, conservative clothes. These four teenagers standing in front of her signaled that the future looked different.
Woods wrote, “The issue raised by this type of treatment is not whether the arrest and deportation is legal, but whether human beings are entitled to some measure of dignity and safety even when they are suspected of being in the United States illegally.”
In his nineteen years as an ROTC commander, Goins had never met a finer student than Oscar. He embodied everything the military was looking for: leadership, intelligence, dependability, integrity, tact, selflessness, and perseverance. […] “Oscar had it all,” Goins remembers. “His only drawback was that he wasn't a U.S. citizen.”
Nonetheless, the threat was clear: students who were living in the country illegally could be sought out and detained. A Border Patrol agent could find these kids anywhere and send them to a country they barely knew. Attempts to excel might be met with harsh punishment. Even a seemingly harmless summer science competition bore life-altering risks.
The whole point was to give the guys a chance to accomplish something beyond what they thought possible. But if they showed up at the event and failed utterly, it would only reinforce the impression that they didn't belong in the contest in the first place. That could leave a kid such as Lorenzo with a permanent sense of inferiority.
It reminded them that they were doing something they had never done before. In Phoenix, they were called illegal aliens and pegged as criminals. They were alternately viewed as American, Mexican, or neither. Now, for a moment, they were simply teenagers at a robotics competition by the ocean.
“If the really long list of immigrant inventors who have made this country and the world a much better place is to stop here and now, we will also likely become the newest declining nation,” one reader commented.
This extraordinary young man—a mechanical engineer who won a national competition, a person who can add something to America, who has a wife and family here, who is doing the right thing by going back to the country of his origin even though he has little connection with it anymore—is being told: America doesn't need you.
In reality, life is more complicated. The attention paid to the team as a result of their victory coincided with a backlash against immigrants in Arizona.