These four undocumented teens beat MIT's robots. But then what happened?


Today, Spare Parts hits theaters. The movie recounts the story of four undocumented high-school teens from West Phoenix, who beat MIT at a robotics competition in 2004 with a cheap ‘bot named Stinky.

It’s based on La Vida Robot, a 2005 WIRED article by Joshua Davis—one of my favorite WIRED articles ever—and a book that chronicles what happened to them after the contest. (Full disclosure, I used to work at WIRED and translated another one of Davis’ WIRED stories.)

With just $800, and the support of two teachers, Lorenzo Santillan (the mechanics man), Christian Arcega (the brains), Oscar Vazquez (the leader), and Luis Aranda (the tether guy) engineered an underwater robot out of PVC pipes and other inexpensive components. MIT had a budget of $11,000. When Stinky breaks down, they come up with pretty ingenious fixes — like using tampons to soak up water that might otherwise short-circuit stinky. That, fortunately, has made it into the film.

The movie, to be frank, isn’t as good as the original story, but one of the things the film does really well is portray the very real fears undocumented immigrants experience—fears most people don’t ever consider—like having immigration agents show up at your house or being asked for your birth certificate or ID.

We sat down with Davis to discuss the film and how a broken immigration policy has shaped the lives of these four guys, and many other kids like them. (After you’re done here, check out what the stars of Spare Parts have to say about what it’s like for today’s undocumented teens.)

The conversation has been edited for flow and clarity.

Fusion: Tell me a bit about what happened to Oscar, who’s described as the leader of the team, in the years after the competition.

Davis: He graduated from ASU [Arizona State University] with a degree in mechanical engineering, on the Deans List. He was the founder of the robotics team at ASU called the Robo Devils. A real leader.

But he’s undocumented, so he realizes he’s not going to get a good job without papers. What the law requires is that you go to your country of origin and apply for residency. Despite the fact that he hadn’t been to Mexico in roughly 10 years, he goes back to Juarez, to the consulate, and he applies for residency. He’s married to an American. They have a daughter.

In the interview, the clerk at the consulate asks, ‘Have you ever stayed in the United States past the age of 18 illegally?’ And [Oscar] said yes. And they said, ‘Well we’re very sorry, but you’re banned from the United States for 10 years.’

We’re handing out 150,000 H-1B visas per year to foreign engineers, and we’ve got this guy who’s got an engineering degree, who grew up in America, who’s got an American family and we ban him for 10 years! He ends up picking beans in a field in Chihuahua. Eventually, he gets a slightly better job on an assembly line for a car parts factory. It’s a tragedy.

Fusion: He eventually gets amnesty, thanks to Sen. Dick Durbin. If it hadn’t been for your story, do you think Oscar would still be in Mexico?

Davis: There were a lot of people who interceded. Sen. Durbin, most notably, and a woman named Carmen in Phoenix who is a supporter of the robotics team. She was the one who went knocking on doors, saying this is wrong. Eventually, she got to Durbin. In large part, it was her.

Fusion: I imagine this happens a lot.

Davis: These four guys are just four guys, but they’re emblematic of two million kids. It’s a lot of people.

There were these kids from Wilson High School, from Phoenix. A number of them were undocumented. They were part of a science club, and they went to an engineering contest in upstate New York, a solar-powered boat contest [in 2003]. On a down day, they went to go to Niagara Falls, and they stayed on the U.S. side, but one of the teachers went up to a border patrol guy and said, ‘What kind of documentation do you need to cross over?’

The guy got suspicious, and ended up detaining four of the Wilson High School students and began deportation procedures. It went through a long court case. It lasted a number of years. The judge ended up throwing it out because the border patrol didn’t have probable cause.

All they had done was go to Buffalo to compete in a science contest. They were smart kids. These are good kids, and here they are getting deported.

Fusion: Even those who aren’t are still living in limbo. What kind of future do you think they can expect?

Davis: You saw what happened on Friday. The Republicans are going to try to overturn DACA, which is just so nonsensical. [Former New York City mayor Michael] Bloomberg had a really great quote:

“It’s as if we expect border control agents to do what a century of communism could not: defeat the natural market forces of supply and demand and defeat the natural human desire for freedom and opportunity.”

I think that just gets right to it. You can build a big fence, you can militarize the border, but to think that people won’t continue to [come] is ridiculous.

Part of the dialogue is dominated by people who feel that people from Mexico and Central America are coming here to soak up Social Security or to steal, or rob, or be criminals of some sort, and the facts just don’t support that at all. This is part of what motivated me to tell the story in the first place: there were and are so many stereotypes.

When I first started talking to Fredi and Allan at Carl Hayden, they told me that they had sent this press release about their accomplishment to every news outlet in the country, regionally and nationally. Everyone that they could think of. And they got no response.

Fusion: Well, you almost didn’t respond.

Davis: I almost didn’t respond. It took me a month. But when I spoke to Freddy, he said, ‘The reason the media comes to Carl Hayden is to do a story about gang fights.’

The fact that these kids were doing something amazing in a place that people didn’t think amazing things happened is powerful.  It’s a great storytelling opportunity when nobody is telling the right story.

Fusion: Do you think that if this had taken place today, the kids and/or teachers would have turned to social media to promote their accomplishments?

Davis: Back then, none of the kids had a way of promoting their victory. The teachers, however, were able to send out a press release, which resulted in a lot of silence until it wended it’s way to me. Now, with social media, I bet they would have talked about the win. Absolutely. I just don’t know if that would have made anybody pay attention though, outside of their immediate circle.

Fusion: What about the reaction? Would it be the same today?

Davis: I’d like to think not. I have some mixed feelings about the reception the story got. The publication coincided with a backlash against immigrants in Arizona. Soon after, Arizona voters passed proposition 300, which raised tuition for undocumented students. That basically doubled tuition for Oscar and Christian, who were at ASU. Oscar was older and had less time, and he was able to complete, but Christian had two and a half years to go. He had to drop out. He’s now unemployed. Ideally, he’ll go back to school or get a job, both of which he’s pursuing, so I’m hopeful. But it’s been 10 years.

I had hoped that in putting a face to the immigration debate, that that would change the tenor of the dialogue, and yet in Arizona the dialogue did not change. The dialogue got more polarized, and more anti-immigrant.

I don’t know if we’re at a different spot now. Obviously the Republicans are taking a very strong position in Congress. We’ve been unable to pass immigration reform.

Fusion: How do these four guys feel about that?

Davis: I think there’s a variety of feelings. Oscar, who arguably had the most dramatic after story, he has now landed a job at BNSF train company. He’s settled in Montana and is a U.S. citizen. His dreams have come true. He served. He went to Afghanistan. Lorenzo is a cook and wanted to be a cook, all along. I think he is somewhat happy, but still, he’s on DACA, and he’s in a somewhat tenuous place. Luis became a U.S. citizen and he is a janitor for the U.S. Court houses. Christian has not landed in a good place. I think Christian is frustrated and upset with the political process.

Fusion: What’s been the response in Washington to the book?

Davis: I haven’t heard from any Republicans yet. I’ve heard from a lot of Democrats.

Fusion: Are you surprised by that?

Davis: I expect that eventually, somebody that doesn’t agree that these kids should be in the U.S. will weigh in and savage the book. I just hope that it will percolate and get in the hands of the people who need to read it. I’m trying to get the book into the hands of people who might not think twice about the immigration debate, who might just be operating on their knee-jerk reactions.

Fusion: Have you had any emails from readers expressing a change of heart?

Davis: I’ve been definitely getting responses from people. What they say to me is this made me cry. I’ve gotten a lot of emails like that. But I don’t know where they were coming from before.

Fusion: There’s concern that undocumented immigrants are taking jobs Americans could have. You might argue that in the case of agriculture, immigrants are doing jobs most Americans wouldn’t take. But the types of jobs we’re talking about are in high demand.

Davis: I think that from the perspective of the country, we want the best minds, no matter where they come from. This is a question about American competitiveness. This is a question of building great things for the future, and everybody in every job should be competitive. So I have no problem arguing that if there’s an engineering job that’s available, engineers of all stripes should compete for them. The film does a lot to bring attention to the kind of natural resource of talent we have.

Where the film stops, though, is that it ends with the win. It ends with this big feel-good moment. They proved that they could beat MIT. That’s what Hollywood does. But the reality is that was 10 years ago, and the 10 years after were almost equally important.

How are those kids treated after having proven their potential? What actually happens? The second half of the book documents those experiences. To me that’s the most worth talking about: the moments that lead us to think that this problem is solved, when in fact we are still struggling with it in a very serious way.

Fusion: They’re faced with an insurmountable barrier because even though they have all this talent, there’s not much they can do. It’s almost worse.

Davis: To me what’s frustrating is you see the guys and women from MIT have gone on to great jobs, and we want that. But these guys who beat them have not. That’s something that we need to talk about. That’s the whole reason to write the book and make the movie is to spark that conversation.

Fusion: Plus, really integrating people like these guys into the workforce might help with the diversity problem in tech.

I’ve had conversations with Silicon Valley startups. They have a diversity problem. And I’ve said, look I’ve got some great candidates for you. I got into a conversation with one of the recruiters from one of these big companies. I said Christian would be a perfect fit for you guys. Let’s start the process, and Oscar too before he had the BNSF job. They made [Oscar] an offer, but it was basically to be a very low level technician, and the offer he got from BNSF was double, if not triple, the salary. So he went there.

And [with] Christian, the conversation just petered out. You would think, here is a qualified guy — or at least somebody who has proven their potential. He may not have a college degree. [But] particularly nowadays, college degrees are somewhat looked down upon. It was upsetting to me.

Fusion: Since the story published, has there been an uptick in robotics programs in underserved communities?

Davis: I don’t have stats on it, but anecdotally, I’ve most definitely been getting emails saying we’ve got a robotics program in my underserved community, and it’s been this bright light for the school. At Carl Hayden, it’s [now] 50 to 100 students. It’s a large number of kids who are super dedicated and really into robots. It’s amazing to watch. The robots that they’re building now make Stinky look like child’s play.

Fusion: Do you know of other undocumented students who’ve excelled in science and engineering fields, who have somehow have managed to find a way to stay here and work?

Davis: Angelica Hernandez went to Stanford and got a masters. She, I believe, is still on DACA, and has a job. I think they got a visa for her.

Fusion: Did she go to Stanford undocumented?

Davis: Yes.

Fusion: This is not the first time I’ve heard of this. I knew an undocumented girl who went to Harvard. These guys didn’t have that opportunity or didn’t know that was an option?

Davis: The focus initially was that Christian should go to MIT. At that time, I was saying, you need to apply. This is what you do. This is how you do it. But I felt there was resistance from the families. [They] don’t know anybody who’d ever done this. And part of what these four guys did was, by laying this foundation, they took the first step. By the time Angelica came along, a few years later, she was basically standing on their shoulders.

Fusion: If your family is fearful that you’re going to end up getting deported when you go off to college, you’re not going to go, regardless of how prestigious it is. You’re up against another insurmountable barrier.

Davis: With Christian, his family didn’t want him to leave Phoenix. My interpretation — and my reporting after the fact — was that his parents didn’t want him to go far away. It was bad enough that he went to California to compete. That was a stretch.

It’s wonderful that Angelica and all these other kids benefited, but at the same time it saddens me when the story is simply that they laid the groundwork, but didn’t get to benefit necessarily from the breakthroughs they instigated.

Fusion: One of the things that struck me about the story—maybe because my sister is a teacher—is the importance of teachers who can inspire their students to be better. So, I thought the fact that in the movie, the idea to enter the competition at the college level—to enter the competition at all—came from the students, detracted a bit from that.

Davis: I think from the film’s point of view, the character of the teacher is still very inspiring. He donated the money in the film, and that’s something that actually didn’t happen, so that plays the other way.

There’s almost a stereotype now of teachers, particularly in the public school system, that they can’t get a better job. I don’t think we communicate well enough that the vast majority of teachers are extraordinary public servants, and are sacrificing a lot to do the job. Fredi [Lajvardi] and Allan [Cameron] — for much of the past 10 years — were not paid to coach these robotics teams.

Any efforts on the part of Hollywood to tell a story about a teacher who cares I think will help move the dialogue in the right direction.

Daniela Hernandez is a senior writer at Fusion. She likes science, robots, pugs, and coffee.

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