Undocumented immigrants’ story creates film and political discussion

Jose Soto, SHFWire Intern

WASHINGTON – As a high school senior, Oscar Vazquez wasn’t allowed to enlist in the military because he couldn’t provide proof of legal residency. Instead, he entered a robotics competition in 2005 with three of his high school friends, also undocumented, and went on to defeat the reigning champs at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

His story has now been made into a film. It stars George Lopez as Fredi, the science teacher turned mentor. Lopez said he was proud of the project during a panel discussion following a screening Tuesday.

“Spare Parts,” directed by Sean McNamara, showcases both the human struggle and the scholastic possibilities of the undocumented demographic. It depicts the true story of four immigrant students at Carl Hayden Community High School in Phoenix who enter a robotics competition despite having no legal papers and little money.

The Center for American Progress, a nonpartisan institute, sponsored the screening at as part of its Reel Progress film series, which screens films that deal with social change.

Vazquez, who attended the screening, said in an interview that he hopes the film helps ambitious undocumented immigrants get the opportunities they deserve.

“That has always been the point of us sharing the story,” Vazquez said. “The goal of the film all along was to change the perception of kids. We wanted them to stop being afraid and doubtful. We want them to pursue their dreams.”

The film addresses issues undocumented teens face as they struggle to live ordinary lives with the constant worry that they might be deported. The students also dealt with demographic unfairness by attending an underfunded public school that didn’t  ensure their success.

The discussion following the screening turned into a review of immigration policy.

The day after the screening, the Republican-controlled House voted for a Department of Homeland Security funding bill that would end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that allows undocumented students to remain in the U.S. The bill awaits Senate action.

“Fourteen years ago, I helped introduce the Dream Act,” Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., told the crowd at the theater. “I’d heard many stories about unfortunate children whose dreams they couldn’t pursue due to their immigration status.”

In an interview, Durbin added, “We should give them the chance to attend college and enlist in the military. They should be able to become citizens of the United States. Sadly enough, that still has not become the law of the land.”

The Dream Act, which would create a path to citizenship for young adults brought to the U.S. as children, failed to pass Congress in 2010.

Two of the students depicted in the film earned college degrees. One was Vazquez, who graduated from college in 2009. Unable to find a job without proper documentation, he surrendered to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He was deported to Mexico and tried unsuccessfully to enter the states legally. But after Durbin told Vazquez’s story to the U.S. House as an arguing point for the Dream Act, Vazquez was allowed back into the country. He enlisted in the Army, served in Afghanistan and became a U.S. citizen.

“Luckily, I was able to come back to the states legally and pursue my dream,” Vazquez said. “There are people out there like me who want to pursue their dreams and can’t.”

Marshall Fitz, CAP vice president for immigration policy, said that the “future of your party is in dire jeopardy” to anti-immigration reformists.

“You’re turning your back on them,” Fitz said. “It is going to be a barren desert ahead. A lot of it is driven by nativism and racial animist. That is very sad commentary in the 21st century.”

“Spare Parts” opens in theaters nationwide Friday.

Reach reporter Jose Soto at [email protected] or at (202)408-1949.