Four high school students from a troubled neighborhood in West Phoenix who won a 2004 robotics competition are the subject of an inspirational new movie titled "Spare Parts", and a recent book by the same title. They triumphed because of their intelligence, skill, and resourcefulness. What adds dramatic poignancy and political heft to their story is that three of the four were in the U.S. illegally, having been brought here years earlier from Mexico by their parents.
Two of the members of the Carl Hayden Community High School underwater robotics team — Lorenzo Santillan and Oscar Vazquez — were guests on last Wednesday's Diane Rehm Show, which originates on Washington public radio station WAMU. They were joined by Fredi Lajvardi, one of the two inspirational teachers who helped the young men bloom, and Joshua Davis, author of the book that tells the story.
Lorenzo and Oscar personify the case for the DREAM Act, which proposes to provide permanent legal status to certain people brought here as children. I supported the DREAM Act long before learning of their story.
Yes, I am concerned that the DREAM Act will reward decisions by parents to come illegally to the United States. And I'm concerned that it will encourage more people to come illegally. But I see it as a necessary step toward the compromise that will be necessary if we are to establish a credible immigration system. I also see it as recognition of the reality expressed by Lorenzo Santillan when he said, "I am as American as anybody else" in every way but legal status. Lorenzo was brought here when he was an infant. I saw many Lorenzos when I lived in Phoenix. Having grown up here and been educated here, they tend to be well integrated into our society.
Their dreams are American. They have the capacity to contribute to our society. Their success would be our success. Their failure would be our failure.
But I also believe that a credible, functioning immigration system will require the willingness — once the terms of the compromise are worked out and a law is passed — to enforce the limits that the compromise must include. That is why I was impressed that the guest host of Friday's program, Frank Sesno, was willing to ask Joshua Davis some pointed questions near the end of the hour. Sesno, the former CNN anchor who now directs the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University, inserted a sobering note of political reality into what had been a stirring story of the human spirit.
I think Sesno showed more understanding of the ingredients of compromise than did Davis. Without further editorial comment, here is a partial transcript of their exchange:
Sesno: "There will be people from the area who say this is great and these guys are terrific. But they are not everybody. And there are thousands, millions of people who are in this country illegally, who are taxing services, who are a problem. If they are not a problem as human beings, the issue is certainly a problem. What do you say to that?"
Davis: "I say, based on my experience and the people that I talk to and the reporting I've done over the past 10 years: people from all over the world are not coming to the United States to take it easy. They're coming here to build a better life, to work hard, to contribute. And I think it's really important that we understand that, that it's not that they're here for a free ride."
Sesno: "How does the country balance these human lives that you have seen so closely with what needs to be real policy to control what has been a flood?"
Davis: "It's a flood of people who want to come here and do great things. We've always had floods of immigrants. We're a country of immigrants."
Sesno: "But are you suggesting there should be no controls, no walls, no border? That anybody who comes from anyplace should be able to do that?"
Davis: "If you have a criminal record, no. But if you're here to work hard and do good things, absolutely."