Ingenuity brightens future
The Arizona Republic
Apr. 23, 2005 12:00 AM
Doors finally open for 4 Phoenix migrant youths a year after beating MIT in
robotics competition

Mel Meléndez
Last summer, four students from Carl Hayden High School stunned educators and engineers when they won a national robotics competition, beating teams from the best universities in the country.

Maneuvering "Stinky," an underwater robot built from plastic irrigation pipes, the Phoenix team edged out the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's state-of-the-art robot in a seven-part obstacle course at the bottom of University of California-Santa Barbara's swimming pool.

Their victory had a bitter twist. All four are Mexican immigrants from poor Phoenix neighborhoods, and it seemed that none could use the achievement as a step toward earning a university degree.

But all that changed after an article in the April Wired magazine shared their unlikely victory. Offers of support came in from around the world. In the article, the four were described as undocumented immigrants, which prevents them from qualifying for financial assistance.

Luis Aranda, Cristian Arcega, Lorenzo Santillan and Oscar Vasquez illustrate the exception when it comes to the fate of bright, undocumented high school students. They find that achievement in high school means nothing when it comes time for college because most can't afford tuition. And for the few who actually earn a university degree, their undocumented status continues to stand in the way of getting a job.

Many of these immigrant students are brought to this country as young children by their parents. For them, the end of high school is like hitting a brick wall. Oscar Vasquez, 18, won't discuss his immigration status but said, "It's like they open the door to the American dream by encouraging you to do well in (high) school, and then they slam it shut by making it so difficult to attend college. But is that fair, if you have the potential and are willing to work hard to make it?"

In the polarized immigration debate, many view a smart, undocumented high school graduate as no different from an undocumented laborer: undocumented and undeserving. For others, the students represent potential engineers, doctors and other professionals too valuable to toss away.

The Robotics Four

The Wired article on the four Carl Hayden students appeared about five weeks ago. Since then, nearly $53,000 has poured into a "La Vida Robot Scholarship Fund" opened after hundreds of people e-mailed Wired and Carl Hayden High School offering financial assistance to the boys.

The story of the four students has been picked up and repeated in both English- and Spanish-language television newscasts, newspapers, magazines and science periodicals. Up next, segments on National Public Radio and ABC's Nightline. Warner Bros. has purchased rights for a movie.

Arcega, 16, and Santillan, 17, are juniors and still members of Carl Hayden's Falcons robotics team. Both are competing this weekend at the FIRST Robotics National Competition in Atlanta and are eager to defend their National ROV Competition for High School & College Students title in Houston in June.

Of the four, Santillan has made the most academic progress. Once a failing student more interested in hanging out with gang members, Santillan had to raise his grades to qualify for last year's remotely operated underwater-vehicle contest. He is now passing all classes and beams with pride over his "A" in math. The scholarship fund has prompted plans to study engineering in college.

Arcega, the youngest of the four, is a straight-A student with a 4.56 grade point average known for his writing ability and sharp critical-thinking skills. He has received a full-ride, four-year scholarship offer from the California Institute of Technology and dreams of becoming an engineer and being the first in his family to graduate from college.

The other two students, Aranda, 19, and Vasquez, 18, graduated from Carl Hayden last May. It was their stories that struck a chord around the world. After beating MIT, Aranda took a job as a file clerk and Vasquez worked in drywall. Vasquez juggles a 30-hour workweek with part-time coursework at Phoenix College. But life is easier since the head of a local insurance company learned of his struggles and offered him a desk job. Thanks to the scholarship fund, Vasquez plans to enroll full-time next semester to pursue a mechanical engineering degree.

Aranda is still an office file clerk. He plans to enroll in business courses this fall to fulfill his dreams of opening a restaurant and buying his parents a home. The shy teen still shakes his head in amazement while discussing the Robotics Four's good fortunes.

"We really didn't expect any of this," he said. "But I'm amazed that people have such good hearts and care enough to want to help us get educated. I can't express how much that really means to all of us."

Financial barrier

Bright, undocumented students have reason to be surprised. Past proposals to help them qualify for college have all died in Congress. In Arizona, there is currently a state bill that would make it even harder.

Undocumented students who have lived in Arizona for at least a year qualify for in-state tuition at state colleges, which is currently about $4,000. House Bill 2030 initially called for banning undocumented students from public colleges and universities. It has been revised to allow them to attend at the higher out-of-state tuition, which costs about $13,000 a year.

Undocumented students do not qualify for state, federal or institutional aid, such as grants, loans, scholarships and work-study programs, regardless of how long they've lived in the state. Money is a huge barrier for such students.

Arizona has about 161,000 English-language learners. Education officials estimate that half of those students are undocumented and most come from low-income families struggling to pay their bills. Without access to in-state tuition, much less financial aid, money for college is out of the question.

"These are families that are truly hurting, so $4,000 a year might as well be $400,000 a year," said Josué González, executive director for Arizona State University's ENLACE program, which works to recruit and retain minority students. "This is why so many Latino high school students drop out. . . . They see the financial burden as insurmountable."

Arizona's Latino high school dropout rate is about 30 percent, nearly twice the national percentage and one of the highest rates in the country.

Some states, including California and Texas, have already passed laws granting undocumented students the cheaper in-state tuition. At least 20 other states have considered or are considering similar legislation.

The Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., estimates about 65,000 undocumented students annually graduate from U.S. high schools. How many of them enroll in a U.S. college or university is unknown.

A bill in Congress called the Dream Act would allow undocumented students who graduated from U.S. high schools to become legal permanent residents. Supporters believe giving students and their families a shot at in-state tuition would help. But political observers say the bill will likely die because of the current wave of anti-immigrant sentiment.

The Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C., group pushing for tighter immigration reform, opposes the act. Executive Director Mark Krikorian said offering in-state tuition to undocumented students is unfair to those who enter the country legally with student visas. As in other states, Arizona's international students pay out-of-state tuition.

"It rewards people for being in the United States illegally," he said. "It also focuses on the most photogenic group of illegal aliens to create momentum for amnesty for other illegals. These students should be deported."

Although college-bound undocumented students face many obstacles, deportation is not one of them. The Department of Homeland Security's focus is on fortifying the border and intercepting criminals who cross illegally, said Lori Haley, spokeswoman for the agency's U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement arm.

"To go after high school students just because of their status is very rare," she said. "Now, if they were involved in criminal activity, that would be a different story."

Work requirements

Those undocumented students who somehow find the money and make it through college hit a similar set of obstacles when they graduate.

Potential employers will ask for a Social Security card as part of the routine job-application process. Some college graduates buy fake cards. But teachers and university officials who work with undocumented students say most balk when it comes to purchasing fake IDs.

"It's an awful Catch-22 because these are good kids who don't want to break the law," said Intel engineer Daniel Cartagena, who mentors students through ASU's Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers chapter. "But they know they won't be able to work without their papers."

Of the 24,000 students in the Phoenix Union High School District, 75 percent are Latino. Fredi Lajvardi, a teacher at Carl Hayden and one of the robotics team advisers, knows that a good many of the students are undocumented and that they see the obstacles.

"The kids often confide their fears, and it breaks your heart," he said. "These are kids who had no say in coming here but are now being penalized by this two-tiered educational system. That's just not right."

Lajvardi and fellow teacher Allan Cameron, another robotics team adviser,recall Dulce, an undocumented student who started her freshman year at Carl Hayden. She hoped to graduate and planned to work as a waitress.

But when she joined the robotics team, Dulce discovered a passion for engineering, and her aspirations grew. She is now completing her second year at ASU as an honors student pursuing an electronics engineering degree.

Dulce is one of the lucky ones. She landed an internship at a top high-tech firm in Chandler. The company plans to sponsor her to help Dulce obtain legal working status.

"That's a story with a happy ending," Cameron said. "But you can't help thinking about the other kids, like Dulce, with real potential, that don't make it that far because it all seems so hopeless."

Reach the reporter at or (602) 444-8212.