“We should empower as many people as we can to build great things,” one of the narrators says in the new documentary Underwater Dreams.
The film focuses on a group of students from Carl Hayden Community High School in Phoenix, AZ, who entered a sophisticated underwater robotics competition sponsored by NASA and the Office of Naval Research.
Carl Hayden Community High School’s (a Title I school where most of the students live in poverty) robotics team competed against colleges and universities from throughout the country and ultimately won the entire competition—even beating the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) team.
Yes, the film highlights the importance of Science Technology Engineering and Mathematic curriculum in the U.S. education system, but the film goes beyond that and address a problem that millions are struggling with in this country.
Specifically, the four students faced another obstacle beyond just building a robot that could function underwater that their competitors did not—their immigration status.
Like millions of other immigrant youth, the students, Lorenzo Santillan, Oscar Vazquez, Luis Aranda, Cristian Arcega, and Angelica Hernandez had come to the U.S. at a young age and grew up in a community where expectations were already set low for them.
The Center for American Progress (CAP), FWD.us, and the National Immigration Forum partnered to screen the new documentary that followed these students and their robot during the competition.
Underwater Dreams, directed by Mary Mazzio and narrated by Michael Peña, the film follows this group of students as they claimed victory in a competition nobody expected them to compete in and later created a pipeline of leadership that empowered undocumented immigrant youth to fight for the DREAM Act.
At the movie screening, Lorenzo Santillan spoke of the difficulties the students in his community faced after graduating high school and figuring out their future because of their immigration status. However, through the leadership of their teachers, Fredi Lajvardi and Allan Cameron, more and more students went on to join the school’s robotics team.
The students on the team went on to found the Arizona DREAM Act Coalition that fought against Proposition 300, which prohibits undocumented students from qualifying for in-state tuition rates and any type of state financial aid, and led the fight to help pass the DREAM Act in 2010 (it failed by just five votes in the U.S. Senate).
Beyond the inspiring story, Underwater Dreams highlights the unique challenges undocumented students face in pursuit of education. Often faced with hostile legislation that bans them from receiving financial aid or enrolling in public colleges and universities, undocumented students have led the fight to increase education access for a wider group of students.
In the past four months, undocumented students successfully won access to state financial aid in Washington state and led the campaign to allow in-state tuition rates and public colleges and universities in New Jersey. Currently 20 states allow some form of in-state tuition rates for undocumented students that graduated from their high schools and only four allow them access to state financial aid.
Underwater Dreams highlights the talent the U.S. could lose if Congress does not address our country’s broken immigration system.