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Giving undocumented Americans a chance to dream

The real life story of four undocumented high school students who defeated MIT in a robotics competition captures the promise and peril of America's DREAMers.
Luis, one of the undocumented students in the documentary \"Underwater Dreams\"
Luis, one of the undocumented students in the documentary \"Underwater Dreams\"

There were only four high school boys on the robotics team in 2004, all of them undocumented immigrants, the year Carl Hayden Community High School defeated engineering powerhouse MIT in a sophisticated underwater robotics competition. All it took was some duct tape, PVC parts from Home Depot, and a cheap spy camera found on the web to build the contraption, which the students named "Stinky."

Fredi Lajvardi, a marine biology teacher, and Allan Cameron, who taught ham radio and computer programming, had started the Phoenix, Arizona, high school team a year earlier, only to find few takers. It took some serious cajoling and arm-twisting to put the prize-winning 2004 team together.

But their improbable win catalyzed something remarkable. Now, 10 years later, the Carl Hayden robotics team has 10 times as many members. And it introduced a new word, rarely uttered in this community of undocumented and low-income Hispanic students: “College.” Life in this community would continue to be hard but maybe -- just maybe -- something different was possible.

The robotics team's 2004 win inspired a new generation of engineers and problem solvers. And it also inspired me to chronicle their remarkable story in a new documentary film, "Underwater Dreams."

RELATED: Have a question for Mary? Ask here.

During the course of making this film, I had not realized how many students from this little robotics program later graduated from Arizona State University with engineering degrees. Or how many of them would become the next generation of civil rights leaders. This little robotics program at Carl Hayden, according to Suzie Kwan, a recruiter from Arizona State University, has sent more students to ASU than any athletic program.

The four original boys did not know at the time that they would become heroes -- and they certainly do not view themselves that way. But with classic American can-do spirit, they showed the rest of us what it truly means to be American: to work hard and think hard and figure out a way to move beyond obstacles. 

These students have shown that they have everything it takes to be a scientist or engineer. And America is in desperate need of skilled engineers and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) workers. By 2018, it is estimated that there will be 2.4 million unfilled STEM jobs. As such, America needs students like Carl Hayden's robotics team and the hundreds of thousands of students just like them across the country. Our future depends on them.

Confronted with the advent of Proposition 300 in Arizona (which, among other restrictions, prohibits undocumented students from any state benefits, including in-state tuition rates), several alumni from the Carl Hayden robotics team started the Arizona Dream Act Coalition (ADAC) to fight for higher educational opportunities for immigrants. One of the founders, Angelica Hernandez, is currently pursuing an advanced engineering degree at Stanford. Another founder, Dulce Matuz, was named one of Time magazine’s "100 Most Influential People" in 2012. In becoming politically active, these students and aspiring engineers put themselves at great risk of deportation by standing up and having a voice.

The members of ADAC respectfully write to Congress, form peaceful protests and pray for reform. What do they want? With a valuable American high school education (and if they are lucky, an American college degree), they want to work and contribute to our country. They want a life that is better than that of their parents. They want the chance to succeed, to build great things, and to not be discarded. 

According to the Pew Research Center, people of Hispanic/Latino descent will rise from 14% of the population to 29% by 2050.  Given the yawning achievement gap among Hispanic students and the fact that we need these students to fuel and support our aging population, it is imperative that these students, who are as aspirational and capable as any child in America, be given the opportunity to achieve. 

“These first generation immigrants are a gold-mine,” says Bill Harris, President and CEO of Science Foundation Arizona. “One of them will start the next Google. You just have to find the nuggets.”

We are seeing people from across the aisle come together around the project, which hopefully can create forward momentum for these students and others like them. Democratic Congressman Joe Kennedy of Massachusetts and Jeb Bush Jr. (an executive producer of the film) will co-host an event for Underwater Dreams this summer. 

As the great-granddaughter of immigrants (who came to this country poor as dirt), I am reminded that these young people are just as American as I am. But they are braver, more courageous and harder working. 

Paperwork or not.  

Mary Mazzio is the director and producer of "Underwater Dreams," in theaters July 11 in Los Angeles and New York. It premieres July 20 on MSNBC and Telemundo.

The director of "Underwater Dreams" is answering YOUR questions. Ask here.