President Obama invited Mexican immigrant and Army Veteran Oscar Vazquez to attend his final State of the Union address as a guest of the White House. Vazquez discovered his undocumented status while trying to enlist in the Army, went through a year-long “self-deportation” after college, voluntarily returning to Mexico in order to enter the U.S. legally and enlist. He served two tours in Afghanistan and now works as an engineer.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. His High School Robotics Team Beat MIT
As a senior at Phoenix, Arizona’s Carl Hayden High School, Vazquez’s robotics team entered the prestigious Marine Advanced Technology Education Center’s Remotely Operated Vehicle Competition. Inexperienced and underfunded, they were so pessimistic about their chances that they chose to compete in the expert-level division to lose to college teams instead of high school competition. When no robot was able to complete the notoriously difficult course, the high school students made up ground on their technical presentation and, in a shocking upset, won the entire competition.
The story of the competition became the 2015 film Spare Parts, the trailer for which is seen above. Despite his technical prowess, Arizona did not allow in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants until 2015; Vazquez paid out-of-state tuition for an engineering degree at Arizona State University via private scholarships and construction wages, all while leading the university robotics team to multiple regional championships.
2. He Left His Wife in America to ‘Re-Immigrate’
Vazquez first learned of his undocumented status while trying to enlist in high school. After graduating from college, Vazquez decided to take the extraordinary step of returning to Mexico to re-enter the country legally, leaving behind his wife Karla and their infant daughter, who were American citizens. He got a night-shift job at an auto parts factory in Sonora, where his wife and daughter occasionally visited. After a waiver of the 10-year ban on re-entry for undocumented citizens who stay past their 18th birthday was denied twice, Illinois Senator and DREAM Act proponent Dick Durbin (seen above using Vazquez as an example of a “Dreamer”) got involved; a third application was approved, and Vazquez was allowed to re-enter.
Oscar and Karla remain married and now have two children.
3. He Served 2 Tours in Afghanistan
Within six months of receiving his green card, Vazquez was in Army basic training, during which he was awarded full citizenship. Initially trained as a cavalry scout, Vazquez worked for eligibility to attend “jump school” and eventually qualified as a paratrooper.
I want[ed] to do something about it. I’ll look back and think of 9/11 and [think] there was something done after that, and I was part of it. It was like my little grain of sand.
4. He’s an Engineer in Montana & a Latino Advocate
Vazquez left the Army in 2013 and became a foreman with BNSF Railway, a major freight rail company in Montana. Before and after leaving the Army, he advocated on behalf of undocumented youth. In the video below, he testified at a DREAM Act hearing conducted by Durbin:
This is not Vazquez’s first trip to Washington at the President’s invitation. In March 2015, Vazquez attended the White House Science Fair, a series of competitions between science-minded American youth.
5. He’s One of Several Invitees to Highlight Political Issues
The White House invited 24 guests to sit with the First Lady at the State of the Union address. Just as Vazquez’s invitation comes at a time when several GOP contenders favor a harder line on immigration, other Presidential invitations highlight contentious issues, notably: