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In 'Underwater Dreams,' Robotics Team Puts Lens On Immigration Debate


I'm Jacki Lyden and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. We've been following the surge of undocumented immigrants, especially minors, at the U.S.-Mexico border in recent weeks. It's been a controversial matter. In Arizona, protesters on both sides of the issue are demonstrating. Immigration remains hotly debated across the country. A new documentary, however, takes a different approach, following four undocumented students who enter an underwater robotics competition in 2004. The group was from Phoenix's Carl Hayden High School, which is predominantly working-class and Hispanic. They were the underdogs, going up against illustrious MIT and other elite schools. Jeb Bush Jr., yes of that famous Bush family, is one of the executive producers of the film and he joins us to talk more about it.

JEB BUSH JR: Thanks so much for having me.

LYDEN: So let's go through the arc of this little bit. Give us some of the context here - what happens in the movie?

BUSH JR: So essentially these kids show up at the competition really just bootstrapping their underwater robot - you know - really going there because their teacher convinced them to give it a shot. They had nothing to lose and, you know, it sounded like a fun field trip. But they show up there - and this is the most prestigious - one of the most prestigious robotics competitions in the country. They have judges - they have essentially three different tasks that they asked the robots to do underwater. So the kids essentially passed successfully two out of the three tasks and ended up winning the competition.

LYDEN: We're talking about four kids here - very talented - going to high school in America. Some of them are born in Mexico, having kind of a hard time. And let's play a couple of clips from the film. In this clip, the team from the high school - Carl Hayden - is landing at the competition at U.C. Santa Barbara and it's just another world.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: When we walked in, we were different.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: Yeah, we definitely felt out of place. Our reaction was - was definitely something that stood out there.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 3: And I had never seen that much white people.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: Nobody was Mexican or Hispanic or Latino.

LYDEN: And not only that Jeb Bush Jr., their robot was a little, well, I'm going to let them describe this kind of really Rube Goldbergesque robot.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We looked like the carnival had arrived - just a raggedy-ass robot - looked like we had just pieced together everything from a junkyard.

LYDEN: So give us a little bit of a background of this, would you? We've got this high school in a challenged area and this robot that they basically built from Home Depot.

BUSH JR: You know - not only these kids used very limited resources, but if you take a step back and realize that they're literally in the middle of the desert in Phoenix, Arizona, that are entering an underwater robotics competition - not a lot of places to practice out there. So they enter this competition and go out to California and compete against the best colleges in the country - schools like MIT and come out victorious. It's really an incredible story.

LYDEN: One of these kids had been in a gang, the parents had mostly blue-collar jobs. They're all interviewed in Spanish, not an English. And what happens is that when they get to that competition in Santa Barbara, the robot takes on water, threatening its electrical components. And this is one of my neighbor parts in the film. They're driving along and they figure out that they can use a tampon to fix it.


MICHAEL PENA: (As the Narrator) The boys went at it, brainstorming ways to deal with the water in the mechanical housing - ideas that were just downright embarrassing.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE 1: We started talking about desiccant, which is what the stuff in diapers is which absorbs all the liquid.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE 2: Lorenzo said well, wait - aren't tampons the same material?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE 3: And so everyone started getting quiet because one, you were going to start asking how do you know this? And the second thing was who is going to get this?

LYDEN: And that line just made me laugh out loud. I mean, talk about literally thinking outside the box.

BUSH JR: Very creative. There's a scene where the MIT kids speak about that and they were surprised as well. But, you know, at the end of the day they got the job done and it was a very simple approach to a tough problem.

LYDEN: You are no stranger to the political world and your father is the former governor of Florida, your uncle and grandfather both former presidents. What did you want to say about the issue in the form of a documentary?

BUSH JR: I do a lot of work on the immigration reform side but also something that we saw as it relates to education reform, films like "Waiting For Superman," really brought down the issue almost to a bite-size level and kind the reality of it and trying to get this film in front of policymakers and opinion leaders around the country as they talk about this issue.

LYDEN: I understand that you're bicultural yourself.

BUSH JR: I am. My mother's Mexican and dad's a gringo as we say.

LYDEN: What goes through your head when you see the stories now? You couldn't have known that we'd had the kind of border crisis that we are experiencing this summer when you were making it. When you see those pictures about students, young people, trying to get over the border?

BUSH JR: Well it's an extremely difficult situation. At the end of the day, we've got to step back and realize these are kids that are trying to seek a better life. And so as a great country, we should really focus on being great and being humane and taking care of these kids. I think most of the frustration you see now in the media has to do with a lack of efficiency or lack of functional government, which is - you know - caused a lot of frustrations amongst conservatives and liberals.

LYDEN: One of the young men we see here, Oscar, has a particularly poignant story. Can you tell us a little bit about him?

BUSH JR: Sure. Oscar is an incredible kid and he essentially came here as a young - essentially as a baby. Grew up in this country, got a scholarship for engineering and essentially wanted to become an American citizen but couldn't go through the process. And when he was at college, he was enlisted in ROTC. He wanted to serve in the military. And so what he did is he essentially deported himself and tried to come through properly and long story short, Senator Durbin really took it to the floor in the Senate, promoted talking about how this kid wants to serve in the military, help our economy, be a good citizen but couldn't, you know, get the paperwork done. So it's a good example of the kind of situation we're in now as it relates to the way the immigration system's not working.

LYDEN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about a new documentary "Underwater Dreams" that explores immigration and educational policy through the lives of undocumented students in Arizona. My guest is Jeb Bush Jr. and he was an executive producer of the documentary. Being the son of such a famous Republican former Governor Jeb Bush - I know that he says he doesn't want to run for president but a lot of people hope he would and others say he couldn't win the nomination because of his stance on immigration. Are you hoping that one of the outcomes of this is that it nudges the Republican Party on immigration?

BUSH JR: Well, this is what we've been trying to do through the film and other means - to really communicate to folks to conservatives to opinion leaders to look at this opportunity that we have to grow our country. I think, in my perspective, this is a conservative view. We should - need to focus on immigration reform for our economic needs and doing things like securing the border and Dreamer legislation. So hopefully this is one of many things to get the conservative party but also leadership in Washington to - to act.

LYDEN: You mentioned Senator Dick Durbin's hearings on immigration a few years back, have you shown this film to any Republicans - ? - because I didn't see a Republican in the movie.

BUSH JR: Throughout the last couple of months, we've been essentially doing screenings in a few cities. But we're trying to get politicians and elected officials to the film. So the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Center for American Progress are hosting these screenings for us and we're inviting elected officials to come see it. So yes, there's been a lot of conservatives or Republicans that have seen it. We've had a very positive reviews thus far, so we're excited about it.

LYDEN: And you just mentioned two groups - the Center for American Progress and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce - that we might think of is not always working together. So I know that you're not in politics yourself but what are you recommending needs to be done to improve the lives of undocumented students and their access to education here?

BUSH JR: Sure. Well, essentially having a platform for educating folks - I mean - I think we all agree that it'd be better to educate more people with a high quality education at a lower cost than the opposite. And right now, we're doing the opposite. We're making education more expensive and harder to get. So as it relates to immigration and kids that come here young, I mean, we should create a platform - for example - in Florida they passed funding for undocumented kids - that they get in-state tuition. I think that's a good thing. So hopefully other states follow suit.

LYDEN: But we have been hearing so much about immigration reform basically being stalled permanently now with Congress as it is and the White House being at an impasse with Congress. Are you at all hopeful?

BUSH JR: I am. It's just a question of when. It's tough to imagine any significant piece of legislation happening before the midterms or perhaps under this administration, unfortunately. But, you know, again through the film, we're hoping that we start projecting a positive message of opportunity that folks could really get behind to see some type of immigration reform as soon as possible.

LYDEN: Speaking of politics, many of the students from the robotics team were attending University in Arizona when proposition 300 passed in 2006 and that barred undocumented students from receiving in-state tuition. I was really wondering how that affected the people in your movie?

BUSH JR: Yeah, it was a huge, huge issue. I believe it was proposition 300 in Arizona where they got rid of in-state tuition for undocumented kids. You know, so when you're in college and, you know, we obviously have student loan issues in this country, but if you could imagine paying a few thousand dollars for your degree annually and then that goes up for 5X - it's unsustainable and makes it very difficult to stay in college and so some of the kids that were taking advantage of in-state tuition had to drop out and had to get a job.

LYDEN: Anyone from this movie?

BUSH JR: Yeah, two of the kids couldn't get their degree and ended up going - getting a full-time job, which - it's great to work, but an education is very important.

LYDEN: So where are these four young men now? You mentioned that two are working.

BUSH JR: Correct. So two are working - one is a janitorial supervisor, another of the students, Lorenzo, who's got a great sense of humor you'll see in the film. He's working as a - he has his own catering business and then Oscar, who we spoke about before, became an American citizen and has served in the military and Afghanistan and now works for a - as an engineer in a railroad company.

LYDEN: But the other three are still on that indeterminate immigration status - still dreamers.

BUSH JR: Correct.

LYDEN: Jeb Bush Jr. is executive producer of "Underwater Dreams," a documentary set to premiere on MSNBC and Telemundo next week. It's currently out in select theaters and he was kind enough to join us from member station WLRN in Miami. Good luck Jeb Bush Jr.

BUSH JR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.