He’s been depicted in a Hollywood film; he has been spoken about at length on the floor of the U.S. Senate; and this week Oscar Vazquez will be one of Barack and Michelle Obama’s guests at the State of the Union address Tuesday night.
Not bad for a Dreamer who grew up in Phoenix, Arizona, and self-deported himself six years ago, spending 11 months separated from his wife and kids in order to get right with U.S. immigration law.
Vazquez – now a software developer and business analyst with BNSF Railway who served in the Army in Afghanistan – will share the guest box with a criminal justice reformer, a community college student, a Syrian refugee, a native American STEM activist from Alaska and the first female U.S. Army Ranger, among others.
“It’s just a complete surprise,” Vazquez told NBC5 in Dallas-Fort Worth, where he now lives with his wife, Karla, and their kids. “There’s a lot of other people out in this country who are doing amazing things. Just to be one of those who get invited … I’m speechless.”
Vazquez’s and the other guests’ stories, the White House said in an announcement, “represent the progress we have made since the president first delivered [the State of the Union] seven years ago ... Their stories of struggle and success highlight where we have been and where America is going in the future, building on the best of what our country has to offer.”
Vazquez’s story begins with him being brought illegally to the U.S. by his Mexican parents when he was 12. He worked hard, becoming part of a team of students at Carl Hayden High School that beat teams from elite colleges like MIT and Cornell in an underwater robotics competition – an accomplishment memorialized in the 2015 movie, “Spare Parts” in which he was portrayed by Carlos Peña Vega.
Vazquez tried to enlist in the military, but was turned down because he didn’t have the proper documentation, so he went to Arizona State University instead, where he graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering in 2009.
At the graduation ceremony, which had Pres. Obama as commencement speaker, his story was among those featured, according to the Arizona Republic.
“I knew that once I graduated college I wasn’t going to be able to get a job,” Vazquez explained to the NBC affiliate in Dallas-Fort Worth, where he now lives. “But that didn’t stop me from continuing that education, because I knew that eventually would pay off no matter what.”
So he crossed into Mexico, leaving behind Karla and an infant daughter, and presented himself to the U.S. consulate there, explaining that he had been living in the country illegally.
He asked for permission to return, but that ordinarily takes 10 years. He worked the night shift at an auto parts factory while applying for a waiver that would allow him to reunite with his family more quickly.
His initial application was turned down, but the media – the Arizona Republic and CNN among other news outlets – featured his case, which brought the attention of Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois), who invoked Vazquez’s story on the Senate floor last year.
Once Durbin was involved, Vazquez told the Arizona Republic, "It was fast."
He received a waiver on July 14, 2010, and a green card a month later.
“It took 11 months or so of me being separated from the family,” Vazquez told NBC5. “Eventually I got my Green Card, came back to the states and then I decided that I wanted to do what I always wanted to do and I joined the military.”
He served with distinction, doing one tour of duty in Afghanistan, according to the White House.
“After the first firefight,” he told NBC5, “I felt like I had earned my right to be called an American.”
Since his discharge in 2014, Vazquez has worked as an engineer for BNSF in Montana and now Texas. He has also championed STEM education for Latino and other minority students.