Oscar Vazquez, who grew up in Arizona as an undocumented immigrant and went on to serve in the U.S. Army, was a special guest at President Barack Obama’s final State of the Union address Tuesday night.
He sat in the guest box of First Lady Michelle Obama along with 22 others, including Sue Ellen Allen, a former inmate from Scottsdale who formed a nonprofit called Gina’s Team to help women reenter society after they’re released from Arizona prisons.
Also among the guests in the first lady's box was a Syrian refugee, a police chief, an opioid-reform advocate, the first female Army Reserve officer to graduate from Ranger School, and the lead plaintiff in the U.S. Supreme Court case that legalized gay marriage nationwide.
“The guests personify President Obama’s time in office and most importantly, they represent who we are as Americans: inclusive and compassionate, innovative and courageous,” the White House said in a statement.
Vazquez told NBC 5 in Dallas-Fort Worth, where he now lives with his family, that he was surprised when the White House called to invite him to the presidents's State of the Union address: “There are a lot of other people out in this country that are doing amazing things and just to be one of those that gets invited it’s just—I’m speechless.”
Vazquez was 12 years old when he and his mother left Mexico and crossed the border illegally to reunite with his father in Arizona. He grew up in Phoenix as an undocumented immigrant and excelled in school. He attended Carl Hayden High School, where he was part of the school’s robotics team.
The team, made up of four undocumented students, won first place in a national underwater robotics competition in 2004, beating students from some of the nation's top colleges, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Their story was turned into a Hollywood movie called Spare Parts that was released last year, starring George Lopez. A documentary called Underwater Dreams that recounts their story was also made.
After high school, Vazquez attended Arizona State University and earned a mechanical engineering degree in 2009. He was one of the few ASU graduates honored during graduation that year. Thousands applauded him, including Obama, who was there to give the commencement speech.
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But once he graduated, he couldn't use his degree to work because he was undocumented. Feeling frustrated, he left for Mexico to try to adjust his immigration status. While in Mexico, he was separated from his wife and daughter who stayed in Arizona.
With the help of Democratic U.S. Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, he applied for a visa and came back to the United States nearly a year after he left. He eventually was able to apply to adjust his immigration through a petition his wife, a U.S. citizen, filed on his behalf. Almost immediately after he became a legal permanent resident, he enlisted in the U.S. Army, fulfilling a longtime dream, and served one tour in Afghanistan.
“The U.S. is a country where you can do everything you set your mind to,” he said in an interview last year.
Vazquez is now a U.S. citizen and works in Texas for Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railways as a business analyst on a web app development team. He’s also “a passionate advocate on behalf on expanding STEM opportunities for Latino and other under-represented youth,” according to the White House.