Embracing Our Immigrant Children

04/09/2013 04:24 pm ET | Updated Jun 09, 2013

A couple of months ago, I received one of the most difficult phone calls of my life. The call came from the mother of a former student of mine, Julio. Julio was just six years old when I met him as a first grade teacher in Phoenix, AZ. Fourteen years later, he has grown into the type of person I hope my sons might one day become -- disciplined, intelligent, persistent and kind. He is also, I would soon learn, about to be deported.

Julio came to the U.S. at age three, with his sister and two hard-working, undocumented parents. With his family facing all the challenges of living in poverty, Julio began working part-time at a young age. In order to hold a job, he had to secure a fake ID; he knew he was breaking the law, but he felt he had no choice. During his senior year, he dropped out of high school to work full time in a fast food restaurant to support his family. That year authorities noticed the fake ID and charged him with two counts of forgery -- a crime of "moral turpitude." He has been in jail ever since.

As I hung up the phone, scrambling to find visiting hours at the county jail, I thought my heart might burst. After eight months in prison fighting two counts of forgery, Julio had pled guilty. With a felony conviction, he was ineligible to stay on American soil. When I arrived in Phoenix the next day, there would be almost nothing I could do but explain this to his mother, and see what arrangements I might make for his arrival in Mexico. Julio was determined to keep fighting to stay in the country he called home, but I knew he most likely would not have a second chance.

Of course, Julio's story is not unique. Of the 65,000 undocumented students who earn their high school diplomas every year, somewhere between five and 10 percent go to college. Unsure of the legalities, many assume that they're not eligible -- or that even applying would attract the wrong kind of attention. Others who do apply earn acceptances they can't afford thanks to a bar on in-state tuition and financial aid available to their would-be classmates. Thus, despite the countless hours invested by teacher after teacher, their educational futures come to a screeching halt -- the doors of opportunity not so much closed as slammed. I saw this both as a teacher and in my own life growing up in South Texas where, day after day, promising young people for whom this country has always been home are forced to live in the shadow of their own uncertain futures.

In January, the president and a group of bipartisan senators came together to address this -- outlining a proposal for comprehensive immigration reform. Like the stalled DREAM Act before, their blueprint points to an expedited pathway to citizenship for young people who arrive in the U.S. as kids if they attend college or serve in the military. A proposal along these lines -- and one with provisions that make it easier for undocumented high schoolers to go to college -- has the potential to right a great wrong in our nation's history. Without it, education -- an institution so long regarded as this country's great equalizer -- will remain deeply and tragically unequal.

Later that night, as I was putting my boys to bed, I shared Julio's story with my two oldest sons -- explaining what Julio had done, why I was feeling so sad, and just how long it would be before he would see his family again. Before we turned out the light, we prayed together out loud -- for our own comfort, for strength for Julio's family, for his own hope and courage in the difficult days to come.

Now, we must do better. We must give boys and girls who grow up on our playgrounds and front porches a chance at becoming the productive contributors they so deeply want to be. As Julio said when I last saw him, "This is my country, Ms. V. I would die fighting for this place." No longer can we let our brightest minds languish and the work of our K-12 educators go the waste. We have the power to write the next chapter in this country's history. To begin, let's give every child that calls our nation home both a path to college and a place in America's warm embrace of liberty and justice for all.