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Gloria Bonilla Santiago Headshot

Passing Immigration Relief Can Make Dreams Come True

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If you can look a poor child in the eye and tell her that she can't attend the college of her choice -- a university to which her hard work and exceptional grades earned her admission -- then you might believe that immigration reform is not the answer.

But, if you experience what I do each day, then you would quickly recognize the need for relief for undocumented students.

The sooner, the better.

I encounter many undocumented students in my role as chairman of the LEAP Academy Charter School in the impoverished city of Camden, New Jersey. Our school sets high goals for students from pre-K through high school and makes strong academic demands, all in the name of helping each child achieve college placement and study for more than just a job, but a career of their own making. For these kids, education represents a chance to emerge from a culture of poverty into a career of their dreams.

Unfortunately there are restrictions on the dreams of undocumented students, roadblocks that may compromise their true potential.

I had the difficult conversation with an undocumented student -- to tell her that the Ivy League school to which she was admitted will not offer a financial aid package because she is not a legal U.S. resident.

That student eventually went to college -- a state university, though, not an Ivy League institution. Her tuition and board was paid for with private scholarship money, not federal aid. That student has been admitted to graduate medical school and again is confronted with the same challenge.

It is unfair. Yet it is fixable.

Could an Ivy League education improve that student's life and career outlook significantly?

Sadly, we'll never find out.

The most difficult challenge that college-ready undocumented students confront is restricted access to financial support for college tuition. In addition to employment restrictions, they are ineligible for federal and state aid and have limited scholarship opportunities.

The DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act -- which would increase the financial resources available to undocumented students -- remains in limbo despite support from President Obama, members of his Cabinet, the business community and organized labor. Presidents and Chancellors at more than 73 colleges and universities across the U.S. have also voiced enthusiastic support for the bill.

The DREAM Act, if passed, could grant as many as 2.1 million students access to legal residency and limited forms of federal financial aid. Its passage is the most important political issue for the more than 48 million Latinos living in this country.

Our undocumented student did not choose to violate the law. In so many cases, students like her were brought to the U.S. as babies by their parents. In almost every case, these students love the United States -- the only country they have ever really known -- as much as any of us.

Denying opportunities to the children of undocumented immigrants creates a bitter and disenchanted group of young people who are unable to take advantage of the vehicles that would allow them to contribute to our economy and society.

The DREAM Act needs to be reintroduced, passed and implemented without delay. Preferably before I have to look another promising student in the eye to tell her that her immigration status is the reason her Ivy League dreams are being denied.