The leadership change underway in the New York Legislature is a defining event in the state's history and obviously has the lawmakers' full attention. Let's hope, however, it does not distract them from the historic legislation Governor Andrew Cuomo is proposing: A Dream Act to let high school graduates who are undocumented immigrants apply for state college-tuition assistance.
Passing this measure will make New York the fourth state, along with California, New Mexico and Texas, to help thousands of young people who were brought to the U.S. as children pay for educations that will improve their lives, advance their careers and strengthen the nation.
An estimated 146,000 public school graduates in New York are ineligible for college aid under current state law because they are undocumented. Of the more than 4,500 undocumented students who finish high school every year, only between 5 percent and 10 percent go onto college. The inability to get tuition aid is a chief reason why.
It makes little sense for taxpayers to invest in free primary and secondary educations for these young men and women and then deny them the chance to develop their skills. It is an enormous loss of potential talent.
That is the big picture, but to truly understand the impact on these young people, we need to look at individual stories. Take, for example, David Chung, a member of Hunter College's January graduating class. He was born Sung Mo Chung in South Korea. While he was still an infant, his parents left him with family members and went to America seeking a better life. For three years his grandmother sent the parents videos of their boy growing up. Those videos are now the only memory David has of his birth country.
After he was finally reunited with his mother and father, David studied hard to build a good life. It was not until he applied to college and had to fill in his Social Security number that he learned he didn't have one. He was here illegally and, therefore, ineligible for scholarships or financial aid.
He enrolled at Hunter, which opens its doors to Dreamers like him, and scheduled his classes in the morning so he could work in his parents' store until midnight. Keeping up his studies while working such hours was grueling, but his goal of making his parents' 13-hour days pay off kept him going.
Then, a year before he was scheduled to graduate, a sense of hopelessness overwhelmed David. What good was earning a degree if he couldn't get a good job - on the books?
He decided to return to Korea and to prepare, got an internship with a Korean-American non-profit. There, as he met other young undocumented students desperate for financial aid, David found his calling: fighting for immigrant rights. He began lobbying for the Dream Act, deferring his graduation as he advanced from intern, to paralegal, to youth organizer at the Minkwon Center for Community Action.
It made a difference.
Thanks in large part to the activism of David and young people like him all over America, in 2012 President Obama signed the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals executive order - DACA - which allows Dreamers to stay and work in the U.S. legally.
His future now brighter, David returned to Hunter and graduated with a 3.9 GPA and a double major in economics and sociology. He's now a National Field Coordinator for America's largest immigrant network, United We Dream.
David is continuing his activism because the struggle is far from over. Removing the barrier to staying and working in the U.S. as DACA did still doesn't address the financial assistance issue. As long as Dreamers are denied access to college aid -- in New York, we call it the Tuition Assistance Program, or TAP -- most will be unable to meet the cost of college.
Passing the Dream Act will keep New York in the forefront of social progress and immigration reform. We are, after all, the home of the Statue of Liberty and the birthplace of visionary leaders like Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and Fiorello La Guardia.
Most important, taking this step will set an example for other states in how to open doors of opportunity to millions of young people whose greatest dream is to become well-educated, contributing residents of the only country they've ever known.