07/25/2011 02:05 pm ET | Updated Sep 24, 2011

Let's Honor All Our Honors Students -- Regardless of Where They Were Born or How They Got Here

My grandfather was an illegal alien. He came to this country, through Ellis Island, under false pretences -- he was 14 years old and without his parents and he lied about his age. Immigration officers either believed his lie or didn't care. It was late 1914 and they conscripted him into the United States Army, returning him to Europe with a rifle.

My mother, born in 1926, was, in today's immigration rhetoric, an anchor baby.

I was born here to parents also born here so I can take my good fortune for granted and be as xenophobic as I like. Except that it is hard to be when some of my best students, every year, are young men and women who were, as children, smuggled into the United States.

Sometimes the valedictorian or salutatorian of our senior class is one such student.

Undocumented. Illegal. Those are acceptable characterizations. There are, of course, other even more dehumanizing, terms. But the designation that is most harmful of all is this one: ineligible.

Ineligible for government financial aid for college and thus, in many cases, unable to accept college admissions offers they have otherwise earned through years of hard work and discipline, often overcoming formidable obstacles.

Don't these children have any idea that a college education is beyond their reach?

Usually not. "Work hard and you can succeed," we have promised them because we (teachers, counselors, administrators) don't know the status of our students. It isn't as if they wear a sign on their forehead identifying their resident status. Their school records do not make such indication.

Some of these young women and men don't even remember coming to the United States and do not know the circumstances of their immigration -- until they get the letter denying them the opportunity they were led to believe they could earned through tireless hard work.

Such limitations might seem reasonable enough -- and I don't believe that agreeing with them necessarily makes someone a racist or a xenophobe.

Surely, as such logic goes, we have to draw the line somewhere. Our tax dollars cannot help everyone through college, can they?

But when you've seen students work so hard for four years (while so many others have little interest in learning at all) and then see them on the verge of giving up because their dreams have been shattered, what is a teacher supposed to tell them?

You don't belong here?

Blame your parents, they got you into this mess?

Those parents made personal sacrifices and in some cases risked their lives for their children to have a better life.

Doesn't that, in fact, make them exemplary parents?

So what are we left with? A kind of public schizophrenia: provide a K-12 education to everyone only to slam the door shut on some after that.

I don't believe there is some cynical committee sitting somewhere planning all this out -- but the result is as if there were.

We offer these children just enough education to buy in -- to become American -- but not enough to really prosper. After all, their parents came here to provide us with a supply of workers willing to take thankless jobs for little pay. If each generation of expendable workers moves too quickly toward the American dream, some of us might have to clean our own toilets.

But with our president and many business leaders imploring the American education system to produce more engineers and other highly skilled professionals, can we really afford to deny the opportunity of a college education -- which for the vast majority of us requires significant financial assistance -- to any of our honors students?

During wartime, our country grants the opportunity of citizenship to anyone, regardless of resident status, for serving in the armed forces. How about a green card for a 3.0 or higher throughout high school and a 1500 on the SAT? How about citizenship for a 3.5 or higher and a 4 or better on at least two AP exams?

If we believe in the ideal of a meritocracy how can we support a system that favors birth rite over achievement?