THE BLOG

Giving Dreamers a Chance

02/10/2014 05:29 pm ET | Updated Apr 12, 2014

Dreamers received a remarkable boost for their educational aspirations last week when Donald Graham and a bipartisan group of visionary business and civic leaders announced the creation of TheDream.US, a scholarship program to help undocumented young people achieve their dream of a college degree. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation made a great contribution, along with the Inter-American Bank and other significant funders.

Standing with Mr. Graham, Henry Munoz III, Carlos Gutierrez and the other philanthropic, business and educational leaders gathered for the announcement at the Newseum, I was thrilled to look out on an audience full of ambitious, talented high school students who want to go to college, but who cannot get Pell Grants and federal loans because they are undocumented. TheDream.US Scholarships will help close that gap, and my university, Trinity in Washington, is privileged to be one of the first group of partner colleges and universities.

Unfortunately, in some minds afflicted with the anti-immigrant hysteria that infests some corners of this nation, doing something genuinely magnanimous and moral for young people -- helping them go to college -- is tantamount to "aiding and abetting criminals," in the words of one frenzied online commenter. The use of the taunt "illegals" is just hateful. Dreamers are young people who came as babies and toddlers to this nation when their parents, fleeing poverty and oppression in their native countries, crossed borders into the U.S. without getting proper documentation. These young people are not "going back" anywhere. They are Americans culturally, experientially, emotionally and spiritually. The "legal" problem of residency documentation could be fixed if this nation had the willpower to honor its heritage as a nation of immigrants by insisting that Congress act on the immigration reform bills sitting in its docket for far too long.

Beyond legal solutions, this nation needs a serious change of heart and conscience. The people hurling the "illegal aliens" epithet are just a few generations removed from the immigrant experience, themselves, and that's what makes the anti-immigrant rants of the current political moment so nonsensical. Unless we are Native Americans, we all came from somewhere else.

I am the second generation of the quintessential American immigrant story, and I use the story here as illustrative of so many similar stories. I never knew my grandparents, but they were dreamers long before the modern interpretation of that word: Young people fleeing poverty and hard lives in Italy and Ireland, making perilous journeys across the Atlantic to pursue the American Dream of prosperity and better lives for their children.

At the turn of the 20th Century, just in their early 20s, Victor Monti and Teresa Palermo came from the hardscrabble Italian mountain town of Oliveto, settled in Philadelphia, married and had six children; my mother was the youngest. But times proved very hard for these Italian immigrants; Victor could not find work and poverty still plagued the family. For unknown reasons they had settled in north Philadelphia in a community of Irish and German families, and the darker Italian kids, whose parents spoke little English, suffered painful discrimination. For Grandfather Monti, according to the occasional snatches of information Mom would share, alcohol became salve and source of further decline. As the home situation deteriorated, Mom was sent to live with relatives, and she reaped the benefits. My mother was the first in her family to graduate from high school, a point of pride throughout her life.

At the same time, James McGuire and Jane Keenan made their way from County Sligo, married in New York and had three boys before James disappeared into the remnants of the dreams shattered by violence, alcohol and despair that plagued so many in the early waves of Irish immigrants. In an uncanny parallel of my parents' early lives, my father was also sent to live with relatives, on the outskirts of Philadelphia and, like my mother, he also reaped the benefits of a more stable extended family, graduating from high school, joining the army as WWII heated up and sweeping the beautiful Mary Monti off her feet when he showed up for a date in his army uniform.

Having suffered the sorrows, disruptions and uncertainties of life among the first generation of immigrant families, my parents wanted nothing more than to establish the ideal American family in the Philadelphia suburbs. With seven kids and dad's modest salary, we never had much money, but they sacrificed constantly to be sure we had all that we needed, including a great education. The second generation prospered through their sacrifices.

The rest, as they say, is history -- but also prophecy. My story is the story of hundreds of millions of Americans from generations past, but such stories foretell the hopes, the dreams, the possibilities and great potential of new immigrants to America.

And now, why does this nation of immigrants, so rich with the triumphant stories of the generations who risked everything to grab hold of the American Dream, why do we now seek to raise the drawbridge, turn over the "welcome" sign, extinguish Lady Liberty's flame that has been the beacon of hope to immigrants across the generations?

Oh, yes, there's the matter of "documents." I suppose my grandparents had documents, since it would have been almost impossible to arrive from Europe without going through Ellis Island. Frankly, Grandfather McGuire sounds like such a sketchy character that I sometimes wonder if he might have found a way to evade authorities. How many of us really don't know the full immigrant stories of our ancestors? And what does it matter all these years later?

What matters is that immigrants built this great nation, and the descendants of immigrants enjoy a standard of living unparalleled in human history. Why deny the opportunity for such prosperity to new generations of immigrants, some of whom, yes, lack "documents"?

As immigrants did in the past, the new immigrant generations will build the future of this nation. We can fix the problem of documents. We cannot fix the cruel and selfish lack of basic human decency that calls people "illegal aliens" and demands that they be sent back to the poverty and oppression they fled. "Documents" is a legal concept; hatred is a scandalous sin against humanity.

Quite obviously, the intensity of the opposition to any kind of immigration reform is focused on those who come across the southern border, a wall built high across the cultural differences of the American experience. The dramatic rise in the Hispanic population is changing American culture and sociology, and the census data tells us that by 2050, the old white Euro-centric majority will no longer exist. Resistance to immigration reform is, in many ways, a last grasp at salvaging the majority; but sociology is a tidal wave that inchoate outrage cannot stanch.

Rather than fomenting division and conflict, we must prepare for an even more diverse nation in the future, and the challenges of that nation will require well educated leaders and even more productive workers. That's precisely why a higher education is so necessary for Dreamers, as it is for all students in this nation.

Dreamers now have the option to apply for a form of legal status through the DACA process, the "Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals" memo that the Obama Administration implemented in 2012 to allow qualified young people to stay in the U.S. and to be eligible to work. Students participating in TheDream.US must have DACA approval among other eligibility requirements.

Trinity is proud to welcome the Dreamers who will become Trinity students thanks to TheDream.US, and one day they will be Trinity graduates blazing trails for their children, companies and communities.

Contrary to critics, these students will not "take away" seats or scholarship funds from "deserving" American students. This is not a competition. There are plenty of seats in American colleges and universities. American students have access to federal and state sources of financial support for college that are largely unavailable to Dreamers. TheDream.US helps to make the playing field a little more level for these ambitious students. They will prosper, as immigrant children and grandchildren did before them, and their lives will yield incredible returns on the relatively modest investment in their education.

Scholarships provided through TheDream.US are a step toward justice for young people who want nothing more than to live the best lives they possibly can. Supporting such dreams is the best of our magnanimous American tradition, truly exemplifying what deToqueville once called the "habits of the heart."