02/05/2014 03:57 pm ET | Updated Apr 07, 2014

Where's Home?

Turn the clock back. Lucky for my older sister and my older brother and me that it was not today but 100 years ago that our parents hit the shore in Galveston. From Russia came my mother, from Romania my father, both very young, escaping dangerous times. Their goal was not to find ways to citizenship; it was to find ways to support their parents in the new world. So they stayed -- in Texas, as it turned out -- and like most young immigrants, they didn't finish school; they went to work to earn bread for their families. They never thought of going back.

Had they arrived today, that generation would not find a home in America so easily gotten. They may have been turned away. There would have been no sister or brother or me.

Everyone has heard the debate about newcomers to this country -- who can become citizens, who, for heaven's sake, even gets to live here. Like my parents, youngsters coming to America in the 21st century may not want to return to their native lands, but the choice is often not theirs.

I know a number of young people whose futures depend on this question. They are students in a high school in Manhattan populated by kids from Latin America, a place where I help seniors write college essays. They dress like any other teenagers and cut up as they leave school at 4 o'clock, but a lot of them know their futures are far from secure. While they may be accepted to colleges, predominantly public universities, they may not be able to receive financial assistance or get a social security card or hold down a job other than one that pays in cash (which they may already have). And ultimately, they may be sent away.

I admit to partiality when it comes to these kids, the ones not stymied having to write in a language not their first.

Want to hear about a few? The boy who taught himself to dismantle and rebuild a computer, not yet able to read English instructions; the one who was held back a year because of a speech impediment but has gone on to attend CCNY; the girl who had a baby only a few months ago but continues in school; the boy who was found to have a benign brain tumor but has kept it a secret from almost everyone. They write and rewrite their stories; some shame me over my cosseted past.

Imagine, if I have a dozen kids in my small universe who are diligent and potential assets to this country, how many there are across the U.S. Where they will be in a few years is a scary question. There needs to be a better system than a lottery to keep them here. Even conservative members of Congress are beginning to face the issue. They need to move on.

Here's a happy story: a musician in his early 20s, already known in his native Serbia, brought to the immigration officer proof that he would be a worthwhile citizen: videos of his appearances, press clippings from home. Even he was surprised that the officer granted him a green card... on the spot. He works two jobs, sends money to his mother at home, and has committed himself to a future here. If he doesn't catch a break in the music world, he'll likely make one.

Interesting people like the musician fill my new memoir, "Life Up Close," out soon from Dog Ear Publishing. In soft cover and e-book.