08/20/2010 11:45 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The American DREAM

Imagine a world where you couldn't dream of a better future, but others around you could. Where you knew that no matter how much you studied, or how hard you worked, you would never realize your full potential. Where your friends could go on to college, law school, or medical school. But no matter how smart you are, you would never enter a courtroom as a lawyer, read a medical report as a doctor, enter a classroom as a teacher, or travel overseas as a soldier.

Imagine this world of yours. This world without dreams. Now imagine that there is a ready explanation for it all: your parents. That is, your parents made a mistake at some point, and now you're paying the price.

For the most part, this is a silly hypothetical. Of course you wouldn't pay for your parents' mistakes, right?

Unless you're an undocumented student. In that case, all you have to look forward to is a classroom that you cannot enter and a door that will remain locked until Congress passes the DREAM Act.

The American Nightmare

When undocumented immigrants enter the country illegally, they are consciously breaking the law, and should be held responsible for their actions. And they are: under the present system, undocumented immigrants can't work legally, qualify for federal loans, or collect federal benefits.

But what about the kids they bring along with them? Those kids didn't decide to immigrate illegally. All too often they are brought to the United States as babies or toddlers, where they grow up like any other child in this country: speaking English, playing basketball, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, and even watching The Simpsons. Just like you and me, they go to the Homecoming Game and worry about their Prom Date.

Yet there is one major difference in the way undocumented students grow up in this country: they have almost no chance of ever going to college. And without college, they'll never really emulate the teacher that inspired them, or graduate from law school, or swear the Hippocratic Oath to become a doctor. They go to sleep at night with no dream to look forward to. All because of a decision that someone else made.

How can this be?

In 1982, in Plyler v. Doe, the Supreme Court considered whether Texas could deny school enrollment and withhold state education funds from undocumented children trying to attend elementary school. Writing for the majority, Justice Brennan explained that the restrictions on educational opportunities needlessly targeted kids by imposing a "discriminatory burden on the basis of a legal characteristic over which children can have little control." Before striking down the law, the Court made a rather unremarkable observation: children don't decide to immigrate illegally - their parents make those decisions for them.

So why punish kids who are just trying to educate themselves for something they couldn't control?

But nearly thirty-years after Plyler, undocumented students still face unique barriers to higher education because they can neither work legally nor qualify for financial aid. As a result, only a small fraction of an estimated 65,000 undocumented students who graduate from U.S. high schools each year are able to pursue a college degree.

This glass ceiling traps high achieving students, who want nothing more than to go to college. These children, who have grown up and lived their whole lives in our communities, include Ivy League-bound honor roll students and star athletes, talented artists and homecoming queens, and of course, aspiring teachers, doctors, lawyers, and even would-be U.S. soldiers.

Perversely, in the very country where children are taught that hard work and determination can make any dream come true, students are punished for being ambitious and diligent.

There is perhaps no worse nightmare than knowing you can do something (like go to college), but finding out that you are unable to do so because of someone else's decision.

The American DREAM

Given the increasing importance of a college education, it's finally time for Congress to end this absurdity and pass the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act ("DREAM Act"). The DREAM Act, a bipartisan proposal, would provide qualifying students the opportunity to go to college or enlist in the military. To qualify an immigrant must have lived continuously in the United States for five years or more, have good moral character, and either earn a two-year degree from an accredited college or serve at least two years in the U.S. military within a six-year span.

If passed, the DREAM Act would restore every student's right to finish her studies and to continue dreaming.

Opponents of the DREAM Act believe the measure would reward and incentivize illegal behavior. Yet, how can you incentivize a baby to immigrate illegally? How can you incentivize a 12-year old who has no control over where he lives or goes?

The DREAM Act doesn't reward students for their parents' illegal behavior; all it does is fix a system that currently punishes them for their parents' decisions. It's not easy to get on the Honor Roll, to graduate at the top of your class, or to get admitted to Princeton. And it's certainly much harder to do so if your parents are undocumented. So why punish success?

Others say that the act would only encourage even more illegal immigration by making it easier for the sons and daughters of undocumented immigrants to qualify for student loans. But since the Act would only apply retroactively - that is, only to students who arrived before the Act was passed, and not to those that arrive thereafter - no such incentive exists. Ultimately, the only activities the Act incentivizes are educational attainment and military recruitment.

And even if these incentives did exist, and immigrants crossed the border just so that they could one day see their children go to college - are we not willing to risk opportunistic immigration to avoid creating a permanent underclass based on parentage?

Then-Senator Obama, when running for President, stated that these students are "American children, for all intents and purposes." In the same debate he called the Act's passage a "top priority" which could be accomplished immediately. In fact, during the campaign the Obama camp pointed out that he helped pass the Illinois version of the DREAM Act as an Illinois State Senator.

And yet, each year for the past decade the DREAM Act has been introduced as legislation, in one form or another, but has never received a vote. Now, more than ever, Congress needs a new sense of urgency to finally pass the Act. Not just for the 65,000 undocumented students who will be entering their senior year of high school this Fall, but also for our own sakes.

In an age of economic uncertainty, the best way to ensure long-term economic stability is to encourage higher education. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush recently pointed out that educating our nation's immigrant population enhances our economy's ability to grow, prosper, and expand amidst its fiscal challenges.

Arne Duncan, President Obama's Secretary of Education, has pointed out that to produce the world's best-educated workforce, is not just a question of national pride, it is an economic imperative. Indeed, immigrant students who go to college later step into higher-paying jobs, increasing our tax revenue and consumer spending. This is a win-win for America: more education and more jobs.

Thirty years ago the Supreme Court struck down restrictions on educational opportunities that needlessly targeted undocumented students. But these students' aspirations ended at high school graduation.

Let this be the year that Congress allows students to dream again.

David Perez, a graduate of Yale Law School and Gonzaga University, is the chairman of the National Latina/o Law Students Association.