02/12/2013 11:54 am ET Updated Apr 14, 2013

Immigration Reform and the American Legacy

I never knew my grandparents, but I am living their American Dream. James McGuire, Jane Keenan, Victor Monti, Theresa Palermo --- four people from foreign lands, immigrants in search of their own impossible dreams, century-long fragments of stories their grandchildren still try to assemble into a meaningful narrative well into our own advancing age.

My siblings and I retell the stories told by our parents, the first generation of American citizens for the families known as McGuire and Monti, part of the great immigrant wave from Ireland and Italy at the turn of the 20th Century. With all of the current controversies over immigration issues, those of us who are living the American Dream would do well to remember that we are but two or three generations removed from the hardscrabble lives of millions of European ethnic immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.

James McGuire, I am told, carried the Irish burden with him across the pond, married Jane Keenan who bore him three sons before he disappeared into that tragic diaspora of disappointed, dissipated Irishmen who found cold comfort at the bottom of a glass. We're still not quite sure what happened to him,, but the early 20th Century America's still-virulent discrimination against Catholics and the Irish combined with few jobs at hard labor and low wages to grind down the best of men.

Victor Monti, such a proud Roman figure in his daughter's legendary stories, married Theresa Palermo from the hill country outside of Naples, came to America and suffered much the same disappointment as the Irish brother-in-law he never knew. I suppose they all came here legally, a fence being impossible across the ocean, but Ellis Island served the same purpose. Being Catholic, speaking with accents, being deeply impoverished by American standards, they worked fiercely hard but suffered great discrimination in their quest for better lives.

Like so many children of the impoverished immigrants of that era, Mom and Dad grew up in extended households in the 1920's and 1930's, determined to be patriotic Americans in every way, never looking back on the Old World. My mother told of her embarrassment at her parents' lack of English skills and she refused to learn Italian; the Irish and German kids in her north Philadelphia neighborhood made enough fun of the few Italians who settled there instead of "their own" neighborhoods in South Philly. She was the first in her family to finish high school, and even in her final days in her 90th year she smiled broadly when we pulled out her 1939 Hallahan High graduation photo and diploma.

Ethnic integration was fraught. When Ed McGuire --- that nice Irish boy transplanted as a child from Queens to Drexel Hill to be raised by the elderly aunt and uncle McCrohans --- decided to marry Mary Monti, it was a small scandal all the way around, being a "mixed marriage" to be sure. He was a captain in the Army, headed for the Philippines in the early '40's, and his handsome appearance in that uniform surely helped to win over the skeptics.

The First Generation became "the Greatest Generation" and they were determined to make sure that the Second Generation lived the American Dream in all of its fullness. Dad went to war, Mom stayed home to raise the kids, they moved to the suburbs and made sure we had the best possible education. They didn't have money, but, oh my, did they ever have commitment! Church, School, Family, Country --- their values were crystal clear, and heaven help the child who questioned any of that. They were exemplars of millions of Americans of immigrant descent in the 20th Century who took nothing for granted, who worked hard every day to build their own version of the American Dream. Dad did not live long enough to see the fulfillment in the lives of his adult children, but Mom surely was proud of the achievements of her seven kids, though she was careful about not making us feel too self-satisfied. In her value system, improvement was always possible even for the most accomplished of her children.

Immigration is the quintessential American story. Immigrants and their descendants built this nation into the most advanced civilization the world has ever known. Who among us can dare to say that we have reached perfection as a nation, that the best time in U.S. history is fading into the past, rather than affirming, as my mother would insist, that the best is yet to come? Improvement is always possible, and our improvement as a nation and society may well be realized in the lives and works of immigrant children laboring in migrant fields or wandering through the great southwest deserts even as I write. Or the best that is yet to come may lurk in the brains of the undocumented teenagers who are unable to attend college because they live in the "shadows" of our cities and towns.

Education has been the ticket to success for each immigrant generation. Catholic schools, colleges and universities became the greatest examples of success for immigrant children. Founded because Catholics were not welcome elsewhere in the 19th and early 20th Centuries, these schools paved the way for the children and grandchildren of Catholic European immigrants to join the middle class and then the upper class, forging one of the most dominant economic, social and political forces in American life.

Sadly, however, the wealthiest nation in human history has consistently turned its back on the children of certain other immigrants. Federal financial aid policy, and the policy of most states, does not provide financial aid to undocumented students, children who played no role in crossing the borders illegally but who will be residents on this land until the end of their days. Making it possible for these students to attend college on the same basis as other residents of this nation is not a "reward" for misconduct, as some opponents allege, but rather, a smart investment in workforce development as well as a manifestation of justice in a society that claims to honor that value.

11 million people are not suddenly going to turn around and go back to their ancestral lands, any more than all the Irish descendants here are going to resume residence in County Cork. Why shouldn't undocumented immigrant children, suffering for lack of a piece of paper, have the same opportunities the rest of us had in the first and second and third immigrant generations to get a good education and become participants in a productive economy?

Every year here at Trinity, a university particularly devoted to the education of women who have faced great life challenges, we receive dozens of inquiries and applications from undocumented young women who have an intense desire to earn college degrees so that they can become scientists, nurses, lawyers, counselors, teachers and advocates for people in need. Most often, they came to this country as babies and toddlers, fleeing with their mothers from oppressive conditions in Central America, Africa, southeast Asia.

Such young women offer hope for the future of their families, the potential for long-term success after years of living on the margins. Denying them educational opportunity makes no sense, but without the ability to participate in the federal financial aid system, their options are few. We cannot possibly help all of them with our limited private grant resources, but if they could receive federal financial aid, then we could also leverage our private grants in the same way we do for other students. I'm proud that the voters of my own state, Maryland, passed our local version of the Dream Act, but real reform would include eligibility for federal loans and grants for undocumented students.

President Obama is, at long last, tackling the issue of immigration reform, and he has the support of a remarkable coalition of business and labor leaders who understand the stakes in retaining talent in this nation to ensure an even stronger future for innovation and economic power. Immigration reform should start by recognizing the importance of education for all of the undocumented immigrants through postsecondary credentials and collegiate degrees. They should be able to receive state aid and federal financial aid in the same way that all other students are able to participate in those programs.

Congress, which so far has disappointed many Americans on most critical issues where simple justice is at stake, needs to show some courage and vision for this nation. Members of Congress who oppose immigration reform should think about where they might be today but for the courageous immigrant stories of their ancestors.

Remembering the dreams of our grandparents and the opportunities all of us have had to live well because of those dreams, Congress must stand up for simple justice and stare down the bigots whose real opposition to immigration reform is rooted in the basest of human prejudices against "the other," particularly those "other people" who come across the southern border.

Enacting the Dream Act will affirm our American legacy of immigrant achievement, upholding the dignity and worth of all human beings who strive for better lives through educational attainment and economic security in this great land.