09/24/2010 09:40 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Millions of Dreams Deferred -- Why?

In 1951 in Harlem, Langston Hughes asked, "What happens to a dream deferred?" Sixty years later, we're back to asking the same question. What are the implications of exclusion for individuals, their communities, and our society when millions of dreams go up in smoke?

On Sept. 21, members of the U.S. Senate had a chance to move millions of young dreams forward. They voted on the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, which would have created a pathway to grant conditional, legal status to undocumented young adults after they complete two years of college or military service.

Unfortunately the bill failed by 56-43 -- deferring the dreams of millions of bright students who have to go back to living in the shadows.

Legally or not, most immigrants came to America to seek a better future, a better education, a better life for their family and children. They brought such thirst for education and hunger for success that they work infinitely hard to achieve their versions of the American Dream.

It's a shame a few adults had to crush the dreams of so many young people. The DREAM Act could have provided 360,000 undocumented high school graduates with a legal means to work and attend college, and incentivize another 715,000 youngsters between the ages of 5 and 17 to finish high school and pursue postsecondary education. Although they can legally attend most colleges, these students are currently ineligible for most forms of financial aid so only a fraction of them go to college.

Unlike what many believe, the DREAM Act is not a blanket amnesty: It simply offers millions of students a shot at earning their legal status. It provides them the chance to apply for student loans and work study programs so they can seek higher education and realize their full potential. It's about instilling renewed hope and dreams. It's about being fair.

The Supreme Court has upheld the right of all students, regardless of status, to a basic education up through high school. The DREAM Act ensures them the opportunity to extend America's prosperity, instead of cutting the potential of these students.

It would be a tragedy and a mistake to defer their dreams. The truth is that we cannot afford to see 65,000 remarkable, law-abiding yet undocumented high school students graduate each year without the chance to build their future. The more our talented students are forced into the dark in fear of being deported, the more our economy loses out on prosperity.

Such wasted talent imposes financial and emotional costs not only on the undocumented children themselves but also on our economy and society as a whole. In a time when qualified recruits -- particularly ones with foreign language skills and foreign cultural awareness -- are in short supply, enforcing deportation laws against these young people makes little sense.

It wasn't the choice of these students to come to this country, but many of them are succeeding, making their schools and their communities a better place. In them, we might just have the next Einstein, the next Bill Gates, or the next great American who might discover a cure for cancer or employ thousands of workers. Why we would want to cut down our own future prosperity is beyond me -- when prosperity for these dreamers means prosperity for us all.

The Spanish-language version of this piece, "¿Millones de sueños diferidos, por que?" appeared in New York's El Diaro/la Prensa, on Friday, September 24, 2010.