It just takes one look at the two groups squaring off, shouting at each other across Elm Street this month, to see how a flood of children at our borders has become a Rorschach test of the passions that divide us over immigration. To one side, they are a human challenge to the conscience of our traditionally welcoming country. To the other, they are a threat to law, security and our economy. Send them back to danger and possible death? Let them stay and risk priming an unstoppable flow? It’s yet another heartbreaking example of how divided this country is on this critical issue.
Yet, take one look at Oscar Diaz and you will see a place where we all can agree, even on this contentious issue. Diaz is a straight-A student. He graduated in the top 10 of his high school class. He even earned an associate degree in computer science from a community college by taking classes while he was still in high school. Now he wants to go on to earn a bachelor’s degree and then a master’s degree. He wants to become a computer programmer and then help other people, including his siblings, get their educations, too.
But without help, it’s going to be hard. Maybe impossible.
Diaz represents another kind of immigration crisis building right around us. If we have the will, we can turn this crisis into a windfall for us all. Diaz was born in Mexico and has been living and going to school in this country since he was 8 years old. Now 19 and living in El Paso, Diaz is part of the group of young people who call themselves Dreamers.
Like Diaz, Dreamers are students who came here as children with their parents, have been in this country since at least 2007, and thus have lived most of their lives here. These children of undocumented immigrants now have legal status in the U.S. under President Barack Obama’s executive action.
Many of these Dreamers graduate at the top of their classes. Many get 4.0 grade-point averages. They do community service. Many are doing all this while working to help support their families. They want to be teachers, nurses, lawyers, engineers, veterinarians and accountants. They want to start businesses and help other people. They are young, healthy and motivated — both to go to college and to become productive members of society. The barriers they face are beyond their control.
Every year, thousands of these young people are graduating from high school, indistinguishable from their classmates in everything but this: While they have temporary legal status, they don’t have access to any of the federal scholarships or loan programs that usually enable low-income students to go to college. Despite their drive and abilities, all the usual ways that low-income students fund their educations are closed to them.
Dreamers like Diaz aren’t eligible — as all their classmates are — for federal grants or even loans to fund their education. While many are scraping together college hours one course at a time when they can accumulate funds, this is a slow, painful and often impossible way to finish school. Many of them, despite their best efforts, are going to wind up trapped in the low-income jobs waiting for those without college degrees.
There are at least 650,000, and possibly as many as 2 million, of these students in the U.S. right now. They are Hispanic, Asian, European — they come from El Salvador, Mexico, the Philippines, Korea and two dozen other countries. If we educate these students, we can create a powerful resource for their communities and for all of us in this country. If we fail to do so, we lose a whole generation of motivated talent and ability.
Over the past 25 years, we’ve worked to make scholarships available to American-born, low-income students in Washington, D.C., and we’ve seen the transformation a college degree can make in the life not only of an individual, but of his or her entire family. These people want to learn, to grow, to contribute. Surely, educating young people who want so badly to be educated and who will put their learning to such good use is something with which we all can agree.
Amanda Bennett is a journalist, author and the former editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her husband, Donald E. Graham, is the former owner of The Washington Post. They can be contacted via email at [email protected].
AT A GLANCE: Dream initiative
TheDream.US is supported by both Democrats and Republicans. It was created by a group that includes both Henry Munoz, finance chief of the Democratic National Committee, and Carlos Gutierrez, secretary of commerce under President George W. Bush. Its backers include Bill and Melinda Gates, Grover Norquist and Newt Gingrich. So far, TheDream.US has awarded more than 300 scholarships to Dreamers. For more information, visit thedream.us.
To help Dreamers get a college education, make checks out to Scholarship America and mail to Scholarship America, Attn: Debra K. Johnson, One Scholarship Way, Saint Peter, Minn., 56082. Please indicate in the memo that your gift is for TheDream.US Scholarship Fund.
Or you can visit the website: TheDream.US/donate. Every $100 pays for one college credit for a Dreamer.
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