Op-Ed

U.S. should aid immigrant students

Drawn, and sometimes even recruited, to our state by the horse industry, agriculture, urban-based service industries and a variety of other job opportunities, recent immigrants have added significant numbers to an already-existing base of Spanish speakers of all races and classes in the Bluegrass.

My Spanish students work hard in order to become qualified bilingual and culturally aware professionals. When they graduate, they find that their numbers cannot even begin to fill the desperate need in our state for interpreters, teachers, lawyers, doctors, retailers and clergy who speak Spanish and have some insight into how to provide services to the Hispanic community.

I have no way of knowing if the students are citizens or not. Regardless of what they look like, how they speak Spanish or where they were born, they're all Kentucky kids, ready to get to work.

My undocumented students have taught me about the obstacles they have faced in pursuit of a post-secondary degree. Most of them come from families where no one has ever graduated from, or even thought of, attending college. Some of them have parents who were professionals in their home countries.

All work many hours outside of class to finance their educations, and most share the burden of supporting their families.

Because they are not citizens, they do not have access to any type of student loans. Their heaviest burden, however, is living in fear that — in spite of having lived, worked and studied in Kentucky for almost all of their lives — they could be deported back to their countries of origin where most of them have no family and no support system. Yet they are determined to finish their degrees.

All of this could change in the next few months. Congress will soon be considering a major legislative overhaul of this untenable situation. The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act was introduced in both chambers in March of 2009. To date, 118 representatives and 36 senators have co-sponsored the bill.

Under the DREAM Act, immigrants would qualify for this program only if they:

■ Were between the ages of 12 and 35 at the time the law is enacted

■ Arrived in the United States before the age of 16

■ Resided continuously in the United States for at least five consecutive years since the date of their arrival

■ Graduated from a U.S. high school or obtained a General Education Diploma (GED)

■ Can prove they have "good moral character."

In addition to being granted temporary residency, immigrant students who qualify would be entitled to apply for student loans and work study (but not Pell Grants).

Immigrant youth who would benefit from the DREAM Act came to this country at a young age. They contribute to every aspect of their community and often serve as a generational bridge between their families and the Kentucky communities they call home. Most have already petitioned for family-based immigration relief, but continue to wait in a badly backlogged immigration line.

The current situation is remarkably inefficient and makes for bad economics.

Kentucky has a responsibility to provide all young people, regardless of immigration status, hope for the future in the form of a solid education. The students who would benefit from the DREAM Act are the state's future innovators and entrepreneurs and would make up part of the educated work force needed to help the state compete in the global economy.

Their multilingual and bicultural skills and contributions are more important than ever. Most of all, state and local taxpayers have already invested in the education of these children in elementary and secondary school and deserve to get a return on their investment.

Growing numbers of young people in the state of Kentucky are being punished by an inhumane and broken immigration system. The DREAM Act would open the door for ambitious, hard-working young people who had no control over the conditions in their home countries that forced their parents to come here to dream of having a better life, if they're willing and able to work for it.

This summer, there is a focused, well-organized push to convince legislators to finally pass this legislation.

I urge all to become informed about this important chance to right a wrong that makes a lie of the notion that ours is a land of equal opportunity for all. Do something about reforming the current immigration laws that make undocumented high-school graduates into second-class citizens, at best.

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