We can be a nation of dreamers and a nation of laws

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By Josh Kaufmann

On a hot day before the end of the school year, I sat in my classroom with Wajid, a tall and reedy senior who had immigrated to the United States five years before. At the time, he didn’t speak a word of English, but our school opened its doors to him. Curious and intelligent, Wajid wasn’t just fluent in English by the end of high school—he was our valedictorian.

“Mr. Kaufmann, I have a question,” Wajid said. “Will my name be in the newspaper?” Thinking that he was eager to see his name published in The New York Times, I tried to let him down gently. “Probably not, Wajid. Valedictorians don’t appear in the big papers. But maybe a small one, like the Queens Gazette.”

Wajid stared at the linoleum floor. Finally he looked up at me, his voice quavering, “I’m sorry. Then I cannot be the valedictorian.”

In that moment, I realized that Wajid, like thousands of other students in our schools today, was undocumented. Because this conversation took place before President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, he had no protection from deportation for a crime committed unknowingly when he was a child. Far from being a criminal, Wajid did all the things our country asked of him. He went to school, worked hard, and got straight A’s. Now on the threshold of graduation, the door opened by our school was going to slam shut in his face due to America’s incoherent immigration system.

The Supreme Court, in Plyler vs. Doe (1982), ensured that immigrants could attend public school because holding children accountable for their parents’ actions “does not comport with fundamental conceptions of justice.” But state and federal laws created hurdles as he tried to pursue higher education and a career. Wajid was ineligible for federal tuition support, and in 30 states he would also be ineligible for in-state university tuition. Without DACA, he could not work legally to cover college expenses.

Ending DACA is economically foolish. America has educated the Dreamers in our K-12 schools. Why wouldn’t we incorporate them into the workforce where they can improve communities, create new products, and pay taxes?

Our nation, from its very founding, was a nation of immigrants and children of immigrants. Founding Father Alexander Hamilton was an immigrant, as was jeans maker Levi Strauss. Walt Disney was the son of an immigrant. What could be more American than the blue jeans, Disney movies, and a $10 dollar bill? The hard work, creativity, and entrepreneurial drive of immigrants are part of what has made this country great, and we should not shut the door to them.

Congress needs to act to ensure that we are both a nation of dreamers and a nation of laws:

First, pass the bipartisan DREAM Act, cosponsored by Dick Durbin (D-IL), so that the 800,000 current Dreamers can complete their education or continue in their jobs. These are students who were raised and educated here, and want to be a part of the mosaic of American society.

Second, create legislation to comprehensively restructure our broken immigration system. While there have been multiple efforts to fix this system in the past, Congress has not been able to come to consensus. Last week Illinois legislators proved that a hard-fought compromise could fix our broken education funding system. The US Congress can learn from Illinois’ example. Republicans and Democrats need to compromise by tightening immigration controls to prevent future illegal immigration while protecting Dreamers who we have educated and who want to contribute to our country.

Third, give students who have been educated in America’s K-12 schools access to federal funds for higher education if they provide a service for the nation. If motivated Dreamers join the military or serve in AmeriCorps, they should have access to Pell grants. Likewise, students who commit to careers in high-need jobs like rural medicine or STEM education should be granted access to Pell.

Teachers across the country work with undocumented students every day, and see their potential and their promise. These students can join the scores of other immigrants and children of immigrants who have made America great. Let’s not slam America’s door in their faces.

A slightly modified version of this op-ed previously appeared on Education Post.

Josh Kaufmann is the executive director of Teach Plus Illinois. He has taught in both New York and Namibia.

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