Congress can help young immigrants fulfill their promise through the DREAM Act

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Wednesday, December 1, 2010; 8:08 PM

MICHELLE RODRIGUEZ, who turns 24 in a few days, has wanted to be a Marine ever since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when she was in ninth grade. After graduating from high school - she was the first to do so in her family - she tried to enlist but was turned away. For even though Ms. Rodriguez has lived in Oklahoma since she was 5, when her mother spirited her across the Rio Grande from Mexico on a raft made of tires, she remains an illegal immigrant. As such, she is ineligible to serve in what she calls "our military."

Ms. Rodriguez has no memories of her birth country, where she said her mother endured domestic abuse before fleeing to the United States, and she's never been back there. Her Spanish, she said, is rough. At high school in Tulsa, she ran track and and was president of the dance club. In conversation, she's inclined to call her elders "sir" and "ma'am" and speaks reverently about her dreams, which include becoming a nurse one day after serving her country. "It's special to be a Marine," she told us. "You know - the few, the proud."

For a decade, Congress has turned its back on legislation that would make people like Ms. Rodriguez eligible for citizenship if they serve in the military or go to college. The legislation should be a no-brainer. Each year it would give an estimated 65,000 high school graduates who were brought to this country as children - Americans in every sense but for their lack of documentation - the chance to fulfill their potential in the only country many of them think of as home.

The legislation, known as the DREAM Act, is expected to come up for a vote by the end of the year in Congress's lame-duck session. But despite having sponsors from both parties, it faces broad opposition from Republicans who have adopted a blanket "no amnesty" stance. Logic, and America's self-interest, are on the other side.

By offering a leg up to youngsters with unblemished records and promising futures, the DREAM Act would, at a stroke, turn workers in the underground economy into taxpayers; expand the military's recruitment pool at a time when war has stretched it thin; and induce more people from modest backgrounds to attend college, gaining critical skills to keep America competitive.

For now, Ms. Rodriguez makes ends meet by helping her mother clean houses every weekday morning. The rest of the time, she takes courses at a community college and cares for her 2-year-old son. Her long-standing dream of serving in the Marines owes nothing to Washington's political machinations and everything to simple patriotism.

"This is my home," she said. "I want my son to know his mom would put her life on the line to make a better life in America." By continuing to deny her that chance, Congress only hurts the nation.


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