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Illinois Dream Act good for America

Updated: July 8, 2011 2:19PM

Illinois set the pace for the nation this week when the Legislature approved a sensible approach to helping undocumented students get a college education and contribute to society.

The state House, following action by the Senate, on Monday passed the Illinois Dream Act with bipartisan support. Gov. Pat Quinn is expected to sign the bill into law as early as next week. It will make Illinois the first state to create a private scholarship fund for children of undocumented immigrants.

These young students came to the U.S. with their parents when they were kids. They have grown up believing they are American and they speak English. Many did not even know they were here illegally until they applied to college.

For years, they have been fighting to be recognized as Americans.

The Illinois Dream Act will establish a private fund, administered by a volunteer state commission, to make scholarships available to about 95,000 children of undocumented immigrants who graduate from Illinois high schools.

The bill will allow families of the students to participate in the state’s college tuition savings programs. It also will enable high school counselors and college admissions officers to provide information regarding educational opportunities to undocumented students.

And a key fact: It will not cost the Illinois taxpayers a dime to invest in these kids, many of whom have demonstrated that they are talented enough to be accepted into elite colleges and universities.

The Illinois Dream Act enjoyed broad support from university presidents, clergy, business, community organizations and legislators, including Republicans who broke party lines to support a bill that they believe will benefit Illinois.

Perhaps most persuasive was the statewide campaign that the Immigrant Youth Justice League, a loosely organized group of “dreamers,” launched to gather support for the Illinois Dream Act. The kids effectively used social media to tell their stories to a broad public. A number of them spent Memorial Day weekend lobbying in Springfield, meeting with lawmakers.

The “dreamers” possess many of the attributes that colleges and companies are looking for. such as Internet knowledge, creativity, dedication and organizational skills.

And I have no doubt that many of the “dreamers” will become future leaders in academia, business, government, media and social agencies. The Illinois Dream Act will help them to do just that.

“We are committed and have great potential,” said Arianna Salgado, an undocumented student who will be attending Dominican University this fall.

It’s encouraging that Quinn and the state Legislature are taking notice of the important role that immigrants — particularly the Latino community — play in Illinois. The demographic growth and the increasing political participation of Latinos and Asians no longer can be ignored. Quinn deserves praise in particular for his decision earlier this year to pull Illinois out of the federal Secure Communities program in which states share certain fingerprint data.

As Quinn pointed out, the stated purpose of the program is to identify and deport individuals “convicted” of “serious criminal offenses,” but more than a third of those deported under the program in Illinois had never been convicted of any crime.

Amidst a wave of anti-immigrant legislation in Arizona, Georgia and other states, Illinois is essentially reminding us that demonizing a group solves nothing.

Most sensible people agree that an overhaul of the immigration system is needed. Borders must be secured, and a practical solution must be found for dealing with about 11 million undocumented immigrants living among us.

An excellent way to start, as Illinois seems to understand, is to give talented undocumented students a shot at the American Dream.

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