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Article updated: 4/5/2013 7:32 PM

Wheeling students tell lawmakers how important citizenship is

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It began as a real-life learning unit on immigration for students in Wheeling, Buffalo Grove, Arlington Heights and Mount Prospect.

It ended Thursday with a collection of national, state and local lawmakers listening as the kids themselves offered proposals for solving the immigration stalemate in this country.

Students at Riley School in Arlington Heights and London Middle School in Wheeling studied the issue for two months before meeting with lawmakers to present their ideas for reform.

"Boys and girls," London Principal James Parker said, "when you put your minds to something, adults respond."

In attendance were Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth, state Rep. Elaine Nekritz, state Sen. Matt Murphy, Chicago Alderman Joe Moreno, as well as Greg Bales, suburban outreach coordinator for U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin's office.

Wheeling Mayor Judy Abruscato and members of the village board came, plus Wheeling Township Elementary District 21 school board President Arlen Gould and members of his board.

"Many of our students are first generation, or weren't born in the United States," said Karyn Zima, a second-grade teacher at Riley School, "so the issue of immigration is important to them."

Riley students opened with a recap on their study of Ellis Island and its role as a gateway for thousands of immigrants. Seventh-graders from London then presented actual proposals they believe pave a fair pathway to citizenship.

Classmates Jonny Leeb and Iryna Kidyk, both of Wheeling, greeted officials first, telling their families' own immigration stories.

Leeb related how his great grandparents had come to America from Russia to escape the Nazis.

"Were it not for their ability to escape the concentration camps and come to this country and become citizens," Jonny said, "I would not be up here today, strongly advocating for the rights of immigrants to earn citizenship."

Iryna told the crowd of her birth in Ukraine and of her family's two-year wait to obtain visas to come to this country.

"We're all immigrants," Iryna said, "and a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants needs to be put in place."

Their proposals included setting up an "Ellis Island Southwest," near the Mexican border, which would help cut down on immigrants falsifying records or entering the country with criminal records.

They also propose having each undocumented immigrant register with the government, learn English and take a test to earn citizenship, while providing proof of residency and occupation.

Students such as Elise Malin and Carlos Hernandez, both of Wheeling, spoke of lifting quotas on refugees entering the country and said that the government should provide them assistance in finding jobs, housing and food.

Finally, students advocated for the DREAM Act and the ability of children of illegal immigrants to obtain citizenship.

"America is in need of comprehensive immigration laws that will terminate this issue once and for all," Carlos said.

Lawmakers said they were "inspired" by their proposals, and as a group, they promised to take them back to their colleagues to enter into their discussions.

Duckworth said she was excited to share their proposals with lawmakers in Washington. She described her guiding principals for immigration reform as having to be practical, humane and fair.

Likewise, Murphy commended the students for their in-depth research and balanced proposals.

"When you come to these events and see kids like this," Murphy said, "it gives you such hope. This is why we push through things, when the going gets tough, because you see that it matters."

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