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posted: 12/2/2013 1:57 PM

Fulfilling one DREAM

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When you talk to DREAMers -- those undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States by their parents -- what you hear most often is that they just want to get on with their lives.

These young people are in the legal version of a black hole. But unlike many of those who choose to come here illegally, they can't find their way home. Because this is home.

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Finding a way to allow DREAMers to stay in this country is just the first step. After that, getting on with your life means getting a driver's license, obtaining a work permit, being able to apply to college and -- the one item on the list that is often overlooked -- being able to pay tuition once you're accepted.

In most cases, you need a valid Social Security card to apply for federal financial aid, and going through that process is a requirement before you can apply for aid from a college or university. So DREAMers are stuck.

Now, given that most undocumented immigrants in the United States are Hispanic -- from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, etc. -- the Hispanic Scholarship Fund wants to help some of them get unstuck.

In 2012, the HSF gave out 5,116 scholarships to deserving Hispanic students who plan to attend an accredited college or university, or who are currently enrolled.

HSF President and CEO Fidel Vargas recently announced that his organization -- which gives out about $30 million every year -- intends to start awarding scholarships to undocumented immigrants who plan to attend or are currently enrolled in an accredited college or university.

Here's the catch: To be eligible for a scholarship -- the average size of which is about $2,500 -- a student would have to be granted temporary deferred action by the Obama administration through the program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

Under DACA -- which came about not by executive order but by a change in policy at the Department of Homeland Security -- students can get a two-year reprieve from deportation and a work permit. The program was unveiled by President Obama on June 15, 2012. According to data compiled by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, between Aug. 15, 2012, and June 30, 2013, a total of 537,662 requests for deferred action were received and 400,562 were approved.

The scholarships in question aren't coming from public funds, but private money. Even so, this move is bound to be controversial.

So I tracked down Vargas -- who happens to be an old friend and my former college roommate -- to ask him to explain his thinking about the policy change and the students that it is meant to benefit.

"They're in a gray area," he told me. "Technically they have documentation. They're eligible for employment, and other benefits. They have a status within the United States. And so it's been suggested by other nonprofit organizations, and our legal counsel, to make these students eligible for scholarships."

But what about those Americans -- including many U.S.-born Hispanics -- who will say that scholarship programs like this should focus primarily on helping U.S. citizens? Vargas disagrees.

"It's shortsighted to overlook talented students who are looking to perform at the top of their class, both in high school and college," he said. "For all intents and purposes, they're Americans. They'll still have to compete with the other students that apply, on a level playing field -- essay, grades, recommendation, financial need. ... And those who are undocumented (and don't have deferred status) are still not eligible."

Since DACA didn't come about through executive order, it is not on firm ground. The Department of Homeland Security could rescind the policy at any time. So could the next president. Or the courts could strike it down. Hitching a scholarship program to something this unstable seems risky.

"If the DACA program is declared unconstitutional or illegal," Vargas said, "then we would rescind the policy."

For my friend -- who has a Harvard MBA and came to the HSF from the world of private-equity management and financial services -- the new policy isn't just about protecting the dreams of the undocumented. It's also about protecting an investment.

"If we invest in our human capital, then we have to continue to reinvest over time," he said. "Hispanics will soon be 30 percent of the U.S. population. Much of that is because of immigration. And so something like this is good for America."

A good idea that is good for America. That sounds like good common sense.

Ruben Navarrette's email address is ruben@rubennavarrette.com.

2013, The Washington Post Writers Group

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