This essay was first published in Newsday. In Thomas Hardy's novel "Tess of the d'Urbervilles," everyone believes Tess' father is a poor peddler, including the man himself. Then, in a chance meeting, a parson tells him he's descended from a noble family. After that, the villagers look at Tess' father through new eyes.
Similarly, we're often mistaken in our perceptions about DREAMers - young immigrants who were brought to this country illegally as children and who would be eligible for the state and federal DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Acts. We often don't recognize them for who they are. They're neighbors, classmates and children's friends.
A couple of years ago, I remarked to another mom about a boy who was becoming an academic superstar. He was one of those boys every girl had a crush on in sixth grade. My friend said, we'll see where his hard work gets him when he applies for college. The boy isn't an American citizen. He's one of roughly 1.8 million such children in local school districts across the country.
Under current law, many colleges and universities won't admit noncitizen students. And even if they enroll, most financial aid is not available to them.
In all but 13 states, these students must pay out-of-state tuition; New York is one of the 13 exceptions. But even here, DREAMers can't qualify for state academic scholarships, student loans or the need-based Tuition Assistance Program.
After realizing how many hurdles were in front of that boy, I began to look at him differently. What might his future hold? Working off the books somewhere? Turning to crime? I became a passionate supporter of the DREAM Act - federal and state.
In April, Newsday ran an op-ed by Destiny Thompson, a senior at Valley Stream South High School, whose Jamaican family moved her to the United States when she was 2. Another hard worker, she made a plea to pass the New York DREAM Act, which would allow undocumented students with good grades and low family income to get financial aid through TAP.
Readers sent many letters in response. Certainly, some had compassion for Thompson. But others worried that their chances would be spoiled by the competition. Several said they wanted the government to help Americans first.
One misconception about the New York DREAM Act is that it would take money away from citizens. Instead, anyone who meets the TAP guidelines, one of which is low income, would be eligible. The liberal Fiscal Policy Institute think tank estimates that passing the DREAM Act would cost New York just $17 million a year, or a 2 percent increase in TAP grants.
Another fear is that DREAMers would displace citizens in coveted college slots. For this reason, among others, schools with racial preferences should eliminate them. But if a minority DREAMer won a place at a university on merit, over one of my kids, that's fair. Rewarding hard work and intelligence is the moral foundation of our culture.
College graduates earn about $12,000 more a year than those without a degree - and therefore pay more in taxes. But forget the dollars for a moment. Higher education adds meaning to people's lives. It allows a person to bring art, literature, history and science to his or her endeavors. Where some see DREAMers wanting to take something away, I believe that an educated person returns gifts to the community many times over.
Let's see DREAMers for who they are: young people whose potential is among our best possible investments.