Silver: New York shouldn't wait for Washington; pass NYS Dream Act

While the debate in Washington drags on, New While the debate in Washington drags on, New York must take the lead and allow these children the chance for a brighter future. Photo Credit: Donna Grethen / Tribune Media Services

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Equality and liberty are the central tenets of our democracy. We are a nation of immigrants that has long championed the rights of all, no matter country of origin. President Barack Obama and Congress appear to be having serious discussions about finally addressing this country's immigration issues.

For New York -- home to more than half a million undocumented immigrants -- and for the rest of the country, this is welcome news.

Just like my parents and countless others did, families come here seeking the freedom and opportunity that is uniquely American. For too many children of immigrants -- young people who know no other homeland -- we are turning our back by denying them the educational opportunities every child needs to grow, learn and achieve his or her dreams.

New Yorkers recognize the value of a vibrant immigrant population. This is why the Assembly majority has long embraced an agenda that opens doors for immigrants who want nothing more than to become productive contributors to society. We have stepped up when Washington has failed, helping individuals navigate the deferred action process, passing legislation to expand access to privately funded scholarships and family tuition accounts, and advocating for fair employment practices for immigrant farm workers.

The failure of the federal government to provide a comprehensive solution for our immigration issues before now is shameful, but we in New York can once again lead the way. A New York State Dream Act would provide equal access to educational opportunities for all our children, no matter where they were born or how they reached our shores. I am thankful more of our federal representatives are finally discussing this critical issue. If New York adopts this measure, we will join Texas, New Mexico and California in recognizing the inherent value of state financial aid for immigrant youth. It is a simple matter of fairness. The New York Dream Act would empower these students to make significant contributions to our economy, which has long embraced immigrant populations.

The reality is that many undocumented youth cannot achieve their collegiate goals because of nothing more than their immigration status: children like Destiny Thompson, an Honor Society student and chamber orchestra violist at Valley Stream South High School, who didn't know until her sophomore year that being born outside the United States would affect her dreams for the future. Now she is a senior, and her college acceptance letters have started coming. However, for Destiny, paying for college or even thinking about a future after college is hard.

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Or take Kassandra Guzman, a senior at Flushing High School, who came to the United States when she was just 3 years old. She has worked hard, leads her school's Sports and Arts in School Foundation, and wants to be a lawyer, but her future is uncertain because we have failed to act.

It is unjustifiable that we deny college-bound youth like Destiny and Kassandra access to the same educational assistance programs available to their classmates. This isn't about pitting citizens who were born here against those who were not. We have always been a country that welcomes and embraces immigrants. This is not a question of taking resources from one group and giving them to another -- it's about equal access for all our kids.

The logic behind New York's Dream Act is simple. Anyone who has worked hard and played by the same rules deserves an equal chance at a college education. Our failure to provide college-bound young adults with access to financial aid is denying a generation of qualified youth a real future in the only country they know. What we are proposing is to give today's immigrant youth the opportunity to work hard, to achieve, to contribute to our economy and to make their own way.

While the debate in Washington drags on, New York must take the lead and allow these children the chance for a brighter future.

Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) is speaker of the New York State Assembly.

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