When Hulda Mazariegos was named valedictorian of Wyandanch

High School in 2003, she was offered a full four-year college scholarship.

There was one problem: Mazariegos was an illegal immigrant who had been ordered

deported at age 7 but never left.

She, her mother and seven other family members had been apprehended after

they crossed the border into California back in 1992, fleeing a civil war then

raging in Guatemala. After the college learned of her illegal status, it

withdrew the scholarship.

Mazariegos spent the summer working at a local deli. She was lucky,

however, because her father had won legal status several years earlier, and a

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sympathetic government attorney agreed to help reopen her deportation case.

After finally getting her green card, she qualified for the scholarship and is

now a straight-A student at St. Joseph's College in Patchogue, well on her way

to realizing her goal of becoming a lawyer.

It's important to keep young people like Mazariegos in mind as the U.S.

Senate debates a comprehensive bill that would legalize millions of

undocumented immigrants. She is part of the small picture that tends to be

overshadowed in the larger immigration fight.

As an immigration attorney, I have met thousands of young Hispanics living

on Long Island, many of whom entered the United States illegally with their

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parents at an early age. They have become completely Americanized in their

tastes, speak English with no foreign accent, and have little or no memory of

their home country.

They are among the approximately 65,000 undocumented students who graduate

every year from U.S. high schools. Although federal law provides for free

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public school education regardless of a student's immigration status,

undocumented immigrants often drop out because a degree without legal status

leads nowhere. Or they graduate and, like Mazariegos, find opportunities

blocked. And at a time when military recruiters are struggling to meet their

quotas, young undocumented immigrants are also ineligible to serve in the armed

forces.

The young people's loss is our loss. Long Island, like many areas of the

country, needs more Spanish-speaking teachers, police officers, social workers,

lawyers, doctors and other professionals. Reasonable people can disagree on

whether it is a good idea to provide a path to citizenship for the majority of

the 12 million illegal immigrants. But a sense of decency - not to mention

national and local self-interest - should lead us to universal support for

legislation that would enable undocumented immigrants who entered the United

States as children the opportunity to go to college or serve in the armed

forces.

There is, in fact, such a bipartisan measure, sponsored by Sen. Orrin Hatch

(R-Utah), pending in Congress. The Senate version is called the DREAM Act (for

Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors), and it is part of the

comprehensive immigration bill being debated on Capitol Hill. A companion bill

has been introduced in the House.

Both measures would grant conditional legal status to qualified students

upon high school graduation, and extend permanent legal status and eventually

citizenship to those who go on to college or the military.

The legislation also would eliminate a federal provision that discourages

states from providing in-state tuition to undocumented students. To be

eligible, students must have entered the United States before age 16 and have

lived here for at least five years before the law takes effect.

The independent Migration Policy Institute estimates that the DREAM Act

would make 279,000 young people aged 18-24 immediately eligible for college

enrollment or military service. Another 715,000 youths from ages 5 to 17 would

qualify in the future for conditional and then permanent legal status.

Although this sounds like the kind of legislation that both Republicans and

Democrats of goodwill could rally around, versions of this bill have been

kicking around in Congress since 2003. Even though President George W. Bush has

supported some form of legalization, conservative House Republicans have

opposed the idea in principle as a "disguised amnesty." They would punish

children who were brought here illegally by their parents.

Now, with a Democratic majority in both houses, there appears to be a real

chance that the DREAM Act will become law.

Reports out of Washington last week said that both parties have agreed on

this section of the comprehensive legislation. If an overall measure is finally

passed, this will be the year in which a generation of young immigrants will

gain the opportunity to realize their dreams, and stories like Mazariegos's

will no longer be the exception.