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Originally published September 17, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 17, 2007 at 11:44 AM

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Kate Riley / Times staff columnist

Maria's hopes rest on a DREAM

Five years ago, I wrote about Maria, a fresh high-school graduate who punctuated her talk about future plans with an occasional teenage...

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Read two previous columns about Maria at www.seattletimes.com/opinion/

Five years ago, I wrote about Maria, a fresh high-school graduate who punctuated her talk about future plans with an occasional teenage giggle.

Though she had a University of Washington acceptance letter, Maria's future was not so bright. Maria — not her real name — had been living in the United States illegally since her parents brought her here at age 5. Thanks to the state Legislature's 2006 decision, students in Maria's predicament could pay lower in-state tuition — she could afford her degree. She graduated with a GPA north of 3.5 and honors in her department.

Now the girl is a shrewd and gutsy woman at the start of her second year at a Puget Sound area law school. Last week when we talked, she requested to do a pre-publication review of my column.

Uh, no! I told the budding lawyer. But I had to smile.

My young friend has matured immensely but still labors under her secret and the nation's stunted immigration system that threatens to dim her future. By all rights, save one, she should have the world by the tail. She is dogged by questions: When she graduates, will she be able to take the bar exam? Will she be able to keep helping low-income people as she's done during her internship this summer for a nonprofit legal-aid organization?

"The DREAM Act is my only hope," said Maria, echoing words she spoke when I checked in with her two years ago. "I hope and pray for it."

The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act of 2007 would give certain young people like Maria a chance to earn legal residency if they enlist in the military or attend college for at least two years. They must have been brought to the United States before age 15, lived here for more than five years, graduated from high school and have good moral character.

America needs comprehensive immigration reform. But after hopelessly stalled attempts this year, it likely won't happen until after the 2008 presidential election. Nevertheless, the DREAM Act — a less-controversial part of the debate — should be peeled off.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., is expected to try that this week. The Senate majority whip expects to offer the measure as an amendment to the defense-authorization bill, his spokeswoman said. The connection is that young people can earn legal status through military service.

Support is bipartisan. Among 26 co-sponsors are prominent Democrats, including presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and both of Washington's senators. Leading Republicans John McCain of Arizona, Richard Lugar of Indiana and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska are on board too.

But the 60 votes needed for anything to pass the Senate these days is a high hurdle, especially with the horse-trading bound to go on over defense spending.

I hope these young people are not lost in the politics. They have beaten the odds, many of them succeeding despite low family incomes and parents without much, if any, formal education themselves. Despite the dimmest of prospects, these kids have not only survived but achieved. In her high school, Maria was an elected student-body officer for three years.

Yet, in the most important ways, they must live in shadows, suffering not from their own actions but their parents' decisions to bring them into the country illegally.

These are kids on your daughter's soccer team and at your son's birthday party. A 2005 Pew Hispanic Center report estimated 1.7 million children under age 18 are living in the United States illegally.

Lucy Bottomley is another who has been caught in her parents' mistakes. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement intended to deport her two days ago — even though she was just five credits short of her Washington State University bachelor's degree. Brought to the United States at 10 from her native England, the aspiring teacher was stunned to learn at age 20 that her American stepfather never applied for her permanent legal status.

Fortunately, immigration officials relented and deferred her deportation until the New Year. She'll still be sent to a country she barely remembers.

Are Maria and Lucy the kind of young people our society should throw away — especially after investing in their public education?

I don't think so.

Only the DREAM Act will help Bottomley stay in the country she calls home, where she can teach young people to speak up for themselves as she has; only the DREAM Act will ensure the bright young lawyer, Maria, will be able to speak for low-income people without the means or wherewithal to advocate for themselves.

It's time for their dreams and the dreams of so many others to become a reality.

Correction: In my Sept. 3 column, I misspelled the name of Amanda Zwainz, a Washington State University student majoring in organic farming.

Kate Riley's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is kriley@seattletimes.com for a podcast Q&A with the author, go to Opinion at seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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