President Bush has sent one overdue immigration reform — the guest-worker proposal — to Congress, a worthy reform that's already the target of heavy fire from both left and right. There's another needed legislative change that ought to draw bipartisan support and no objections, because it would correct a long-standing moral wrong in U.S. immigration laws: the punishment of hapless children who had nothing to do with the decision to enter the U.S. illegally.

I agree that we should have harsh penalties for adults who break immigration laws. (My wife and kids are legal immigrants, and I believe everyone should follow the rules.) But why blight the lives of hard-working youngsters who attend our public schools, yearn to enroll in U.S. colleges, dream of becoming Americans — and those whose only connection to wrongdoing was being carried across the border by their law-breaking parents?

Nobody has a precise count of such a shadowy population, but responsible estimates are in the range of 50,000 such high school graduates each year, mostly concentrated in states and communities with numbers of illegal-immigrant families.

My friend "Alex" is such a young person. He was a babe in arms two decades ago when his teenage parents slipped into California in search of a better life. He grew up in tough Los Angeles neighborhoods, attended troubled schools and has never been back to Central America.

Yes, his parents messed up. His abusive father said they would eventually return to Guatemala. Now he's dead. Mom has acquired a "green card," but that doesn't help Alex, who is now an adult and not covered under his mother's status.

I came to know him while making a documentary film that uses Alex's painful saga to frame today's hot education policy wrangles over testing and school choice. The producer and I were struck by his keen intellect, self-awareness, articulateness and compassion. He's been a surrogate father for his siblings. He's found a way to work in low-wage jobs in nursing homes, where he entertains residents with games, poems and cheerful company.

Despite a rough time at the hands of the Los Angeles Unified School District — a few caring teachers amid the heedlessness and red tape of troubled urban schools — Alex earned his GED and is close to winning a regular high school diploma while also supporting a wife and baby. He'd be fine college material. But he can't go without financial aid, which he can't get without papers — ditto a driver's license, health insurance, better job, etc.

Alex faces endless legal hassles and blind alleys unless Congress passes a bill — the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, or DREAM — that cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee in late 2003 with bipartisan support. It would grant young people like Alex a grace period during which they could come out of the shadows without fear of being deported and qualify them for in-state tuitions and federal loans. They would be eligible for green cards if they completed at least two years of college or served in the military. This tightly crafted measure would transform at least a few Alexes into full-fledged Americans. Appreciative Americans, too.

"Why do I still dream of becoming a citizen?" Alex wrote in a brief prepared for congressional consideration. "I have already managed to do a fair amount to advance myself, my family and my country. I can only imagine the good I might be able to do for the country that I've loved and called my own ever since I knew my own name."

His fate under current law, however, is to live in fear of being deported to the bloody, chaotic land of his birth.

Comment on this story

The proposed DREAM Act is one of many overdue immigration reforms. A few gutsy Republicans on Capitol Hill have risked the ire of their party's nativist claque by crafting careful solutions to these problems. Predictably, most Democrats embrace such changes (except those they say don't do enough). One might suppose that GOP congressional leaders, watching the 2004 election draw nigh, would also see electoral advantage in advancing these measures.

Politics aside, young lives hang in the balance. Alex's is one of them.

Chester E. Finn Jr., is a senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, where he chairs the Koret Task Force on K-12 Education. He was Assistant Secretary of Education in the Reagan administration.