Nonprofits across the nation ought to know what legislation is pending in Congress that would change the rules—hopefully for the better—for America’s diverse immigrant population.

The most important legislative initiative related to nonprofits and immigration—other than the elephant in the room, comprehensive immigration reform—is the DREAM Act (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, S.729).

There are hundreds of thousands of undocumented children in this country attending school, graduating high school, and finding themselves not only without higher education opportunities because of their legal status in the U.S., but without opportunity to become legal residents or citizens unless their parents do so for themselves. Originally proposed in 2001, the DREAM Act of 2009 was reintroduced by Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) to rectify this situation. The Act would make undocumented immigrant high school graduates (or those who have earned their GED diploma) eligible to apply for conditional permanent resident status if they planned to go to college or enter the military, and then if they finished college or served two years in the military, eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship. (Eligible students would have to have entered the U.S. aged 15 or younger and have to have lived in the U.S. for at least five years and be of “good moral character”).

Although the legislation would not require states to provide in-state college tuition rates to undocumented immigrant high school graduates, it would remove federal penalties for states that do provide in-state tuitions. [Section 505 of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 had prohibited in-state tuition at state colleges, though 10 or more states including Texas, California, New York, Utah, Illinois, Washington, and New Mexico (unlike Georgia, South Carolina, and Colorado that have specifically banned in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants) allow for in-state tuitions and sidestep the prohibition by simply not asking college applicants for their immigration status]. Qualified immigrants under this program would also be eligible for federal college loans and work-study programs under Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965.

The legislative intent is straightforward: These kids are in the U.S., going to school, they want to go to college or join the U.S. military, they are doing all the right things that anyone would want of permanent residents or citizens–except they happen to be young immigrants without full documentation due to no fault of their own. Why prevent them from becoming assets to the nation by denying them the opportunity to attend college, continue their educations, and expand their skills?

According to the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) and the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), 60,000 to 65,000 undocumented young people graduate U.S. high schools each year (80,000 undocumented kids turn 18 each year in the U.S., but about one-sixth do not graduate from high school).  The opponents–yes, they are why the 2007 bill and previous attempts to pass DREAM stalled–fear that these young people will scarf up higher ed slots and benefits to the detriment of children who live in this nation legally, that allowing for in-state tuitions will lead to preferences for undocumented immigrants over other state college applicants.

In Congress, Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) frets that the DREAM Act is no more than a surreptitious feint toward the dreaded condition of ‘amnesty:’ “The problem with this legislation is that it extends government benefits to people illegally in the United States. We cannot restore a system of legal immigration—which is the real American dream–if we undermine it by granting new benefits to those who are here illegally.” Given Alexander’s previous service as Secretary of the Department of Education and, in philanthropy, chair of the National Commission on Philanthropy and Civic Renewal (eponymously called the Alexander Commission), the Senator’s position is shockingly callous, penalizing young people whose graduation from high school and potential entrance into college or military means that they will be positive contributions to our society.

Remember that many immigrants look to service in the U.S. military as an avenue to citizenship. Currently, 31,000 green card holding immigrants serve in the U.S. military, about 1.5 percent of the total. That is smaller than the proportions in recent years, because in 2002 the Bush Administration decided to allow permanent residents in the military to apply for citizenship as soon as they were sworn in. About 4,614 immigrants in the military became citizens in 2005, including 1,000 who became U.S. citizens while serving overseas, compared to around 749 in 2001, under the Bush program. In February of this year, the Pentagon even began recruiting immigrants with temporary visas (student visas, people granted asylum, other temporary visas) in order to fill specialized military slots, including medical personnel and people who speak languages such as Arabic and Yoruba—and 7,000 people have already applied for the 1,000 openings. Just like previous generations of immigrants to the U.S., many immigrants see military service as a route to economic and social advancement and typically are more interested than longer term residents in joining the armed forces.

Should nonprofits pursue the DREAM? Some advocates might say that  approaching immigration reform piecemeal with age- or constituency-specific bills like the DREAM Act delay and undermine progress toward comprehensive immigration reform.  It is sort of the argument around health care concerning legislation on Medicare prescription costs or the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), they address health care with partial interim solutions rather than tackling the overall scope and need of health care reform.

To us, watching kids make it through high school only to face deportation, or if they are not deported, to be denied access to higher education opportunities because they lack documentation or to be denied in-state higher education tuition because of their immigration status, this can and should be fixed on the spot. The alternative is to make some sort of inchoate political statement at the cost of the hopes and aspirations of thousands of immigrant kids wanting to make good.

It doesn’t require being an immigration group to support the DREAM Act. How about youth service groups? Education groups?  High schools and colleges? For example, the President of Harvard, Drew Gilpin Faust has taken a public stand in favor of the legislation, saying, “The DREAM Act would throw a lifeline to these students who are already working hard in our middle and high schools and living in our communities by granting them the temporary legal status that would allow them to pursue post-secondary education.”

The positive trend in pending legislation is reflected in the DREAM Act, opening up public programs and services for access by undocumented immigrants, counters the punitive anti-immigrant animus that still exists in so many places in this nation. The punitive legislative line is reflected in H.R.2287, the No Social Security for Illegal Immigrants Act, introduced by California’s Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) and joined by 35 cosponsors. The bill’s title tells the story, unlike legislation that would open up key health and human services to documented and undocumented immigrant families and children in the country.

There is more anti-immigration animus on the horizon threatening the DREAM Act and other initiatives that would extend logical rights and services to people in need. Already there are statements from leading legislators about prohibiting “illegal immigrants” from benefiting from health care reform. The punitive, blaming strain in American politics is surprisingly resilient and sometimes bipartisan, in this case picking immigrants rather than other easily targeted groups.

Nonprofits play a role in these national legislative debates. A group does not need to be an “immigrant organization” to be involved in these debates about the DREAM Act, extending services to immigrants in other programs (such as plans for new health insurance coverage), and overall immigration reform. The reason is not a question of positions on immigration or immigrants, but beliefs in social justice and human rights. The charitable tax exemption is built on providing services and representation to people who are least well served in our economy and our society. By virtue of the humanitarian reason for existence, nonprofits should be on the front lines of our society trying to protect, aid, and support immigrant children and families regardless of the documentation they might possess or lack.