And yet even for those who defy the odds, graduation only presents new obstacles. It's then that hope and resolve run up hardest against the realities of life as an illegal immigrant, when college graduates find themselves blocked from virtually any occupation that demands proof of legal status.
"You can't really do much without documents in this country," says Pedro Ramirez, student body president at California State University, Fresno, and an undocumented immigrant – his parents also brought him to the US when he was 3. "You can't be all that you can be. Some students I know are very hardworking, can do great things. But they could go further."
The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act would help them. The DREAM Act would offer legal status and a path to citizenship to children and young adults who were brought to the US illegally and who attend college or serve in the military. The House passed its version of the DREAM Act Dec. 8, and Senate majority leader Harry Reid says he's determined to bring it to a vote in the Senate before the holiday recess.
According to the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute, the bill would cover as many as 2 million children and young adults who are in school or have graduated. MPI estimates that 114,000 of these have already completed at least two years of college, while 66,000 hold a bachelor's degree or higher.