Just recently, Ivan Nikolov was released from jail after living a nightmare. The 22-year-old Russian immigrant was arrested on May 5, when Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents raided his family’s home. Although Nikolov’s mother was married to an American, in 2002 she missed a citizenship hearing and failed to adjust her status.

Nikolov’s mother was deported to Russia while he spent nearly four months in detention. He was freed thanks to a publicity campaign waged by his fiancée and friends in his hometown of Roseville, Michigan.

But Nikolov’s nightmare is not over–it’s just on hold. He must wear an electronic monitoring device and can be deported at any time. His best hope for the future lies in passage of the DREAM Act.

The Development, Relief, and Education of Alien Minors (DREAM) Act is bipartisan legislation currently before Congress. It would create a path for undocumented youth to obtain legal status.

It’s worth noting the DREAM Act’s benefits are restricted to those who were brought to the U.S. as children. They must also have a clean record and complete either two years of college or military service. Only then would they be eligible for legal permanent residence.

The DREAM Act would help young people like Nikolov. He did not choose to come to the U.S. His mother brought him when he was 11. He only discovered that he was undocumented when it came time to apply for a driver’s license.

Nikolov is one of the estimated 65,000 undocumented students who graduate from high school each year and then enter legal limbo. They can’t work without papers, nor apply for financial aid to attend college. They live under constant fear of deportation, although many have no connection to other countries (Nikolov barely speaks Russian). These are youth who have been raised and educated here. The U.S. is their home.

So why not allow the best and brightest among them a chance to become Americans?

Otherwise, they are consigned to off-the-books work or menial jobs. That’s a poor return on the investment we’ve already made in their education. Passing the DREAM Act would allow deserving youth to become productive members of society. It would boost enlistment in the armed forces and increase Latino college enrollment.

Speaking on immigration in July, President Barack Obama said, “We should stop punishing innocent young people for the actions of their parents by denying them the chance to stay here and earn an education and contribute their talents to build the country where they’ve grown up.” A majority of the public agrees. A June poll by First Focus, a nonpartisan child advocacy group, found that 70 percent of Americans support the DREAM Act, up from 58 percent in 2004.

Still, the future of the DREAM Act–like Ivan Nikolov’s future–remains uncertain.

Republicans are against it because they want to focus on enforcement measures. Yet we are already doing that. Last year, the Department of Homeland Security deported 393,000 undocumented aliens, the seventh consecutive record high. Contrary to conservative hype, border crime and illegal immigration are both down. Some Democrats oppose the DREAM Act because they want to see it included in broader, more comprehensive reform. But given today’s polarized political climate, that’s not going to happen anytime soon. Wouldn’t it be better to go forward on immigration, if only in an incremental way?

As the new school year gets underway, it saddens me that many promising youth are unable to start college or serve their country. Thousands more continue to live in the shadows, with no way to change their immigration status.

This is a needless waste of potential. The DREAM Act isn’t amnesty. It doesn’t reward illegal behavior. It is narrowly drawn legislation that remedies an inequity our immigration system. Most importantly, it gives hope and opportunity to young people who want nothing more than to fulfill their own American dream.

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Raul A. ReyesBy

Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and columnist in New York City.