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A 2014 protest for immigrant rights in New York. Credit: U. Roberto Romano, courtesy of Rural & Migrant Ministry

Can you imagine how much louder the families of undocumented students would cheer if their graduates became citizens at their graduation ceremonies? With a diploma and shiny new passport in hand, they could declare that not only could they apply for college, they had also earned the right to stay in the country of their schooling.

For an estimated 65,000 undocumented students who graduate from high school each year, though, it’s hard to be that enthusiastic. Those who cannot show proof of citizenship or an active visa are not eligible for federal financial aid, which many undocumented students need in order to afford college. And without citizenship, the threat of deportation looms.

“It would be wonderful to get a diploma and citizenship,” said Cleveland Cordova, 16, in his native Spanish, responding to a growing movement to increase the routes to citizenship. He is a member of the Latino education advocacy group Nuestra Voz and a student at Cohen College Prep in New Orleans. Students need access to quality high schools, citizenship and real pathways to gainful employment, he added.

If President Donald Trump is serious about strengthening the country from within as his “America first” rhetoric conveys, he should grant citizenship to members of our communities who by graduating high school have substantively fulfilled U.S. naturalization requirements. This rite of passage is also a natural path to citizenship and Trump would do well to recognize that.

The 1982 U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Plyler v. Doe that public elementary and secondary schools couldn’t consider immigration status when a student seeks to enroll. The court believed that denying undocumented children access to education punished them for their parents’ behavior and that the children of undocumented parents should be viewed as future members of society and granted applicable benefits.

An estimated 65,000 undocumented students graduate from high school each year.

Schools are the perfect teaching grounds for potential citizens because when students go to school, they are doing more than someone who simply studies the materials the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services offers to pass the citizenship exam. Students take the pledge of allegiance daily. What they learn in math, English and science they apply in real life. Students taking civics not only understand the political structure of the country, they also become aware of the way politics affects their lives.

The education philosopher John Dewey said, “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” When students participate in community service, they don’t just help individuals and communities in a vacuum. They tighten their bonds to that community that’s patriotic in nature. Taking English and learning about Shakespeare is not just about command over the language but also imparting American and British culture. Schools are the best naturalization system we have.

That is why I strongly believe that when undocumented students graduate, they should get citizenship, too.

Related: Throw me some beads, mister!

Under the current naturalization process, you must be 18 years or older at the time of filing and have continuous residence for 5 years. You must be able to read, write and speak English and have knowledge and understanding of U.S. history and government (civics). You must be a person of good moral character (not arrested on any charges more serious than a misdemeanor) and attached to the principles of the Constitution of the United States while you are in the country. These are all things measured in school. You must also carry the proper visa.

The immigrant bogeyman is alive and well. But the real monsters are the pervasive fear of being deported and a broken and backlogged immigration system.

President Trump has already committed to preserving the Obama administration’s deferred action program commonly referred to as DACA, which prohibits the prosecution of youth who did not come to the country of their own volition.

Many, including Republicans, recognize we need new paths to citizenship, especially for the youth. Florida Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo and Colorado Republican Rep. Mike Coffman introduced the “Recognizing American Children Act” during the presidential campaign. Others incorporate schools as part of the solution but have not outright endorsed graduation as the solution.

Using schools as pathways to a passport is certainly not without its share of problems, “because most schools are not inclusive or culturally competent,” said Mary Moran, executive director of Nuestra Voz. “They do not offer sufficient ESL [English as a second language] programming, so students’ English language acquisition and content mastery suffers.” Moran also said that many schools push students out before getting to the stage.

But better even than DACA is the DREAM Act — or the Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors Act, which was originally introduced in 2001 by Sen. Orrin Hatch, the senior Republican senator of Utah, with bipartisan support. Then came 9/11. Since then, every effort to pass the law has failed. Its passage would make certain undocumented students eligible for federal financial aid and make them permanent residents, eligible for citizenship.

Unfortunately, President Trump’s agenda does not include the DREAM Act — or any other common-sense approach to resolving a backlogged system that sees people wait years for an immigration hearing.

Related: It’s not who controls the schools that matters, it’s whether they care about equity

Trump put a smile on his agenda in his first address to Congress on February 28 and many smiled back. According to some polls, many Americans felt at ease with this new presidential tone. But if you’re an immigrant, Muslim or someone who doesn’t believe an ability to read one speech from a teleprompter means a change in tone, you didn’t sleep well. Much of his policy agenda hung on the fear of the immigrant: the alleged job-stealing terrorist threat that is holding America back from becoming “estupendo” again.

“What would you say to the American family that loses their jobs, their income, or their loved one because America refused to uphold its laws and defend its borders?” Trump asked. Shortly thereafter he stoked fears of terrorism. “[T]he vast majority of individuals convicted of terrorism and terrorism-related offenses since 9/11 came here from outside of our country.” (This particular claim is misleading since the number he used to base it on did not include domestic terrorism and most of the attacks did not occur within the U.S. Those Trump says were convicted of terrorism were convicted of other offenses.)

The immigrant bogeyman is alive and well. But the real monsters are the pervasive fear of being deported and a broken and backlogged immigration system. Trump hurts the country from the inside out when he threatens those who have done everything in their power to be full-fledged citizens.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about education in New Orleans.

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