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For thousands of undocumented high school students in Pennsylvania, the DREAM Act is their dream.

There are actually two versions – federal and state – and each would make the path through college easier and more rewarding.

The federal act, first introduced in the Senate more than a decade ago, would essentially let college serve as a path to citizenship. It would allow immigrants of "good moral character," who arrived in the United States before the age of 16 and graduated high school, to apply for student loans, but not grants. They could also obtain permanent residency by completing two years of higher education and getting a degree.

The Pennsylvania act, now in the House Education Committee, would offer in-state tuition rates based on graduation from high schools in the commonwealth, not dependent on citizenship. Students or their parents would have to have filed Pennsylvania income taxes annually for three years while the students are attending high school.

If it passes, "the possibilities would be tremendous," said Darren Spielman, executive director of the Philadelphia Education Fund.

According to the Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island, state Dream Acts result in a 14 percent decrease in high school dropouts for undocumented Latinos and allow 31 percent more of them to attend college.

Cesar Marroquín, an organizer with DreamActivist Pennsylvania, notes that 14 states are already allowing undocumented students to get in-state tuition rates. The Urban Institute estimates that U.S. high schools graduate some 65,000 undocumented students a year. Estimates for Pennsylvania are about 1,000, Marroquín says, most of them in Philadelphia.

Marroquín, who is 21 and an undocumented native of Peru, attended Montgomery County Community College and dropped out for lack of resources, but says he is hopeful of going back to school.

Whether either of the DREAM Acts passes, though, he and other immigrant students say that motivation to stay and succeed is powerful, regardless of obstacles.

"You have things here that you couldn't buy in Honduras," said Darwin Maldonado, a 22-year-old undocumented immigrant who graduated from South Philadelphia High School and is juggling two restaurant jobs while making his way through the Community College of Philadelphia.

Maldonado's father spent 20 years in the United States working subsistence jobs before bringing his family over and Maldonado feels driven to succeed by those sacrifices.

"He's given up 22 years of his life for someone else," Maldonado said. "I owe it to him."

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Paul Jablow

@PaulJ1940
Paul Jablow is a freelance writer and former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter who contributes regularly to the Notebook.