TOM BEARDEN: Seventeen-year-old Diana is more than making the grade. Advanced placement courses, like this high school Physics class, have allowed her to have better then a straight-A average. Her grade point average is 4.3.
DIANA: I think that I've been always working hard ever since I could remember.
TOM BEARDEN: Like many high achieving seniors across the country, Diana is already focused on a career.
DIANA: I would like to be an architect. And I want to get a bachelor's degree that's five years, and I want to get a masters degree as well. I think that's very ambitious right now, but I want to work.
TOM BEARDEN: But unlike her classmates, Diana is in this country illegally. To protect her family, she's asked that we use only her first name.
DIANA: Oh, look at that.
TOM BEARDEN: Twelve years ago, when Diana was five, her parents came to the United States from Mexico on a tourist visa. That visa has long since expired. Her parents work illegally, her mother at a fast food restaurant, her father painting houses. Like millions of other undocumented families, as long as they don't attract attention, they live their lives under the radar screen of immigration officials.
DIANA'S FATHER (Speaking Spanish ) ( translated ): We came to this country for the American dream. I wish that people in power could understand how important it is to us to pursue a dream, to contribute to society. We didn't come here for a handout. We came here to better ourselves and society, too.
DIANA: Being a child of immigrant parents and an immigrant myself, education is extremely important, and it's always, you know, the number one thing. It's the priority for everything. You have to get an education to be successful and to get ahead.
TOM BEARDEN: Diana has no Social Security number. She can't legally work or get a driver's license, inconveniences she's learned to live with. But she has a more pressing problem: As the child of an illegal alien, she can't apply for student loans or financial grants.
DIANA: I am not eligible for any financial aid, student loans, any grants from a public institution.
TOM BEARDEN: And even though she's lived in Chicago for 12 years, she's also not eligible for in-state college tuition. A 1996 federal statute bars states from letting illegal immigrants use those much-lower state fees. One of Diana's first choices for college is the architecture program at the University of Illinois, where the difference in tuition for residents and non residents is $10,000 a year. Joshua Hoyt is executive director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.
JOSHUA HOYT, Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights: You go to any high school in Chicago metropolitan area and you talk to college guidance counselors and they'll break your heart with stories of individual kids who are everything we like to see in children in America. They haven't joined gangs, they haven't done drugs, they haven't gotten pregnant, they have studied hard, they've gotten good grades, and all of a sudden, boom.
TOM BEARDEN: Illinois State Rep. Edward Acevedo wants to make it easier for undocumented students. He's introduced a bill that will allow the children of illegal aliens to apply for in-state tuition and financial aid if they've attended Illinois schools for three years and their families have applied for residency.
EDWARD ACEVEDO, Illinois State Representative: These students are the future of this country, and to deny them the opportunity to continue their education and further education and fulfill that American dream where their parents had worked all their lives, paid taxes, lived as model citizens, they deserve the opportunity, not because they're citizens, but because they're our future and they're human beings who deserve a good education as far as they're willing to work hard and continue... want to continue on and fulfill their dreams.
TOM BEARDEN: Illinois school officials have identified three to four thousand high-schoolers who would be eligible if the legislation passed. Joseph Daleiden is a lifelong Illinois resident, father, and grandfather. Noting that the federal courts require states to provide a grade school education for illegal aliens, he says allowing in-state tuition for those same immigrants unfairly forces taxpayers to foot the bill for college, too.
JOSEPH DALEIDEN, Illinois Resident: They received a benefit along the way that they never really should have received anyway. If you want to be fair, what you do is you apprehend people who come in this country illegally. They break the law, and you get them out as fast as possible. Anything they receive by staying here not only is subsidized by the American taxpayer, but is unfair to all those people who would like to come to this country but are trying to wait to play the game legally. So the fact that they got a benefit in the past by breaking the law doesn't mean they should get yet another benefit in the future.
TOM BEARDEN: Earlier this year, Texas, New York, Utah, and California passed laws permitting tuition breaks at state colleges. Dan Stein is executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform. He says that's patently unfair to both citizens and legal immigrants alike.
DAN STEIN, Federation for American Immigration Reform: Imagine the equities here. If you've got in-state tuition in California for somebody here illegally, never paid any significant taxes and attachment to this country is minimal, and you've got someone who lives three blocks on the Nevada border in Nevada, they're a descendant of George Washington and a byproduct of hundreds of generations, well, tens of generations, built this country, paid into the society, paid into the system, they have to pay out-of-state tuition they want to go to USC. What's the fairness there?
TOM BEARDEN: Those in favor of liberalizing immigration laws seem to be gaining momentum on the federal level. Utah's Republican Senator Orin Hatch has introduced a bill called "The Dream Act." It would grant permanent residency to children of illegal immigrants who are between the ages of 12 and 21, have lived in the country for five years, and graduated from a U.S. high school. Federal grants and scholarships would be available to students who qualify, as would the ability to work legally in their chosen fields.
JOSHUA HOYT: The federal legislation allows... is for children who go through college and who do all of these things to then become legalized. To then be able to work in this country, come out of the shadows, and be full citizens, full contributors so that they will get their college education, but they'll also be able to step into daylight and contribute, just like my children can, your children can.
TOM BEARDEN: But noting the fact that there are an estimated eight million illegal aliens in the country now, Stein says making it easier for their children to go to college will only attract more people willing to break the law.
DAN STEIN: Any program like this is going to be a magnet that attracts people here illegally. It's enough that were providing K-12 public education at taxpayer expense. Now we're supposed to provide college education? Our colleges are already overcrowded. It's very competitive now. People are trying to get there kids through school, save their money, take out expensive loans. And now we're supposed to provide subsidized, taxpayer- funded secondary education college for people who don't have a right to be here?
TOM BEARDEN: As for Diana, she says her immigration status has been the motivating factor behind her drive to succeed.
DIANA: This situation in which we are, of being undocumented, you know, having to struggle and having to get a good education in order to get ahead, I think that has made me who I am.
TOM BEARDEN: An estimated 60,000 children nationwide could be affected by the federal legislation.