Debate over what to do about illegal immigration is heating up. The 9/11 commission urged reform, President Bush tagged it as a second-term...

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Debate over what to do about illegal immigration is heating up. The 9/11 commission urged reform, President Bush tagged it as a second-term priority and members of Congress have introduced at least three proposals.

But lost in the political tug-of-war between throwing ’em all out and granting some measure of amnesty is an acquaintance of mine. For me, Maria puts a face on the issue.

That’s not her real name — I won’t identify her because she does not have legal resident status. I wrote about Maria three years ago when she graduated from an Eastern Washington high school fearing she could not afford to go to the University of Washington, where she had been accepted. Though she has lived in Washington state since she was 5, her immigration status made her ineligible for in-state tuition — meaning she would have to pay three times as much as resident students.

Fortunately, the Legislature changed the law, moved by stories of hundreds like her. Mostly Latino children of Washington’s harvest, they were brought to this country through no cause of their own, by parents who decided to enter the country in violation of immigration laws.

The immigration debate too often forgets people like Maria.

Instead, the extremes are spotlighted. Immigration policy and its lax enforcement has created a terrible, embarrassing, inexcusable mess. We have civilians patrolling the U.S. border with Mexico. Idaho’s Canyon County is suing employers who hire undocumented workers, seeking reimbursement of county welfare programs that serve nonlegal residents.

In May, U.S. Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., introduced a bill with the most reasonable approach. It would create a guest-worker program so immigrants could enter the U.S. and fill open jobs. After a time, they could apply for legal status. Their bill also addresses workers here illegally — estimated at up to 12 million — who would pay a large fine and work for up to another six years before they could apply for permanent status.

Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., last week introduced a bill that permits guest workers but no path to permanent status. A Colorado congressman wants to throw everyone out and not let one worker in until the U.S. border with Mexico is completely secure.

I’ve been wondering what this all means to Maria, so I called her.

Now she is a UW senior in the honors program of her department and has made the dean’s list in every quarter but one. She has been involved in student government and is a mentor to other students. I would brag about her specific accomplishments but that would give her away.

She’s used to that. Her aspirations and achievements always are clouded by her immigration status. Her future depends on the success of Republican U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch’s DREAM Act, a proposal that would help students like her earn legal status by graduating from college or serving in the military. “For students like me, the DREAM Act is our only hope to come out of school and go on with our lives,” Maria says.

She is far from alone. Last Thursday, four Phoenix students barely avoided deportation when a federal judge found they were improperly targeted by Border Patrol agents on a school trip to Niagara Falls three years ago. The so-called Wilson Four, named for their high school, entered the United States between the ages of 2 and 7 with their families. When their academic team’s solar-powered boat won a regional victory, they earned a trip to Buffalo, N.Y.

Since then, one zoomed through Arizona State University to earn his business degree, two others attend college classes and the fourth wants to go into the military and serve the country that wants to deport him. Despite Thursday’s reprieve, they remain in limbo because of their legal status — as important people in Washington, D.C., debate their fate.

Yes, individuals who broke U.S. law to enter the country illegally should face consequences. But there is plenty of blame on federal officials, Congress and presidential administrations, who permitted whole industries to be underpinned with illegal-immigrant labor for all these years.

Any solutions must take responsibility for that and consider people like Maria and the Wilson Four.

Maria plans to graduate next June and is preparing to take the law-school admission test in October. The girl who wanted to be a bilingual teacher is now a woman wanting to help others in her fix by working in immigration law.

I only hope she gets the chance.

Kate Riley’s column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is