Congress must pass the DREAM Act to save the futures of tens of thousands of students who excel in college but whose futures dim because they are not in the United States legally. The federal Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act provides a path to legal residency.

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Washington’s asparagus is cut and cherry harvest is in full swing, but there is another of Washington’s crops that will be left to spoil if Congress doesn’t act soon on the DREAM Act.

Endangered are the thousands of graduates from the state’s high schools, colleges and universities who are not in the United States legally. The federal Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act provides a path to legal residency for these students brought to the U.S. as children and who have good moral character if they attend two years of college or enlist in the military.

Unless the DREAM Act is passed, these students face a wilting drought of choices and opportunities.

“This is not about a free ride,” said one 22-year-old student, a University of Washington junior majoring in two social sciences and minoring in education. “It’s about getting the opportunity to compete and do something better with your life.” His family moved to Seattle from Mexico City when he was 13. He excelled in school, was admitted to the UW and, under a 6-year-old state law, was better able to afford tuition because he could pay in-state rate. The UW has admitted 553 such students.

Tuesday evening, the co-founder of the Alianza Student Coalition was plotting strategy with more than a dozen other scholars, many in his same boat, at Seattle Central Community College. They are mobilizing to lobby Congress to push their futures into the light.

Children, no matter their immigration status, can legally attend public school from kindergarten through 12th grade. But while classmates are making plans for college, these students without legal status see the shadows begin to creep over their lives, eclipsing their futures.

I looked around the SCCC classroom and thought about the public investment already made in these students’ educations — conservatively, probably more than a million dollars teaching these kids to read, do algebra and physics, critique literature and succeed. Their families have paid taxes while contributing to Washington’s economy, especially agriculture. But these students’ futures run off the cliff — and the investment in them risks being squandered.

“Once they become adolescents, we leave them without access to mechanisms that lead to healthy, successful lives,” said Roberto G. Gonzales, a UW assistant professor who has researched this phenomenon extensively.

On April 21, Gonzales published “Young Lives on Hold: The College Dreams of Undocumented Students,” a paper sponsored by the College Board, which comprises more than 5,600 schools, colleges, universities and other education organizations. The College Board — which runs the SAT program — endorsed the DREAM Act. So has Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust.

Two months ago, Redmond-based Microsoft became one of the first major corporations to endorse the DREAM Act, urging lawmakers to move the legislation forward. Following suit last week were New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the CEOs of 18 New York corporations, including Macy’s, Pfizer, American Express Company and Morgan Stanley.

President Obama long has been a supporter.

In Washington, Gov. Chris Gregoire endorses the measure and U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell are co-sponsors of the Senate bill.

Many educators support it as well, including the Washington associations of school administrators and board members, the Seattle and Bellevue school boards and the trustee boards of Wenatchee Valley College and Walla Walla Community College.

After meeting these students who have proven themselves, I’m thinking the UW regents and the Seattle Community Colleges board of trustees should jump on board too on behalf of their students.

I have written three times in the past seven years about a young woman who is caught in this dilemma. She recently sent out invitations to her law school graduation.

Without the DREAM Act, what are she and the others going to do?

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