Commentary by Cynthia Tucker: The proposal is intended to boost illegal immigrants who came to the United States as children, have finished high school, and want to attend college or join the U.S. armed forces.

WASHINGTON — With Americans furious over illegal immigration — Democrats, independents, Republicans and tea partiers — there is little hope for comprehensive immigration reform this year. Incredibly, a majority supports Arizona's ugly new law, which, no matter what its proponents say, begs for racial profiling.

The harsh political climate may begin to look a bit sunnier as the recession recedes and hiring picks up. In fact, there is room even now for leadership on the issue of illegal immigration.

While 58 percent of Americans support Arizona's approach, 57 percent of the nation favors allowing undocumented workers a path to citizenship. Voters could probably be persuaded to support comprehensive immigration reform if Democratic leaders made a sustained push for it.

Until that happens, Congress ought to concentrate on a few small bills that would represent a modest improvement over the current reality for millions of undocumented workers — a life of living in the shadows, without legal protections, with continual fear of deportation and little chance for improved circumstances.

One of the best opportunities lies in the DREAM Act, which would allow promising undocumented students to start a path toward citizenship if they meet certain standards. The proposal, pushed for years by U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., is intended to boost illegal immigrants who came to the United States as children, have finished high school, and want to attend college or join the U.S. armed forces. The bill is a win not only for those students, but also for the country as a whole.

Much of the fury directed at illegal immigrants feeds off the notion that many of them are unfairly taking advantage of benefits that should be restricted to American citizens. However, that's not the case with college; undocumented students are not displacing bona fide citizens who have been denied a seat in Calculus II.

In fact, the United States doesn't have nearly enough students attending college. President Obama has talked again and again about the country's decline in educational attainment: The U.S. used to the lead the world in the number of people with college degrees, but we've fallen behind.

Our declining educational attainment comes as a structural change in the labor force has made post-secondary education more necessary for middle-class wages. According to Georgetown University researchers, there will be more positions demanding a two-year degree than qualified applicants to fill them by the year 2018.

In that climate, we can hardly afford to obstruct ambitious, hardworking young people who want to attend college and join the great American mainstream. According to some estimates, 65,000 undocumented students graduate from U.S. high schools each year. Why not let them attend college or join the military and then attain permanent legal status?

The DREAM Act doesn't attempt to determine whether students here illegally should be charged in-state tuition. State legislatures would still be free to charge them the higher out-of-state rate, if they chose.

Nor would the DREAM Act attract a steady stream of illegal border-crossers. It is narrowly tailored for students who entered the country before the age of 15 and have lived here continuously for at least five years. It is a sensible proposal that deals with a small part of the problem of illegal immigration.

Nevertheless, Sen. Durbin seems willing to allow the bill to languish until the Senate takes up comprehensive immigration reform, which seems unlikely this year. That leaves undocumented achievers such as Jessica Colotl, a student at suburban Atlanta's Kennesaw State University, and Eric Balderas, who attends Harvard, to live with fear and uncertainty.

It's in their best interests to pass the DREAM Act soon — and in the country's best interests, as well.

Cynthia Tucker is a political writer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and a nationally syndicated columnist. She can be reached at cynthia@ajc.com.