I'm going to put a face on the immigration debate today, so start your e-mails. It's an appealing face, belonging to a poised and articulate 23-year-old Peruvian named Maria, whose parents moved here illegally 10 years ago, telling her she was going to Disney World.

Instead Maria settled in New Jersey, where her dad found work cleaning hotel rooms. Welcome to the American dream.

When their six-month tourist visas were up, she and her family moved to Cheltenham, closer to an uncle who had become a U.S. citizen.

By the time she graduated from Cheltenham High School - Maria had just turned 17 - she'd been a part of the dance club and worked for breast cancer awareness, animal rights, and the homeless, while earning as many A's as B's.

Penn State Abington accepted her, and she was getting set to pick her classes in the summer of 2004 when the school asked for her Social Security number. Of course, she didn't have one. And without documentation she lost not just financial aid and instate tuition. Penn State no longer wanted her.

It took Maria a year to rebound. By babysitting and working in the businesses of friends' parents, she saved enough to enroll at Montgomery County Community College. She didn't ask her parents for help.

But as an international student, she paid three times the in-state rate. It took five years of juggling jobs and school for her to get her associate degree in social sciences. Her grade point average: 3.98 on a four-point scale.

Now Maria, who hopes to become a lawyer, floats in a limbo she shares with about 65,000 other young people - here by no choice of her own, smart and industrious, and unable to go any further.

She wonders how she will pay for a four-year college, provided she gets in. She cannot legally work. (She says she's embarrassed to be paid in cash at a pizza parlor, and to prove that she pays taxes, she showed me her last year's IRS returns.)

She's become increasing visible, advocating for passage of the Dream Act, which would create a six-year path to citizenship for those who came here as children, have acted responsibly, and are willing to go to college or serve in the military for two years. Under current law, people who overstay their visas are subject to deportation and cannot reenter the country for at least 10 years.

According to Matt Chandler, Department of Homeland Security spokesman, "Cases like this illustrate the need for comprehensive immigration reform."

For now, just showing up at rallies can be risky for illegal immigrants. Three "DreamActivists" face deportation hearings after staging a May 16 sit-in in the Tucson office of U.S. Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), who backed the legislation until this year.

What do we as a country do with people like Maria?

Send her back to Peru because her parents didn't play by the rules? A lot of you will say yes. I wasn't sure until I had met her.

We pay a lot of lip service in this country to the common good, but when most people are feeling the pinch of a brutal economy, more weight is given to those who ask, "What's in it for me?"

Well, here's something.

The pragmatism of the Dream Act is that illegal immigrants like Maria are already here. Their promise remains unharnessed.

How do we benefit from an undereducated and underemployed underclass?

At a rally on the lawn outside Independence Hall May 26, Maria and others called for President Obama and members of Congress to show political courage and back the Dream bill. I vote for that.

Otherwise, the Marias will continue to live in their shadow worlds, wondering when they're going to get caught. She sticks close to her job and her apartment. She can't drive, because she has no license, and she doesn't fly, because she could be pulled for questioning.

"It's the little things I can't do that people don't think about," she says.

And she still hasn't made it to Disney World. "But I will," she says.

Contact Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5917 or drubin@phillynews.com.