With Americans furious over illegal immigration, 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, encourages 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.

While 58 percent of Americans support Arizona's approach, 57 percent favor giving undocumented workers a path to citizenship. Voters could probably be persuaded to support comprehensive reform if Democratic leaders made a sustained push.

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 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 Sen. Dick Durbin (D., Ill.), is intended to help illegal immigrants who came to the United States as children, have finished high school, and want to attend college or join the armed forces. The bill is a win not only for them, but also for the country.

Much of the fury at illegal immigrants feeds off the notion that many are taking advantage of benefits that should be restricted to American citizens. However, that's not the case with college; undocumented students are not displacing 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. We used to lead the world in college degrees, but we've fallen behind.

Meanwhile, a change in the labor force has made postsecondary education more necessary. According to Georgetown researchers, there will be more positions requiring a two-year degree than qualified applicants by 2018.

So 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 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 higher, out-of-state rates.

Nor would the DREAM Act attract a 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 illegal immigration problem.

Nevertheless, 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 to live with fear and uncertainty. It's in their best interests, and the country's, to pass the DREAM Act soon.

Cynthia Tucker is a columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She can be reached at cynthia@ajc.com.