WASHINGTON -- Demonstrating yet again the potency of the immigration issue, the Senate fell short yesterday of the 60 votes needed to debate the Dream Act, a bill that would give young, undocumented immigrants the possibility of citizenship if they were brought illegally to the United States as children.
The measure, sponsored by Sen. Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, would have required that the young people graduate from a U.S. high school and either enroll in college or enlist in the military to qualify for citizenship.
But the political repercussions sparked by the immigration debate have not abated, resulting in a 52-44 vote in favor - eight short of the 60 needed to proceed. Eight Democrats and 36 Republicans voted to block the measure, while 12 Republicans joined 38 Democrats and two independents to vote in favor.
The vote reflected deep anxiety on both sides of the political aisle, as many Democrats feared the wrath of anti-immigration forces, while a dozen Republicans worried about immigrant children in their home states as well as the loss of potential workers there.
"I'm not going to quit on this," said Durbin. "This is an idea whose time will come, because it's an idea based on justice and fairness."
Opponents said Durbin's plan would simply provide more incentives for illegal immigrants to flood the country.
"I can assure you, all of America is awake on this one, and they know exactly what we're doing," warned Sen. James M. Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican. "This is another amnesty bill."
The Senate tried and failed over the summer to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill that was backed by President Bush. Opponents complained that the federal government needed to focus on securing the borders and enforcing current law before figuring out how to address the millions of immigrants who are in the country illegally.
Durbin withdrew the legislation last month as an amendment to a defense bill amid criticism from all sides. Even traditionally pro-immigration groups opposed Durbin's measure, saying the military service option could entice desperate young men and women into uniform and possibly death in wartime.
The Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan immigration think tank, estimates that the Dream Act would allow about 279,000 illegal residents to attend college or join the military. About 715,000 illegal immigrants between the ages of 5 and 17 who are now in the country would become eligible in the future, according to the research group.
Although Bush supported the comprehensive immigration measure that included the Dream Act, he now opposes Durbin's plan, according to Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama. Sessions said the White House believes the bill would provide an incentive for continuing illegal immigration and provide a special path to citizenship unavailable to others who are following the law by waiting in line.
Jill Zuckman writes for the Chicago Tribune.