WASHINGTON — The Senate flinched again Wednesday on the potent issue of immigration, refusing to consider legislation that would've put thousands of undocumented immigrant students on paths to citizenship.
By 52-44 — eight short of the 60-vote majority needed under Senate rules — senators effectively killed the DREAM Act after the Bush administration announced its opposition to it. The bill's defeat came four months after the Senate rejected more comprehensive immigration legislation that the White House supported.
Known officially as ``the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act,'' the bill would've allowed illegal immigrants' children who've grown up in the U.S. the opportunity to apply for citizenship if they graduate from high school and attend two years of college or serve in the military.
While far more limited than the bill that died in the Senate in late June, the measure nevertheless ignited the same divisions, with opponents denouncing it as amnesty that would pave the way to legalizing millions of illegal immigrants.
Tensions flared after Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., a presidential candidate who's calling for restrictive immigration policies, sought unsuccessfully to obtain the arrests of several illegal immigrant students whom the bill's chief sponsor, Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., invited to Washington to help lobby for the legislation.
``America is a better nation than what we hear from the likes of that congressman,'' Durbin said on the Senate floor before the vote. Tancredo later shot back in a news release that Durbin's bill was designed ``to do one thing — benefit illegal aliens.''
Durbin has sought for years to obtain passage of the measure to help illegal immigrant children, who he said are caught in legal limbo after they enter the United States with their parents. Many, he said, grow up in this country, attend school and become part of the American culture but are unable to become legal contributing citizens because of their undocumented status.
``These are kids without a country,'' he said.
As he argued on behalf of the bill, he stood beside an oversize photograph of Marie Gonzalez, 21, an undocumented student who came to the United States when she was 5 and is a political science major at Westminster College in Fulton, Mo.
Gonzalez, who was among several undocumented students watching the debate from the gallery, said she was scheduled to be deported next June 30, just 18 semester hours short of her graduation. ``It is a tragedy what is happening to these students,'' she said after the vote at an impromptu news conference in Durbin's office.
A surprisingly large contingent of 12 Republicans supported the motion to proceed on the bill after Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, secured Durbin's consent for a proposed compromise aimed at softening conservatives' objections. It would've allowed immigrant children to stay in the country and secure student and work visas but would've required them to get behind other applicants in applying for permanent legal status.
Hutchison described the potential beneficiaries of the bill as young people who were ``brought to this country not of their own doing.
``If we sent them home, there wouldn't be a home to go to.''
Although DREAM Act provisions were part of the failed comprehensive bill embraced by President Bush, the administration announced its opposition to Durbin's latest bill before the vote.
While expressing sympathy to young people who ``have come to know the United States as home,'' a statement by the Office of Management and Budget said the legislation would establish ``a preferential path to citizenship for a special class of illegal aliens'' and contained loopholes that could give legal status to criminals.
The statement warned of potential widespread document fraud and said beneficiaries of the bill would be eligible for welfare benefits in five years.
Durbin acknowledged after the vote that trying to pass immigration legislation near the presidential election season is "very difficult." Immigration, long one of the most divisive issues confronting Congress, is emerging as a hot-button topic in presidential politics.
The outcome on Durbin's bill also raised doubts about the prospects of other piecemeal immigration measures moving through Congress, including proposals to legalize immigrant farm workers and expand a visa program for high-tech workers.