WASHINGTON — The Senate faces another contentious showdown on immigration Wednesday when it considers legislation designed to put thousands of undocumented immigrant students on track to U.S. citizenship.
Though far more limited than a comprehensive immigration bill that collapsed in the Senate in late June, the debate on the proposed DREAM Act will nevertheless resurrect the same warring sides from the earlier immigration battle.
The Senate faces a late-morning vote to take up the measure Wednesday, with supporters needing at least 60 votes to move forward with debate. Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., the chief sponsor, acknowledged Tuesday that his side has solid assurances of only about 55 votes, but he hopes to secure commitments from wavering senators.
Known officially as the "Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act," the bill would allow illegal immigrant children who have grown up in the United States the opportunity to apply for citizenship if they graduate from high school and get two years of college or serve in the military.
Candidates can be no older than 30 and must have lived in the United States at least five years before passage of the bill. A report released by supporters Tuesday projected that the bill would affect 360,000 undocumented high school graduates and eventually would benefit 715,000 more youngsters between the ages of 5 and 17.
The DREAM Act was included in the failed immigration bill that the White House supported and has generally attracted bipartisan support. But conservatives and groups advocating restrictive immigration policies have attempted to derail attempts to pass the measure, saying supporters are trying to open the door to granting amnesty to millions of other undocumented immigrants.
"I think we're going to have to start calling this the recurring dream act because the supporters of amnesty are just relentless," said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform. "Supporters of amnesty are just relentless. They will not accept no for an answer."
But Durbin and other supporters said the DREAM Act offers hope to illegal immigrant children who entered the United States with their parents and attended public school but who are denied further advancement because of their illegal status.
Many of the students have "heartbreaking stories" and are simply "asking us for a chance to stay" in the United States as legal residents, Durbin said.
"This is a bill that is going to be very difficult for members to vote against," said Angela Kelley, the director of the Immigration Policy Center, a pro-immigration organization. "This is just a straight policy question about how we treat our kids."
Others lining up behind the measure on the eve of Wednesday's vote included Reg Weaver, the president of the National Education Association; Robert J. Birgeneau, the chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley; and Bob Wise, the former Democratic governor of West Virginia and president of Alliance for Excellent Education.
The White House, which pushed heavily for the earlier comprehensive measure as one of President Bush's top domestic priorities, hasn't assumed an active role in the DREAM Act debate, although Durbin said that high-ranking administration officials have assured him privately that they support it.
Durbin said that the military also has embraced the bill as an "excellent opportunity" to broaden the pool of potential recruits and overcome the challenges of maintaining needed troop levels for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Military leaders have struggled to find qualified recruits and have been forced to offer handsome bonuses and other incentives to meet recruiting quotas.