Immigration bill faces last chance before GOP takes House control

Both chambers of Congress will vote in the coming days on a bill to legalize children and young adult illegal immigrants - a last-minute attempt to pass something before Republicans take control of the House next year and likely put legalization out of reach.

Facing that closing window, the White House ramped up its lobbying for the bill, and both sides began a late push to sway votes on the measure, which is seen as a bellwether.

“This is their last chance at amnesty. There’s no question about that. This is the low-hanging fruit for them. They’re not going to get this. They’ve tried before; they’ve failed before, and it’s over,” said Rosemary Jenks, government relations director for NumbersUSA, which lobbies for stricter immigration limits. “It’s time for our side to go on offense.”

Still, the mere fact that the House and Senate were scheduling votes was a victory for immigration rights advocates, who have struggled for years to push their issue to the forefront of the legislative calendar.

The bill, known as the Dream Act, would give conditional legal status to illegal immigrants who were brought to the U.S. before they were 16, who have earned a high school diploma or certificate, and who are still under 30 years of age. It would further offer a path to citizenship for those who go on to attend college or join the U.S. military.

Backers said it would help a population that had no say in the decision to bring them illegally to the U.S., while opponents said it would cost too much, would open the door to fraud, and could send the wrong signal to other immigrants waiting to come legally.

Now, with Republicans taking control of the House and vowing action on immigration enforcement next year, Democrats are seizing on the short window provided by the lame-duck session of Congress.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Wednesday morning he is pushing for a vote as soon as possible, and House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer followed suit, though he didn’t give an exact timetable.

Mr. Hoyer said the House will have the votes to pass the measure, though opponents said it could be a close vote. And it’s already running into unified Republican obstruction in the Senate, where all 42 Republicans signed a letter Wednesday saying they will filibuster every bill until Democrats tackle the 2011 spending bills and the Bush tax cuts, which are slated to expire at the end of this month.

Supporters, energized by the prospect of holding a vote for the first time in years, and facing the prospect of stalemate next year, were pushing forward anyway.

“The last bill that I remember voting on related to immigration was the Sensenbrenner bill in late 2005, and this vote will be very different,” said Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, Illinois Democrat, who has taken the lead in trying to get an immigration bill passed through Congress.

That 2005 vote was on an enforcement-only bill, which passed the then-Republican controlled House with bipartisan support, but stalled when the Senate wouldn’t take it up. By the same token, the House refused to take up a broad legalization bill the Senate passed in 2006 with bipartisan support.

Then, in 2007, after Democrats took control of Congress, the Senate tried again, but saw the bill go down to a dramatic defeat, leaving backers demoralized.

Over the past two years, even though Democrats controlled both the White House and Congress, the issue languished as the majority party acted instead on health care, global warming and financial regulation.

An analysis by the Migration Policy Institute said that as many as 2 million illegal immigrants are of the right age to qualify for temporary legal status under the Dream Act, though criminal and health histories could exclude some of them from the program. And not all of those who do qualify for legal status would eventually earn permanent legal status, MPI said.

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