In a final showdown on immigration legislation, the Senate on Saturday blocked a bill to grant legal status to hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrant children and young adults, likely taking the issue off the table for several years.
Known as the DREAM Act, the bill would have immediately legalized many illegal immigrants between 16 and 30, and would have offered a path to citizenship to some of them.
It was halted by a Republican-led, bipartisan filibuster, with senators saying they think voters want to see border security before any legalization.
"You're wasting your time," Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, said. "We're not going to pass the Dream Act or any other legalization program until we secure our borders."
Hundreds of students, some of whom would benefit from the bill, packed the chamber's public gallery to observe the vote, with many of them wearing graduation caps on their heads.
They had spent weeks making visits to lawmakers' offices, pleading for action, and had their hopes raised last week when the House passed the bill — but were disappointed by Saturday's vote.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin, the Illinois Democrat who has led the fight to pass the immigration bill, pointed to them before the vote, urging his colleagues to have compassion for their plight.
"These people have been waiting for more than 10 years. Their lives hang in the balance," he said.
The final Senate vote was 55-41, leaving them five votes shy of the 60 needed to overcome the filibuster. Five Democrats voted for the Republican-led filibuster, while three Republicans joined Democrats in trying to move the bill through the chamber.
Both sides agreed the children and young adults, who likely had no say in their parents' decision to bring them to the U.S., are the most unfortunate group of illegal immigrants. Congress's failure to act on legislation helping them likely means that a broader legalization for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. is well out of reach — particularly with Republicans taking control of the House in January.
The vote was the first major legalization showdown in the Senate since 2007, when a broad bill to legalize nearly all illegal immigrants failed dramatically, aided in part by a flood of phone calls from opponents.
Stung by that defeat, immigrant-rights advocates stepped up their own efforts this time, including a massive march that drew tens of thousands of supporters to the National Mall in March, and prayer services, debate-watching parties and visits to congressional offices throughout the country.
They also demanded more effort from President Obama, who had placed the issue low on his list of legislative priorities for most of his first two years in office. Mr. Obama has belatedly stepped up his efforts — though it comes just as the chances for the bill receded.
Over the last month he has deployed Cabinet secretaries and other top officials to press for the bill's passage, and has himself made phone calls to lawmakers to try to build support, the White House said.
The bill would apply to children and young adults under 30 who were brought to the U.S. before age 16, who have been in the country at least five years, and who have graduated high school or earned a GED. They would be granted immediate conditional status, with the chance to earn a path to citizenship if they go on to college or join the military.
Up to 2 million people could get conditional legal status, according to one estimate. But the Congressional Budget Office said since many of those won't go on to college or join the military, only 700,000 will still be in conditional status and in line for legal permanent residency by 2020.
Mr. Graham, who earlier this year had tried to strike an immigration agreement with Democrats, rebuked the majority party for trying to push the bill through now, calling it a late-session political ploy.
The bill was debated for just one hour in the House, and no amendments were allowed in either the House or the Senate — a move that Republicans said proved it was a political move rather than an honest effort to pass the bill.
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