Riding a late White House push and driven by impassioned pleas by children of illegal immigrants, House Democrats on Wednesday night forced through a bill that would legalize hundreds of thousands of children and young adults brought here illegally by their parents.
Wednesday’s victory is likely to be short-lived, since Republicans have vowed to filibuster the bill in the Senate, which would end immigrant rights advocates’ last, best chance for legalization for the foreseeable future.
Still, for scores of Hispanic students watching from the House’s public viewing gallery, the 216-198 vote was cause for celebration, and they hugged and high-fived each other before spilling out into the hallways of the House, laughing and crying.
The bill is known as the Dream Act and would grant temporary legal status to most illegal immigrants under age 30. It would further grant a path to citizenship to those who go on to college or join the U.S. military.
“Have a little compassion,” said Rep. Eliot L. Engel, New York Democrat. “These children came here - they didn’t decide to come here. They know no other country.”
“Our compassion should be reserved for American workers,” retorted Rep. Lamar Smith, Texas Republican, who is going to be the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee next year.
Republicans said the bill invites massive fraud and amounts to an “amnesty” for all illegal immigrants up to age 30.
It’s the first House vote on a major immigration bill in years, and immigrant rights advocates spent the previous weeks calling or visiting members’ offices to lobby for their votes. On Wednesday, some advocates rallied outside the Capitol, while others across the country held debate-watching parties to observe the congressional action play out on television.
And President Obama, who has taken fire from Hispanic rights groups in particular for what they see as not doing enough to advance their immigration priorities, also had stepped up his efforts over the past week. He deployed Cabinet secretaries to host press conference calls and issued statements in support of both the House and Senate bills.
Both sides agree that the children covered by the bill are the most sympathetic group of illegal immigrants, and the most likely group to earn legalization.
But if the bill doesn’t pass this year, it and all other legalization bills are likely to be dead for the foreseeable future because Republicans are slated to take control of the House in January and are adamantly opposed.
Facing that deadline, Democrats used parliamentary moves to jam the bill through the House with little notice, without holding hearings, and by blocking the chance for members to offer any amendments on the House floor.
The move appeared to be designed to keep Republicans from offering border security or other amendments that Democrats would have had little choice but to vote for — a tactic the GOP has repeatedly used on other bills over the past four years.
And the harsh tactics angered Republicans who said that, under other circumstances, they would have been inclined to try to work with Democrats.
“This is politics, in the 11th hour in a lame-duck Congress,” said Rep. Jack Kingston, Georgia Republican, who noted that he’s sympathetic to illegal-immigrant children but that pushing the bill this way proved Democrats were looking for a political issue rather than a solution.
In the final tally, just eight Republicans joined 208 Democrats in voting for the bill, while 38 Democrats joined 160 Republicans in opposing it. Some Democrats from conservative districts who did vote for the measure are either retiring or recently lost re-election bids, and likely felt more free to support the bill knowing they wouldn’t have to face voters again.
The Senate had also been scheduled to act Wednesday, but Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada delayed the vote, saying he had promised House Democrats they could go first - partly to see whether the House vote could build momentum to influence senators.
Mr. Reid, who won a tough re-election battle last month based partly on the strength of Hispanic voters’ support, had promised during the campaign to force a vote on the Dream Act.
Both the House and Senate versions would grant conditional legal status to illegal immigrants who are under 30 years of age, were brought to the U.S. before they were 16, who have lived in the U.S. continuously for at least five years. They are expected to either be attending or to have graduated from high school, or to have acquired a GED certificate.
Those who go on to college or to serve in the military would be put on a long-term path to citizenship.
The Congressional Budget Office said the House’s version would grant legal status to 700,000 people by 2020, while Senate bill would legalize 1.1 million immigrants — or about half the number some outside groups said could be eligible.
Analysts estimate there are about 11 million illegal immigrants in the country — a number that has declined over the last two years as jobs have dried up in the slumping economy, and as the government has stepped up its enforcement efforts.
Republicans have argued that Congress should focus on securing the borders before it takes up any legalization, but Democrats say all aspects of immigration need to be tackled at the same time, in what they have labeled “comprehensive immigration reform.”
In a boost for the bills, CBO said legalization would actually be a net benefit to the U.S. Treasury by bringing workers into the official economy, where they and their employers would pay full taxes.