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Congressional Democrats tried to push through the Dream Act during the lame-duck session last year. Although the legislation was approved in the House, it was blocked in the Senate after falling five votes shy of the 60 needed to break a filibuster. President Obama backed the legislation.

Opponents said the legislation was too broad, applying to illegal immigrants well past their days as students, and argued that the requirements on those who were eligible weren’t strict enough.

Under a Supreme Court ruling, illegal immigrants are entitled to public education at the primary and secondary levels.

Alabama this year enacted a law that requires public school students and their parents to disclose their legal status, though the law doesn’t bar those students from attending school. A federal court has blocked that provision from being implemented.

Decisions on public higher education, however, are left to the states, which have differed on whether to charge illegal immigrant students in-state or out-of-state tuition. Many states argue that illegal immigrants can’t be legal state residents and must pay out-of-state rates, but Texas and California have gone the other direction.

With Texas Gov. Rick Perry running for the GOP’s presidential nomination, his state’s stance has drawn national attention.

“In the state of Texas where Mexico has a clear and a long relationship with this state, we decided it was in the best interest of those young people to give them the opportunity to go on to college and to have the opportunity,” Mr. Perry said at a debate in September. “They’re pursuing citizenship in this country rather than saying, ‘You know, we’re going to put you over here and put you on the government dole for the rest of your life.’”

In a comment that infuriated some conservative groups, Mr. Perry said critics of the Texas law did not “have a heart,” although he later tempered his criticism.

Other candidates said the favorable treatment in Texas and other states effectively rewards illegal behavior.

“The American way is not to give taxpayer-subsidized benefits to people who have broken our laws or who are here in the United States illegally,” said Rep. Michele Bachmann, Minnesota Republican.

In the absence of the Dream Act, Mr. Obama has tried to take administrative action. The Homeland Security Department has issued a memo to its immigration services saying those who would have qualified for the Dream Act should be low on the priority list for deportation. It also listed other factors, such as caring for a family, that would lower the risk of deportation.

Immigrant rights groups say the administration could go further and issue a blanket stay of deportations for illegal immigrant students. Mr. Obama said he does not have the authority to take such action.