The Senate on Wednesday rejected a bill offering the children of illegal immigrants a path to citizenship if they serve in the military or complete two years of higher education. The defeat of the measure, which had attracted bipartisan support, underscored the difficulty of enacting even a narrowly tailored proposal in the polarizing atmosphere surrounding immigration reform.
The vote on the proposal was 52 to 44, short of the 60-vote margin needed to prevent a filibuster and begin debate. It was one small piece of a comprehensive immigration bill that collapsed in the Senate earlier this year, and it sparked a brief but heated debate.
Opponents called the bill a form of amnesty and argued that it would create incentives for illegal immigrants to cross the border with their children. But Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), who supported the measure, said that “to turn on these children and treat them as criminals is an indication of the level of emotion and, in some cases, bigotry and hatred that is involved in this debate.”
His remarks were directed at Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), who on Tuesday suggested that immigrants who had attended a meeting in Durbin’s office were illegal and should have been arrested.
Tancredo, a presidential candidate who has staked his campaign on tough immigration enforcement, dismissed Durbin’s understanding of the issue: “I don’t expect Dick Durbin to be able to tell the difference between legal residents and illegal aliens.”
The debate on Capitol Hill suggested that the public outrage kicked up last summer when the Senate considered comprehensive immigration reform was still driving the political agenda.
Proponents of the Dream Act -- the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act -- had hoped it would be one of several less-ambitious changes to the nation’s immigration law to pass this year.
But Wednesday’s defeat signaled that any further attempts to help illegal immigrants might have to be balanced with action to increase border security or enforcement.
“All of America’s awake on this one,” said Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), suggesting amnesty was the end game of the measure that failed Wednesday. “They know exactly what we’re doing.”
The environment has become so poisonous that Durbin, in a news conference after the vote, thanked not only the Republicans who joined his effort but also the Democrats who he said “stood by me on this.”
He noted that some Democrats voted for the bill “with pain in their eyes,” knowing that their action would provoke anger from voters.
The Dream Act would give conditional legal status to illegal immigrants who have lived in the United States at least five years and entered the country before age 16. They must graduate from high school, have no criminal record and have a “good moral character.”
If these immigrants serve in the military or complete two years of higher education, the conditional status would be lifted. After five years, they could apply for citizenship.
Estimates vary as to the number of young illegal immigrants the bill would affect. The Congressional Budget Office has put it at fewer than 100,000, while the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute has estimated it at closer to 500,000.
Some proponents tried to cast the vote in a positive light. They noted that the four absent senators, including Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), had all vowed to support the measure, meaning it was closer to the needed 60 votes.
And, they said, the 2008 elections might send a message to vocal opponents that opposing immigration reform is not the winning issue they think it is.
“We’re going through a period of time when there is a sense of panic among politicians,” said Josh Bernstein, federal policy director for the Los Angeles-based National Immigration Law Center. “When the election comes, politicians will be surprised. Immigration was supposed to be the savior of Republicans in the last election, but that didn’t happen. I don’t think it will happen again.”
Some signs of bipartisanship were evident Wednesday. Twelve Republicans defied their party by voting to begin debate. And Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) announced that she and Durbin were working on an approach that might attract more GOP support -- requiring, in addition to military service or attendance in college, a longer wait for citizenship.
But the White House played hardball on the issue, releasing a statement outlining its objections. “The administration is sympathetic to the position of young people who were brought here illegally as children and have come to know the United States as home,” said a statement from the White House Office of Management and Budget. “Any resolution of their status, however, must be careful not to provide incentives for recurrence of the illegal conduct that has brought the nation to this point.”
Democrats argued that there was a moral imperative to pass the bill, saying that skilled graduates would benefit American business and that the young people who enlisted would provide a much-needed boost to a military struggling to meet recruitment goals.
“Children should not be penalized for the actions of their parents,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). “Many of the children this bill addresses came here when they were very young. Many don’t even remember their home countries or speak the language of their home countries. They are just as loyal and devoted to our country as any American.”
Republicans objected to the timing of the debate as well as the bill’s substance. Some complained that the Senate still had overdue spending bills to pass.
“We’ve yet to send a single appropriations bill,” said Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), pointing out that none of the 12 annual bills had made it to the president’s desk.
He said that the Internet tax moratorium expired in “exactly one week,” and that 50 million taxpayers could become ensnared in a confusing and costly tangle if Congress did not address the alternative minimum tax. “We have an enormous amount of work, and we’re running out of time,” he said.
Others, like Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), said the immigration bill was flawed, complaining that its beneficiaries would not be required to earn a college degree.
Some who had been supportive of the measure when Durbin brought it up on previous occasions were unenthusiastic. “Even though there’s merit in the goal of the Dream Act, I feel this should be part of a comprehensive approach,” said Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.).
Durbin countered that those affected by the bill would have very limited ability to sponsor family members to come to the U.S. and would not qualify for in-state tuition or federal aid.
And he implored the Senate not to ignore the talents and patriotism of children whose only crime was to pack their suitcases when their parents told them to.
“Don’t turn around and tell me tomorrow you need H-1B immigration visas to bring in talented people to America because we don’t have enough,” Durbin said. “Don’t take your anger on illegal immigration out on children who have nothing to say about this. They were brought to this country. . . . They’ve beaten the odds. We need them.”