A last-ditch Democratic effort to establish a path to citizenship for some children of illegal immigrants failed in the Senate on Saturday, likely derailing any attempt at sweeping immigration reform in Congress for the foreseeable future.
The bill, known as the Dream Act, had passed the House, and its advocates and Democratic sponsors hoped that they could muster enough Republican votes to bring the legislation to the floor. Instead, it fell victim to a GOP filibuster, one in which a handful of Democrats also blocked the bill. The final tally was 55 to 41.
Dozens of young activists crowded the galleries above the Senate floor in support of the bill, many wearing college graduation mortarboards. Some held hands as senators cast their votes.
In a statement after the vote, President Obama called the result “incredibly disappointing.”
The act would have allowed those brought to this country before age 16 to attain legal residency and perhaps eventually citizenship if they lived here more than five years and attended college or served in the military. Opponents derided it as a form of amnesty. Experts estimated that about 1.2 million immigrants would have taken advantage of the legislation.
Some form of the legislation, known formally as the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, has existed on Capitol Hill for a decade, but Democratic leaders viewed this vote as a last, best attempt to pass it before Republicans take control of the House next month and gain additional seats in the Senate.
The vote brought the curtain down on a two-year drama in which the Obama administration and Senate Democrats assured activists that immigration reform was a top priority, only to see it never find any real legislative momentum. For proponents, the road will only grow harder, as public sentiment against illegal immigration has hardened and fewer Republicans have shown interest in a comprehensive policy overhaul.
But Democrats couldn’t even hold their own caucus together. Five joined Republicans in the filibuster, including Montana Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester, North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan, Nebraska’s Ben Nelson and Mark Pryor of Arkansas. Had all five voted the other way, the bill would have reached the Senate floor and could have passed by a simple majority vote.
After the vote, Democrats were, at turns, rueful and defiant. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said Latino voters would seek retribution at the ballot box, and Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he would push to have the measure included in some attempt at comprehensive immigration reform in the next Congress.
Schumer, too, warned that the GOP would pay a political price for opposing the act. “I don’t think any political party can succeed writing off such a large percentage of America,” he said.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), who has backed the effort for a decade, called it an “issue of justice.” Friday evening, Durbin welcomed scores of immigration activists to his Capitol Hill office as supporters readied their final charge.
But Republicans said that Democrats, led by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who pledged during his reelection campaign to push the act forward, knew they didn’t have the votes for passage and instead simply were using the occasion to score political points with Latino voters.
Others such as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told the bill’s youthful supporters that they were wasting their time trying to persuade Republicans to support the bill absent a greater commitment to securing the U.S. border with Mexico.
“We’re not going to pass the Dream Act or any other legalization program until we secure our borders,” Graham said. “It will never be done as a stand-alone. It has to be part of comprehensive immigration reform.”