The Senate is expected to vote Saturday on a controversial immigration measure that would provide a conditional path to legal residency for hundreds of thousands of young, undocumented immigrants first brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents.
The bill -- the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors, or DREAM Act -- passed the House last week. But it faces a much more difficult prospect in the Senate.
Republicans have indicated they may filibuster, presaging the same fate the bill met in 2007 when it last was brought to the Senate floor. Many call it an "amnesty" that could cost taxpayers and encourage continued illegal immigration.
If the measure fails in the Senate, it's unlikely to receive Congressional consideration for at least two more years.
"I'm always queasy before a vote," said Roy Beck, president of Numbers USA, a group that has been lobbying against the measure. "We're pulling out every stop we've got. We feel we've got 42 sure votes against this thing, and we only need 41 to kill it."
But supporters, who need 60 votes to override a GOP filibuster, said the outcome is far from certain.
"Both Republicans and Democrats are feeling increasing amounts of pressure from the courage of the students and the number of allies who have come to their side," said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum. "The Catholic Bishops, higher education leaders from across the country, business, organized labor, and even political conservatives and evangelical Christian ministers are lobbying for the act."
The DREAM Act has been championed by immigration advocates and the White House as a reform that's previously garnered bipartisan support.
Its supporters say it would bring out of the shadows a fraction of the country's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants who have known only the U.S. as home, enhance military recruitment and give American employers access to a talented and highly-motivated pool of young workers.
Only immigrants younger than 30 who entered the U.S. before age 16, have lived here five years without a serious criminal offense, graduated high school or earned a GED and attend college or join the military among other requirements, would be eligible for legal residency.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates between 300,000 and 500,000 presently undocumented immigrants could benefit from the DREAM Act.
But many Republicans, including six who voted for the measure in 2007, are skeptical towards any show of leniency towards undocumented immigrants. And they say the bill rewards criminal behavior and could cost taxpayers millions of dollars while doing little to address the lagging U.S. economy.
"When it comes to immigration, our primary focus must remain on regaining the American people's trust by fully securing our borders that are threatened by emboldened and violent gangs, and fixing our broken immigration system," said Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, once a chief sponsor of the DREAM Act who now opposes the bill.
The bill's projected cost or benefit to taxpayers has become a focal point on both sides of the debate ahead of the expected vote.
The CBO report estimates that one version of the bill would reduce the deficit by $1.4 billion in the first decade because of increased tax revenue from immigrant residents.
But the same study also projects the bill could add between $5 billion and $20 billion to the deficit by 2060 due to additional benefit program costs.
Opponents also warn it would add to competition for already scarce U.S. jobs.
"There are some compelling cases out there that deserve to be considered. But there are also 22 million Americans who have compelling cases, who want a job and can't find a job," said Beck. "What the DREAM Act does is add at least a couple million more workers to legally compete against the 22 million unemployed Americans."
"I realize these kids did not personally decide to break the law. Nonetheless, they represent law-breaking. How do you keep parents from doing this to their kids in the future? The DREAM Act does nothing about that," he said.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., one of the leading sponsors of the DREAM Act, has said opponents of the measure are breeding "hysteria" and that lawmakers must not overlook the costs of doing nothing.
"Let us consider the alternative to legalizing DREAM Act-eligible young people," he said last week. "The young men and women eligible for the DREAM Act will still live here but can only take jobs in the black market, probably cannot afford the high costs we charge foreign students for a college education, and are barred from serving in the military.
"We want a more educated workforce fully taxed within the legitimate economy. This is why the DREAM Act, if anything, is likely to be a net revenue generator for the federal government," he said.
Senate Democrats have been under mounting pressure to bring the DREAM Act for an up-or-down vote during the lame duck session as Hispanic and other immigrant groups have grown frustrated with Democrats and the administration for relative lack of legislative action on immigration reform under their watch.
"These are young people who have been in the country, who have invested in our education system and our communities, and are the best and the brightest. And they want to continue to invest in our nation. They want to get a college degree, they want to serve in our armed forces," said Noorani. "How much more service can we ask for from immigrants to our nation?"