The House voted Wednesday to approve 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 216 to 198, including eight Republicans in favor of the bill and 38 Democrats opposed.
The Senate, which postponed an anticipated vote on the act today, is expected to vote Thursday morning. Prospects of the bill's passage are slim.
Senate Republicans have indicated they may filibuster a vote, presaging the same fate the bill met in 2007 when it last was brought to the Senate floor. Supporters are unlikely to have the 60 votes needed to override a GOP filibuster.
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 only have known 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 would be eligible for legal residency after fulfilling other requirements.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates between 300,000 and 500,000 presently undocumented immigrants could benefit from the DREAM Act.
But many Republicans, especially those sensitive to a resurgent conservative base ahead of their 2012 re-election bids, have been staunchly opposed to the measure and any show of leniency towards undocumented immigrants. They say it rewards criminal behavior and would cost taxpayers millions of dollars.
"The so-called Dream Act is a nightmare for the American people," said Texas Republican Rep. Lamar Smith. "I am sympathetic to the young illegal immigrant children brought here by their parents. However, this bill rewards the illegal immigrant parents who knowingly violated our laws."
But another Republican, Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart of Florida, called the legislation "extremely important."
"It all boils down to the decisions [made by immigrants]. The U.S. is distinguished by the fact that we stand and fall by our own decisions. But they didn't make the decision to come to the U.S. out of status," Diaz-Balart said of the young, DREAM Act-eligible immigrants. "At the end of the day, despite the unfortunate process, we cannot stop thinking about who we are dealing with in this legislation.
Fate of DREAM Act Uncertain
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 through generation of additional benefit program costs.
Roy Beck, president of Numbers USA, a group that favors tighter immigration controls and supports Republican efforts to block the DREAM Act, said the measure is flawed.
"Some of these [immigrants] are compelling cases, no doubt about it," said Beck. "But you've got to draw some lines a lot narrower than the DREAM Act draws them. This is about giving millions of illegal aliens permanent work permits, and I don't think in this economy that this is a very happy time to be doing that."
However, Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., one of the leading sponsors of the DREAM Act, 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. "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.
Top 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.
If the measure fails to advance out of the Senate, it likely will not receive Congressional consideration for at least two more years.