A bill granting children of illegal immigrants legal status died in the Senate today. Senators voted 52-44 to limit debate on the DREAM Act which would have provided children of illegals a path to citizenship as long as they enlisted in the military or attended two years of college.
Sixty votes were needed to break a filibuster by opponents.
The DREAM Act (that's the Development, Education, Relief for Alien Minors) was the first of two piecemeal stabs by Congress at the issue of immigration reform. Congress has twice-failed in the past two years to pass comprehensive immigration legislation.
Presidential candidates who are also sitting senators canceled campaign appearances to return to Washington for the vote.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., also canceled his campaign appearances to vote, though the stated reason was to support controversial judicial nominee Leslie Southwick, whom the Senate appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit.
McCain, a cosponsor of previous versions of the immigration bill, however, was absent for the DREAM Act vote. His campaign explains the senator's absence by saying he had to catch a flight.
Bush Had Threatened Veto
Even if the bill had passed, President Bush, despite his past support for the bill as part of a comprehensive immigration reform package, threatened today to veto the measure because, with the changes from the previous package, it would create "a preferential path to citizenship for a special class of illegal aliens."
The "special class" Bush refers to consists of the children of undocumented workers, presumably brought across the border without knowledge that they were breaking the law.
The DREAM Act sought to provide legal status and a pathway to citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants as long as they enlisted in the military or attended two years of college.
Senate GOP Argues for More Debate
The Senate's Republican leadership complained the measure came to the floor without enough debate, that Democrats would not allow many amendments of the bill before a final vote. Further, they argued that senators should concentrate instead on unfinished spending bills.
"The Senate has more than enough to do without taking up this issue, which will deeply divide this body and the nation," said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell just before the cloture vote.
Even some Republicans who supported the DREAM Act in the past voted against it today. Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said he would oppose the bill because it was "cherrypicking," and that passing the DREAM Act today could jeopardize comprehensive reform in the future.
Children Guilty Only of 'Obeying Parents'But the bill's backers argued that the illegal immigrants affected by the bill were guilty of no crime other than, in the words of the bill's author, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill, "obeying their parents, following their parents to this country.
"Do you think there was a vote in the household about their future?" Durbin asked on the Senate floor. "I don't think so. Mom and Dad said, we're leaving. The kids packed their suitcases and followed."
The DREAM Act had cheerleaders (and detractors) in both parties. Republicans such as Orrin Hatch of Utah, Trent Lott of Mississippi, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Richard Lugar of Indiana supported the measure. Democrats such as Max Baucus and John Tester of Montana, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, among others, opposed it.
Children of Illegals Lobby for DREAM
After fighting all week for the bill, Durbin yesterday tried to put a personal face on the issue when he had three college students who would benefit from the DREAM Act join him.
One of the students, Manuel Bartsch, said he was a junior in an Ohio high school when he first realized he was an undocumented, meaning illegal, immigrant.
Bartsch was born in Germany but was raised by his step-grandparents in the United States. He said he'd tried to take a college entrance exam but didn't have a Social Security number. Bartsch's step-grandfather hadn't completed the proper paperwork, and Bartsch didn't become a U.S. citizen.
This began a years-long bureaucratic odyssey for Bartsch, who is now a junior in college. Along the way, he'd been placed in detention by immigration authorities for 16 days. Ultimately, due to the intervention of Ohio Republican Rep. Paul Gillmor, Bartsch was awarded permanent resident status by the Department of Homeland Security.
Tancredo Attempts Immigration Raid
Not everyone was taken in by Bartsch's story.
The congressional office of Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., a long-shot presidential candidate, called immigration officials to alert them that Durbin was hosting undocumented immigrants at his event. Tancredo, who was not aware that Bartsch had permanent resident status, wanted him detained again.
"Just because these illegal aliens are being used for political gain doesn't mean they get immunity from the law," Tancredo said in a statement. "If we can't enforce our laws inside the building where American laws are made, where can we enforce them?"
Bartsch was joined at the event today by two other students, who could benefit from the DREAM Act. Tam Tran, whose Vietnamese parents came to the United States illegally from Germany, has lived here since she was 10. Tran is a UCLA graduate who wants to pursue a doctorate at the University of Southern California but can't because she needs federal student loans. The government can't deport her family to Vietnam because her father was persecuted by the communist government there, and the Germany won't take them back either. Tran said today she is in "permanent legal limbo."
Utah Republican Lobbies for Bill
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who supported the bill, said that "These are people have lived in this country most of their lives. It is the only home they know. We are not a country who punishes children for the missteps of their parents," he said.
Some opponents say the measure represents amnesty to immigrants who crossed into the United States illegally, regardless of whether they came on their own or were brought by their parents.
Opponents Worry Borders Not Sufficiently Secure
Other opponents say the U.S. borders are not sufficiently secure against new undocumented immigrants to begin considering programs to legalize the undocumented immigrants already in the country.
"It will, indeed, provide amnesty, the full panoply of rights we give to any citizen who comes here lawfully," said Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, one of the leading Republican leaders against illegal immigration. "It provides a full citizenship track and full rights for quite a number of illegal aliens, putting them on a direct path to citizenship."
Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., called the DREAM Act "political pandering" and a backdoor approach to amnesty." On the Senate floor, DeMint suggested that supporters should bring the measure up again next year if the administration can certify that U.S. borders are secure from illegal immigration.
Such a certification, however, could be a lot more than one year coming, if it is possible at all.
DREAM would permit undocumented students to become permanent residents if they came to the United States as children; are currently under the age of 30; have graduated from a U.S. high school; enlist in the military or attend college for at least two years; are long-term U.S. residents; and "have good moral character."
After graduating from high school or obtaining a GED, a student who qualifies for permanent residence under the DREAM Act would get provisional legal status and have six years to either enlist in the military or enroll in college. Ten states offer in-state tuition to the children of illegal immigrants who enroll in state colleges.
It is one of the sticking points for opponents of the bill.
"There is an old slogan: If you are in a hole, the first thing you should do is stop digging," said Sessions on the Senate floor. "I suggest if you have a problem with people coming into the country illegally, the first thing you should do is stop subsidizing that illegal behavior by giving them discounted tuition."
The Argument for Taxpayer Investment
Backers of the DREAM Act argue that the children of illegal immigrants often attend public school and that, given that investment, the American taxpayer has a vested interest in making them productive taxpayers.
"We have invested in these students in some cases from kindergarten through high school," said UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau in a conference call with reporters today. "They have worked very hard, and then they find the American dream is not accessible to them. These are the kind of people who made America great and will continue to make America great."
Early in the summer, a bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform package that had backing both from Democratic leaders and the White House failed to muster the 60 votes needed in the Senate. That bill was an amalgam of programs and funding, including tough border security and interior enforcement measures that would have been measured with programs like the DREAM Act, a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers, and other goodies for advocates of rights for illegal workers.
Most of the $3 billion in additional funding for border security and internal enforcement that was included in the comprehensive immigration package was inserted into the Homeland Security appropriations bill. This month senators voted to fund deploying 6,000 National Guard troops to help patrol the border with Mexico through the end of the 2008 fiscal year.
Bush has threatened to veto the Senate version of the Homeland Security spending bill because it goes $2 billion beyond the amount he said he would approve for Homeland Security. With the border provisions, however, that spending measure likely has more than enough votes to override his veto.
All this means little to Marie Gonzalez, the third student to appear with Durbin today. She has lived in Missouri since she was 5 -- her parents were deported to Costa Rica in 2005 -- and she will be deported too in June 2008, when a temporary Homeland Security waiver of action against her expires. Gonzalez said today she'll be 18 hours away from graduation at Westminster College in Fulton, Mo., when she officially becomes illegal again.
The DREAM Act is only the first of two immigration proposals the Senate will consider. Next week, senators will consider a temporary worker program for agricultural workers. The "ag jobs" proposal will be considered as part of the farm bill.
It, too, has bipartisan support, but its chief Republican supporter is embattled Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho, which could perhaps jeopardize the bill's ability to woo Republican votes.
ABC News' Bret Hovell contributed to this report.