Senate rejects DREAM Act, closing door on immigration reform

Senate Republicans and a handful of Democrats voted Saturday morning to block legislation that would grant legal residency to illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. before the age of 16.

The DREAM Act, which would give legal status to illegal immigrants who came to the country at a young age, lived here for at least five years, earned a high school diploma or its equivalent, and attended college or served in the military, fell five votes short of the 60 needed to overcome a GOP-led filibuster — 55 to 41.

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Three Republicans — Sens. Robert Bennett (Utah), Dick Lugar (Ind.) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) — voted to advance the legislation.

Five Democrats voted no: Sens. Max Baucus (Mont.), Kay Hagan (N.C.), Ben Nelson (Neb.), Mark Pryor (Ark.), and Jon Tester (Mont.).

Dozens of young Latino men and women watched the vote from the galleries ringing the chamber. Many cried and hugged each other as they exited, while one supporter called out "Don't give up hope!" in a crowded third-floor hallway of the Capitol.

Senate defeat of the legislation, which the House passed earlier this month, slams the door on immigration reform for the next two years, pro-immigrant advocates say.

“This is really unlikely in the next Congress with the House resurgent with a fairly conservative freshman class,” said Brent Wilkes, national executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC).

Senate Republicans complained the House measure did not receive a single hearing in the upper chamber.

“The DREAM Act the Senate will vote on today has never had a Senate hearing. In fact, it has not had any Senate committee action in seven years,” said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.).

Anti-illegal-immigration groups blasted the legislation.

Sean McCaffrey, founder and president of Ban Amnesty Now, sent an e-mail to supporters Friday declaring the legislation “would create a pathway to citizenship for millions of younger illegal aliens if they enroll in college or join the U.S. military.”

He said the proposal “is a nightmare of economic and national security disasters just waiting to happen.”

Senate insiders expected the DREAM Act to fall short of 60 votes, but pro-immigrant advocates stayed hopeful up until the vote.

“There’s still an opportunity for senators to come to the right decision,” Wilkes said before the vote. He said several Republican senators who were expected to vote no still appeared undecided on Saturday morning.

LULAC set up a meeting between one of those lawmakers, Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio), and a young immigrant who would be affected by the law, Bernard Pastor — who was recently jailed in Ohio after getting into a traffic accident.

Pastor, who turned 18 years old in May, came to the U.S. at the age of three, and was nearly deported before Thanksgiving before LULAC got involved.

LULAC’s director of civil rights in Ohio picked Pastor up at a detention facility north of Columbus and they immediately boarded a flight to Washington to press lawmakers to pass the legislation.

Pastor said he told Voinovich Saturday morning that “we can’t wait any longer.”

“I told him that I’m not a politician or a person of importance per se but if they have the power to make a judgment, they should make a good judgment,” Pastor said, recounting his conversation with Voinovich.

The legislation would set a high bar for candidates such as Pastor. Illegal immigrants would have had to wait 10 years for permanent legal residency and would have had to undergo background checks and pay back taxes.

Voinovich, however, raised his concern that passage of the popular DREAM Act would make it more difficult to pass comprehensive immigration reform in the future.

“He said he understood,” Pastor said of Voinovich. “But he said if this passed nothing else would happen because nothing else will pass.”

Pro-immigration reform advocates are doubtful that much will pass over the next two years after Republicans take control of the House.

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), an outspoken critic of illegal immigration and various proposals to grant illegal immigrants a path to citizenship, will take over as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which wields jurisdiction over the issue, next year.

Sen. Steve King (R-Iowa), another outspoken opponent of illegal immigration, will take over as chairman of Judiciary’s immigration subcommittee.