The Senate democratic leadership cancelled Thursday’s planned vote on a landmark youth immigration bill that would give young illegals a path to citizenship, dealing a blow to the Obama administration’s tentative efforts on the thorny issue of immigration reform.
The bill – officially the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act but known as the Dream Act – was passed by the House of Representatives on Wednesday night by a margin of 216-198, largely along partisan lines.
“This vote is not only the right thing to do for a group of talented young people who seek to serve a country they know as their own by continuing their education or serving in the military, but it is the right thing for the United States of America,” Barack Obama said after the House vote, urging the Senate to follow suit.
The president and Democratic proponents of the bill say it would give young illegal immigrants of good moral character a chance to serve their new home country. However, detractors deride it as a form of amnesty that would encourage more people to enter the country illegally.
The Senate voted on the bill last September, but Democrats failed to win the 60 votes required to overcome a Republican filibuster. Democrats now have only 58 votes in the upper chamber, making passage even more difficult this time round.
Republicans have vowed to fight the bill, which they have called a “nightmare act”.
"There's not really an injustice today," said Jeff Sessions of Alabama. "The law says that if you're born here, you are a US citizen. But if you come here illegally, you are not a citizen. There is not an injustice in enforcing the law."
Mr Obama had pledged on taking office to embark on comprehensive reform of the immigration system, but the issue fell down his administration’s priority list as economic matters took precedence and the difficulty in achieving reform became clear.
The Dream Act has instead been promoted as a way to help the hundreds of thousands of young people brought into the US as children. There are an estimated 11m undocumented immigrants in the US in total.
The bill would allow undocumented immigrants to apply for conditional non-immigrant status. They must be under 30 and have arrived in the US before they were 16, and they must have graduated from high school and lived in the US continuously for the past five years.
After a decade – or after serving in the military or studying at a tertiary institution for two years – they could earn permanent legal status.
The independent Congressional Budget Office has said the bill would reduce the deficit by between $1.4bn and $2.2bn over the next decade as previously undocumented workers began to pay income tax and social security, and could add $2.3bn to federal revenues during that time.