The Senate failed to overcome a bipartisan filibuster against the DREAM Act Saturday, by a vote of 55 to 41, just five short of the 60 needed to advance the immigration bill to a final debate in the chamber.
The controversial measure had been the last hope of immigration activists looking this year to pass even a scaled-back bill expanding access to citizenship. Had it passed the Senate, the legislation would have given young illegal immigrants a path to citizenship if they completed two years of college or two years in the military. To qualify, children of immigrants also would have had to come to the U.S. before the age of 16 and have lived here longer than five years.
The DREAM Act was also the top priority for the Latino community after it became clear that comprehensive immigration reform would not be politically viable, even in a Congress controlled by huge Democratic majorities and with a president who promised as a candidate to pass a plan during his first year in office.
Despite the high expectations, Democratic leaders were not optimistic going into the vote Saturday, having been forced to table the measure last week when it became clear it would fall short of the three-fifths majority needed to end a filibuster. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell had accused Majority Leader Harry Reid of wasting the Senate's time on "show votes."
In a heated debate before the vote Saturday, Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), the bill's sponsor, described it as a compassionate solution for children of illegal immigrants who never made the choice on their own to come to the United States.
It is about "whether the United States Senate will stand by thousands of children in America who live in the shadows and dream of greatness," Durbin said. "This is the only country they have ever known. All they are asking for is a chance to serve this nation."
Durbin was joined by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who said that the 65,000 children of illegal immigrants who graduate from American high schools every year would be able to do more for the country of the Senate passed the bill.
"Now reaching adulthood, these young people are left with a dead end. They can't use their education, they can't serve their country," she said. "They are relegated to the shadows by their status."
But Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee that oversees immigration policy, opposed the bill and called it unrestricted amnesty for millions of illegal immigrants.
"There's been no serious move to do anything that would improve the situation of illegals at our border," he said. "Leaders in Washington have not only tolerated the lawlessness, but in fact, our policies have encouraged it."
Sessions said that illegal immigration is exposing American communities to smugglers, drug traffickers, and thieves.
"The American people are pleading with Congress to enforce our laws, but this bill at its core is a reward for illegal activity."
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) went to the Senate floor to say he had a message for immigrants pushing for the DREAM Act. "You are wasting your time," he said. "We are not going to pass the DREAM act or any other immigration bill [until] we secure our borders."
Durbin first introduced the DREAM Act 10 years ago and it has been considered by the Senate repeatedly over the decade.
As Harry Reid campaigned for reelection in Nevada, he promised immigration activists that he would bring the bill to the Senate floor for a vote this year. But he did not promise it would pass.