Washington - The House of Representatives passed a bill Wednesday night that would provide a conditional path to citizenship for as many as 500,000 children of illegal immigrants.
While the House approved the Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors Act by a vote of 216-198, the fate of the DREAM Act remained uncertain as the Senate postponed a test vote on the measure.
With the lame duck session of the 111th Congress rapidly coming to a close, Senate Republicans have vowed to block any measures from reaching the floor before votes on a spending bill to keep the federal government running and whether and how to extend Bush-era tax cuts.
DREAM Act proponents say Senate inaction or a vote against the measure would be a major setback for the drive for a comprehensive overhaul of the nation's immigration laws for years to come because of the pending Republican takeover of the House and Democrats nervous about their re-election prospects in 2012.
"The prospect of any type of immigration legislation over the next two years is slim to none," said Jorge Mario-Cabrera, spokesman for the Coalition for Humane Immigration Rights of Los Angeles, one of several groups that lobbied Congress for the DREAM Act's passage.
DREAM Act opponents, who called the measure "amnesty," said a rejection by Congress would cripple the effort for sweeping immigration legislation — one that contains a guest worker program and a pathway to citizenship — well beyond 2012.
"If it doesn't get through this lame duck session, it will be at least four to six years before this cause comes up again," said Roy Beck, the founder and CEO of NumbersUSA, a group that advocates strict immigration limits and enforcement of immigration laws.
The act would allow immigrants who are younger than 30, entered the U.S. before age 16, lived here for five years without committing a serious crime, graduated from high school and attended college or joined the military, to be eligible for legal residency after meeting other criteria.
A Congressional Budget Office study estimated that the act would help from 300,000 to 500,000 undocumented immigrants.
President Barack Obama and congressional Democratic leaders — who vowed to Hispanic voters during the 2008 campaigns to change U.S. immigration laws — said passing the act is the right thing to do to help the nation's economy and military and a way to enhance the lives of those who may have entered the country illegally with their families but have been raised as Americans.
"These people covered under this bill are the children any parent would be proud of: our sons and daughters, neighbors, classmates, prom kings and queens, football players and cheerleaders who stayed in school, played by the rules, stayed out of trouble," Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., said on the House floor. "If you are pulled over for a speeding ticket and you have a child in a car seat next to you, that 2-year-old doesn't get the speeding ticket. If there is a bank robber with a toddler on his back, that toddler doesn't spend life in prison."
Republican opponents called the DREAM Act "a nightmare" bill that ignores the rule of law and could potentially take jobs away from legal American workers at a time of high unemployment.
They also claim the act would lead to illegal immigrants submitting fraudulent academic records and papers to become eligible for the act.
Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., said the bill would "open the doors, yes, to criminal aliens attaining permanent status to the detriment of legal immigrants."
Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, said the act would take jobs away from American citizens, especially legal minorities struggling for work.
"The percent of Hispanics out of work last month rose to 13 percent and the unemployment rate for black Americans has hit 16 percent," Smith said. "Don't the Democrats know this? Are they listening to the voters? Do they care?"
But two Hispanic Republicans — Florida Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Lincoln Diaz Balart — spoke in favor of the measure. In all, eight Republicans voted for the bill.
"This is not amnesty," Ros-Lehtinen said. "This bill is a sensible and pragmatic compromise that reflects the generosity and the goodwill of this country and its citizens, a country that opened up its arms to me as a refugee child, and my parents as Cuban refugees."
Wednesday's votes ended days of fierce lobbying by opponents and proponents of the act. The White House held a conference call Tuesday to stake out its position and dispatched Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to tout its benefits.