The U.S. Senate has blocked a bill that would provide legal residency for the children of illegal immigrants who pursue higher education or perform military service. Saturday's vote effectively kills the legislation for the remainder of this year, and perhaps for years to come.
It was considered an initial step towards comprehensive immigration reform that would resolve the status of more than 12 million illegal aliens in the United States, some two million of whom arrived as minors.
The Dream Act aimed to benefit foreign-born children brought to the United States by undocumented parents. It would have extended temporary U.S. residency to aliens who were under the age of 16 when they entered the country, have lived in the United States for at least five years, and, having completed high school, enroll in an American college or serve in the U.S. armed forces.
Democratic Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois said those who would have benefited under the Dream Act are Americans in everything but legal paperwork.
"They stand in the classrooms and pledge allegiance to our flag," he said. "They believe in their heart-of-hearts this [the United States] is home. This is the only country they have ever known. And all they are asking for is a chance to serve this nation. That is what the Dream Act is all about."
The House of Representatives passed the Dream Act earlier this month. The Senate was believed to have enough votes to pass the bill this year, but fell five votes short of the three-fifths majority needed to overcome a Republican-led procedural motion blocking a final vote.
Opponents blasted the Dream Act as amnesty for law-breakers, and a distraction from what they see as an immediate need: stopping the flow of illegal immigrants into the United States.
"Ending the lawlessness at our borders is the first thing that must be done, and at some point after that, we can wrestle with what to do about people here illegally. Else we are surrendering to lawlessness," said Republican Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama.
Other opponents argued the bill would provide an incentive for undocumented workers to bring their children to the United States, and that it is a slap in the face to legal newcomers who complied with U.S. immigration procedures.
Various forms of the Dream Act have been put forth over the last 10 years. None has been enacted. Scores of immigrant rights groups lobbied furiously for the Dream Act and voiced bitter disappointment after the Senate vote. In a statement, President Barack Obama echoed that disappointment and pledged continued efforts to reform America's immigration system.
By contrast, organizations advocating a hard line on illegal immigration were satisfied with the outcome.
With large Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, this year had been considered the best-ever opportunity to enact the Dream Act. With Republicans set to take control of the House of Representatives and increase their numbers in the Senate next year, immigration reform measures will likely face higher legislative hurdles for the foreseeable future.
Hispanics account for the vast majority of illegal immigrants in the United States, and also comprise the nation's largest - and fastest-growing - minority group. Hispanics were a key voting bloc in Barack Obama's successful presidential campaign, the Democratic takeover of Congress in 2006, and the boosting of Democratic majorities in 2008.
Some Republican strategists have openly-fretted that their party's rhetoric and voting patterns are alienating Hispanics and other immigrant groups whose numbers will swell in coming years, to the detriment of future Republican electoral chances.