WASHINGTON -- The Senate voted overwhelmingly in favor of bypassing a filibuster of the DREAM Act, but fell five votes short on Saturday, dealing a harsh blow to the bill that would have allowed some undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children to gain legal status.
The final vote total was 55-41 -- well above what would be needed for the bill to pass in a normal vote. Many previously undecided Democrats voted in support of the bill, as did Republican Sens. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Bob Bennett (R-Utah).
But others voted mostly along party-lines. Five Democrats voted against the bill: Sens. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), Jon Tester (D-Mt.), Max Baucus (D-Mt.) and Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), who switched her vote to a "no" at the last minute. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) skipped Saturday's votes for a Christmas party.
Given the incoming Congressional leadership's harsh views on immigration, the vote was likely the last chance to pass the bill for at least two years.
Students in graduation caps sat in the gallery to watch the vote, most of whom have spent months advocating for the DREAM Act. To be eligible for the act, undocumented students must have entered the country when they were 15 or younger and graduated high school or obtained a GED. To receive a green card, the bill requires them to complete two years in the military or two years of college -- plus a 10-year waiting period. Only six years later would they be eligible to apply for citizenship.
Some DREAM Act-eligible students face deportation -- despite clean criminal records -- and hoped the DREAM Act could help them gain legal status. Others will now be unable to attend school, join the military or serve in certain jobs if they are not eligible to work in the United States.
Lorella Praeli, 22, came to the United States when she was 10 years old from Peru after years of treatment in the country for her above-the-knee amputation. Now a student at Quinnipiac University, Praeli said she was denied funding for a fellowship she received because of her immigration status.
Watching proceedings on the floor, Praeli said she became emotional about her months of advocacy for the bill.
"Some senators proudly put their thumbs down, and with each thumb down I felt like my heart was a tighter knot," she said. "All i could think was 'can I continue to live like this?'"
The DREAM Act was first introduced in 2001 by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and came closest to passage in 2007, when it fell eight votes short of bypassing a filibuster. But previous Republican supporters, most notably Hatch and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), have since made a radical shift to the right on immigration.
Coming off of a harsh anti-immigration law in Arizona, SB 1070, and a campaign season with numerous Republicans ads stoking fear about the border, the current Republican message is "secure the borders first."
A $600 million border security bill passed by the Senate in August did not silence these complaints.
Debate on Saturday was no different, with most Republicans claiming it would be wrong to pass the DREAM Act when illegal immigrants can still enter the country. (An estimated 50 percent of illegal immigrants did not enter the country illegally, but overstayed their visas.)
"To those who have come to my office, you're always welcome to come but you're wasting your time," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). "We're not going to pass the DREAM Act or any other legalization until we secure our borders. It will never be done stand-alone. It has to be part of comprehensive immigration reform."
Democrats criticized Republicans' statements on the floor about the DREAM Act, decrying them for calling the bill "amnesty" and claiming it would lead to a flood of illegal immigrants entering the country. "They're preying to peoples' worst fears," Reid said of Republicans. "The DREAM Act couldn't be further from amnesty. It's hard work. It gives so many the incentive to contribute to our nation and its economy."
After the vote, key supporters said the DREAM Act will be passed eventually as part of comprehensive immigration reform. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the key sponsor of the bill, said he would work with the leader of the Senate's immigration subcommittee, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), to ensure the bill be included in any larger immigration bills.
Schumer said finding bipartisan support for immigration reform would be difficult, but "possible." "It's going to have to be done in a comprehensive way," Schumer said. "We showed our goodwill -- we're not against building up the border. It's not the full solution. We've done border bill after border bill, and it doesn't solve the problem."
If they can re-introduce the bill, lawmakers will have high-level supporters. The president and a number of administration officials came out in support of the DREAM Act in the weeks prior to the vote, including Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Attorney General Eric Holder and Defense Secretary Robert Gates. The Pentagon included the act in its 2011-2012 Strategic Plan as a way to help the military "shape and maintain a mission-ready All Volunteer Force." The Congressional Budget Office estimated that enacting the DREAM Act would reduce deficits by about $1.4 billion over the next decade.
President Barack Obama said after the vote that he would continue pushing for the DREAM Act and other steps toward immigration reform.
"It is disappointing that common sense did not prevail today," he said in a statement. "But my administration will not give up on the DREAM Act, or on the important business of fixing our broken immigration system."
DREAM Act supporters, many of whom are undocumented, said they plan to work on other immigration issues, such as in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants, while organizing for comprehensive immigration reform.
Praeli said she decided she can deal with the realities of living undocumented in the United States, especially because of the tight group of advocates that formed in support of the DREAM Act.
"We've stepped out of the shadows and with that has come liberation and freedom and an opportunity to organize," Praeli said. "I feel a renewed commitment and a strong sense of our responsibility going forward. We have a lot of work to do."