It was a quiet, unsurprising end to this year’s massive effort to pass the DREAM Act when the immigration bill failed this morning in the Senate. The bill needed 60 votes to end the Republican filibuster and move to a vote. But the final count was 55 to 41.
The DREAM Act would put young undocumented immigrants with a clean criminal record on a long path to citizenship if they commit two years to the military or higher education. In order to qualify, young people must have lived in the country for at least five years, entered the country before the age of 16 and still be under 30 years old. The bill passed the House earlier this month.
In the end, the bill, which has always enjoyed bipartisan support, actually got enough Republican votes to secure its passage. But the Democratic caucus disintegrated when North Carolina’s Kay Hagan, Arkansas’ Mark Pryor, Montana’s Max Baucus and Jon Tester, and Nebraska’s Ben Nelson all voted against ending debate on the bill. Meanwhile, some key Republicans voted for the DREAM Act: Lisa Murkowski from Alaska, Richard Lugar from Indiana and outgoing Sen. Bob Bennett from Utah.
In recent weeks Democrats had shaved off age caps on the bill, further limiting who would be able to benefit from the DREAM Act in attempt to win more support.
That didn’t sway some of the Senate Republicans who were once among the most outspoken about immigration reform and who are now among the most steadfast in blocking it. During the floor debate, Sen. John McCain said he didn’t like Democrats’ procedural maneuvers, and complained that the bill they were voting on would not allow any Republican amendments. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said the bill is out of of order. "To those who have come to my office: you’re always welcome to come but you’re wasting your time," shouted Graham. "We’re not going to pass the DREAM Act or any other legalization program until we secure our borders."
Debate on the DREAM Act was merged with debate on the "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" repeal, which cleared its Republican filibuster this morning. Many of the same Republicans who opposed DREAM Act also spoke out against the DADT repeal. Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma said he didn’t like that Democrats wanted to rush repeal of DADT. "So I think if you want to pursue this," Inhofe said, "we should go ahead and do it the right way. If you want to do it, you should do this not at the last minute before, well, one day before my 51st wedding anniversary."
For many who spoke against the DREAM Act and DADT, it seemed as if there is never a convenient time to address the inequities in the country’s military and immigration policies.
Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the DREAM Act’s longtime champion, told his colleagues he was asking of them more than just their vote.
"I’m asking for what is an act of political courage," he acknowledged. "I might say if you can summon the courage to vote for the DREAM Act you will join the ranks of the senators before you who have come to the floor and made history with their courage. Who stood up and said the cause of justice is worth the political risk."
Many advocates saw this year’s effort as the bill’s last chance for passage for at least two more years. Republicans are set to take control of the House and move six new members into the Senate.
"I have a lot of hope, but I was getting ready for it not to pass," said Rosario Lopez, an undocumented immigrant and activist from North Carolina who would have been eligible for the DREAM Act. She was in Washington State with other DREAM Act activists watching the votes come down. "We needed five votes and that’s how many short we were."
"I was disappointed at the Senate because we fought a lot. The undocumented students have done a lot of work to get to this day, to get them to vote for what is right and they did not vote for what is going to bring justice to many youth."
"We get stronger every day," said Frank Sharry, executive director of the immigration reform advocacy group America’s Voice. "We may have lost this battle, but in the war between justice and injustice, inclusion and exclusion, courage and cowardice, victory is not a matter of if, but a matter of when."
"Maybe what we did is not enough yet, but we need to work harder and build more connections and talk with our communities," said Lopez. "Then we need to hold our representatives accountable."