WASHINGTON -- Less than 24 hours after the House carved out a path to legalization for hundreds of thousands of foreign-born youngsters brought to this country illegally, their hopes of legal status are likely to be dashed in the Senate.
Democrats face an uphill climb to gather the 60 votes needed in a vote expected Thursday to advance the so-called DREAM Act over opposition by most Republicans and a handful of their own members.
The House passed the legislation Wednesday night after Democratic leaders painstakingly lined up the votes to push it through.
The politically potent measure is viewed by Hispanic activists and immigrant advocates as a down payment on what they had hoped would be broader action by President Barack Obama and Congress to give the nation's 10 million to 12 million undocumented immigrants a chance to gain legal status.
After the House vote, Obama issued a statement pledging to move forward on immigration reform and casting the DREAM Act as a way of correcting what he called "one of the most egregious flaws of a badly broken immigration system."
"This vote is not only the right thing to do for a group of talented young people who seek to serve a country they know as their own by continuing their education or serving in the military, but it is the right thing for the United States of America," Obama said. "We are enriched by their talents and the success of their efforts will contribute to our nation's success and security."
Critics denounce the bill as a backdoor amnesty grant that would encourage more foreigners to sneak into the United States in hopes of eventually being legalized as well.
With the GOP taking control of the House and representing a stronger minority in the Senate next year, failure to enact the legislation by year's end would dim the prospects for action by Congress to grant a path toward legalization for the nation's millions of undocumented immigrants.
Obama's drive to enact the legislation and congressional Democrats' determination to vote on it before year's end reflect the party's efforts to satisfy Hispanic groups whose backing has been critical in elections and will be again in 2012.
The legislation would give hundreds of thousands of young illegal immigrants brought to the United States before the age of 16, and who have been here for five years and graduated from high school or gained an equivalency degree, a chance to gain legal status if they joined the military or attended college.
Hispanic activists have described the DREAM Act as the least Congress can do on the issue. It targets the most sympathetic of the millions of undocumented people -- those brought to the United States as children, who in many cases consider themselves American, speak English and have no ties to or family living in their native countries.
Students who would be eligible for legalization under the bill fanned out across Capitol Hill to personally lobby lawmakers to back the measure. Seated in the House gallery to watch the debate Wednesday night, a group of them broke out in cheers upon passage of measure, and Democrats turned to applaud them in turn.