Legislation to give some children of illegal immigrants a path toward legality failed a crucial Senate vote Wednesday, probably dooming any chance of major changes to the immigration system this year.

Supporters needed to 60 votes to advance the proposal, but the tally was 52-44. The measure would have allowed illegal immigrants who plan to attend college or join the military, and who came to the United States with their families before they turned 16, to move toward legality.

The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act — DREAM ACT for short — was a popular part of a broad immigration plan that would have legalized as many as 12 million unlawful immigrants and fortified the border.

That larger bill failed in the Senate in June. But proponents of the DREAM Act wanted to see if it would pass on its own.

"Children should not be penalized for the actions of their parents," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

"What crime did these children commit?" added Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the Senate's No. 2 Democrat. "They committed the crime of obeying their parents and following their parents to this country. Do you think there was a vote in the household about their future? I don't think so."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said by blocking the bill, "Senate Republicans prevented a critical first step to address our nation's broken immigration system."

But Republican opponents of the bill said the plan was the first step to amnesty, which they said the Senate rejected in June. "I do not believe we should reward illegal behavior," Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said.

"This would be the wrong direction," added Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. "This would be to signal that once again we're focused on rewarding illegality rather than taking the steps necessary to create a lawful system."

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., saw a different problem. "I have grave reservations about seeing a part of comprehensive immigration reform going forward, because it weakens our position to get a comprehensive bill," he said.

The White House opposes the legislation, but did not threaten to veto it.

While sympathetic to children brought into the country illegally by their parents, the White House said in a statement the bill falls short by "creating a special path to citizenship that is unavailable to other prospective immigrants — including young people whose parents respected the nation's immigration laws."

The immigration issue brings out passion from those on both sides of the issue. On Tuesday, GOP Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado called for an immigration raid on Durbin's news conference in the Capitol.

Tancredo, who opposes the bill, said he suspected there might be illegal immigrants at the senator's news conference in favor of the bill.

No one from immigration showed up, Durbin said later. There were no illegal immigrants there anyway, he said.