WASHINGTON (AP) -- Senate Republicans on Saturday doomed an effort to provide hundreds of thousands of young illegal immigrants a path to legal status by enrolling in college or joining the military.
Sponsors of what they call the Dream Act fell five votes short of the 60 they needed to break through largely GOP opposition and win its enactment before Republicans take over the House and narrow Democrats' majority in the Senate next month.
Dozens of immigrants wearing graduation mortarboards watched from the Senate's visitor gallery, disappointment on their faces, as the 55-41 vote was announced.
"This is a dark day in America," said Jorje-Mario Cabrera, a spokesman for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in Los Angeles. "The Senate has ... thrown under the bus the lives and hard work of thousands and thousands of students who love this country like their own home, and, in fact, they have no other home."
Hispanic activists and immigrant advocates had looked to the bill as a down payment on what they had hoped would be broader action by President Barack Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress to give the nation's 10 million to 12 million illegal immigrants a chance to gain legal status.
It targeted 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.
"They stand in the classrooms and pledge allegiance to our flat," said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the main sponsor of the bill. "This is the only country they have ever known. All they're asking for is a chance to serve this nation."
Critics called the bill a backdoor grant of amnesty that would encourage more foreigners to sneak into the United States in hopes of being legalized eventually.
"Treating the symptoms of the problem might make us feel better ... but it can allow the underlying problem to metastgasize," said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz. "Unfortunately, that's what's happening at our border."
Democrats' determination to vote on it before year's end reflected the party's efforts to satisfy Hispanic groups whose backing has been critical in recent elections and will be again in 2012.
The legislation would have provided a route to legal status for an estimated 1 million to 2 million illegal immigrants who were brought to the U.S. before the age of 16, who have been here for five years, graduated from high school or gained an equivalency degree, and who join the military or attend college.