WASHINGTON — The chance for hundreds of thousands of foreign-born youngsters brought to the country illegally to gain legal status is dwindling as time runs out on the Democratic-controlled Congress.
Senate Democratic leaders will try Wednesday to advance legislation that would pave the way for legalizing the young immigrants, over opposition by most Republicans and several in their own party.
The so-called DREAM Act is a top priority of Democrats and politically active Hispanic groups, who call it a crucial down payment on a broader immigration overhaul. Critics regard the measure as backdoor amnesty for lawbreakers.
With the GOP taking control of the House and a stronger minority in the Senate next year, failure to enact the legislation by year's end would virtually kill the last chance for years for any action by Congress to grant a path toward legalization for the nation's millions of undocumented immigrants.
President Barack Obama's team has made an intense public push for the bill, under pressure from Hispanic activists angry that the White House has not pressed harder for a broad immigration overhaul to give several million illegal immigrants a shot at legal status.
In recent days, the administration dispatched officials from the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security and Commerce to argue vociferously in public that the legislation would boost national security and economic growth.
Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 Democrat, said he expected to bring the measure to the House floor this week, but leaders have held off on scheduling action since it's unclear whether it would have the votes to prevail.
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.
The measure is "very, very far from amnesty," said Cecilia Munoz, Obama's director of intergovernmental affairs, citing the numerous hurdles those eligible would have to scale in order to keep their legal status and eventually become citizens.
Estimates differ widely as to how many young people would be eligible for some sort of legal status under the measure. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that one version of the bill that applies to immigrants aged 35 and under would let more than 1 million apply for legal status over the next 10 years, and potentially allow 500,000 to receive it.
A newer version of the bill changed to improve its chances only applies to those under 30, which supporters say would limit it to 300,000 or so.
GOP opponents in the Senate circulated a memo calling the measure "mass amnesty," noting that the bill has no cap and no end-date. They contend it could allow even the most dangerous criminals and terrorists to gain legal status.
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