The House of Representatives voted to pass the Dream Act on Wednesday night, catapulting to the Senate a bill that would offer a path to citizenship for hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants who came to the country when they were children.
"This is about a commitment to our future," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, speaking after more than an hour of emotional debate between lawmakers Wednesday night. "It's about a recognition of what these young people can mean for our country."
The Dream Act would give conditional green cards to undocumented immigrants if they graduate from high school and pursue a college education or military service. After a 10-year waiting period, they could obtain permanent residency if they met all the requirements, and they could eventually apply for citizenship.
The 216-198 vote fell largely on partisan lines, though 38 Democrats voted against it and eight Republicans voted for it.
UC Berkeley student Ju Hong was effusive as he watched the proceedings on C-Span at a coffee shop near campus.
"I don't know how to describe it. I'm really excited about it right now," said Hong, whose mother brought him to the United States from South Korea when he was 11. "It's going to be really tough in the Senate, but now that the House has passed it, it's going to bring a little more pressure."
The Senate vote could happen as early as Friday morning, but the bill faces a bigger hurdle there because it must get a filibuster-proof majority of at least 60 votes.
Hong, a political science major, left a final exam study session with nervous excitement, trying to study but aware that the congressional proceedings will have a huge impact on his life.
"The Dream Act is the only solution for me right now," Hong said. "This is a really critical week. If the Dream Act fails this year, it's going to be really tough the following year and the following year."
The 21-year-old played varsity basketball at Alameda High School, worked under the table at a local restaurant to raise money for college and became a high honors student and student body president at Laney College before transferring to UC Berkeley. When he graduates, however, he will be unable to get a professional job, and faces a constant risk of deportation, he said.
Beneficiaries would have to be under 30 years old to qualify and must have arrived in the country before their 16th birthday. According to the House version voted on Wednesday, they will also pay $2,525 in fees for the privilege of legal residency -- $525 to apply, and $2,000 five years later to extend the conditional visa.
California is estimated to have about a quarter of the more than 800,000 people who could benefit from the act.
"It's the right thing to do for these young people," said Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, speaking on the House floor earlier in the day. All of California's House Democrats voted for the bill, with the exception of Adam Schiff, D-Burbank, who did not vote at all. Most California Republicans voted against it. Two Republicans, Brian Bilbray, R-Solana Beach, and George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, also did not vote.
"Shall we further punish these 800,000 young people with deportation or by keeping them in legal limbo, or should we allow these highly motivated youth to attend colleges and become productive members of our society?" Lee asked fellow lawmakers. "The answer should really be quite obvious."
Republicans complained that House Democrats were trying to ram the bill through in the lame-duck session, not giving lawmakers enough time to review changes and amendments that had been made in recent days. Most of the amendments made the bill more strict. Many also warned that the bill would invite fraudulent applications and would encourage more illegal immigration.
Many of the House Republicans who condemned the bill most forcefully Wednesday referred to the act as a nightmare, not a dream, and argued it would unfairly harm U.S. citizens who would face more competition from newly legalized immigrants in college admissions, federal loans, work-study programs and the workforce.
"It would put them ahead of most American citizens and legal immigrants," said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Costa Mesa, who called the bill an "affirmative action amnesty nightmare" that would particularly hurt non-minorities.
Of the handful of Republicans who crossed the aisle to vote with the Democratic majority, the most vocal supporters were three Cuban-American lawmakers from Florida.
"We are a meritocracy," said Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Florida, one of the bill's cosponsors who urged fellow Republicans to vote for it.
The White House spent weeks publicly touting the bill as something that would boost the economy, academic achievement and military recruitment. Giving undocumented immigrants the right to work through the Dream Act would reduce the deficit by between $1.4 billion and $2.2 billion over 10 years because of income and social insurance taxes, according to reports by the Congressional Budget Office that came out days before the vote.
In the following decade, however, the bill could increase the deficit by more than $5 billion as immigrants become eligible for social services, according to the same reports.
The Dream Act once had the support of many Republican lawmakers, but most now oppose it as a mass amnesty, as do some Democrats. That means an uphill fight in the Senate, where the bill would need the support of some Republicans and most of the 58 Democrats.