WASHINGTON — Congressional Democrats are rewriting immigration policy on the fly, in an effort whose long-term consequences remain unclear.
An estimated 2 million illegal immigrants could gain legal status, and eventually U.S. citizenship, under what's called the DREAM Act. But even lawmakers and advocates are still coming to terms with the bill now chugging toward an uncertain destination.
"There's been a lot of confusion about what the DREAM Act does and doesn't do," noted Michelle Mittelstadt, a spokeswoman for the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.
This week, the Senate likely will take up the immigration bill again. Its fate could rest with lawmakers such as retiring Republican Sen. Sam Brownback, now the governor-elect of Kansas and a past supporter who missed last week's vote.
Privately, even supporters acknowledge their difficulties. Failure could poison future immigration reform negotiations, some fear, as the bill loses its old bipartisan glow.
"This is nothing more than a political game by the Democrats to try and drive a wedge between the Hispanic community and Republicans," said Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a past supporter.
If the bill does pass, the implications would touch some states more than others.
The bill covers about 500,000 California residents and 240,000 Texas residents who entered the U.S. illegally when they were under age 16, according to a Migration Policy Institute study.
The House approved the bill Wednesday by a 216-198 margin. Even so, the measure kept evolving until the last minute, and not always in ways congenial to immigrants.
The current Development Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act would allow illegal immigrants under age 30 to attain temporary legal status if they have graduated from high school or earned a GED.
An earlier version covered illegal immigrants under age 35. The original bill set no age limit at all. All versions of the bill cover those who entered the U.S. prior to turning 16.
These immigrants could secure longer-term legal status if they serve in the U.S. military or complete at least two years of a community college or undergraduate program.
"They didn't possess the intention to commit a crime or to cross the border illegally. They were brought here," argued bill author Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif. "This is a universe of people who deserve special consideration because the absence of wrongdoing is so clear."
The immigrants would be eligible for certain federal student loans, but not for federal Pell grants, food stamps or Medicaid.
The latest version assesses application fees that could total $2,525. Earlier versions omitted such fees.
Earlier versions granted states the option of allowing illegal immigrants to receive the same in-state tuition breaks given to other students. The latest version of the bill drops this provision.
Although some 2 million illegal immigrants could be eligible for legalization nationwide, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that roughly 700,000 might meet all the requirements to attain legal status through the year 2020.
According to the Migration Policy Institute analysis, 84 percent of the eligible population comes from Mexico or other Latin American countries.