After meetings with immigration rights groups this month, Senate leaders were hopeful they could move a Dream Act bill this year, a senior Senate aide said.
But proponents have to overcome opposition from those who say the measure would grant amnesty to a far larger circle of illegal immigrants than the college students who have become the faces of the movement.
Under the proposed legislation, when the youths become citizens and turn 21, they could sponsor their parents for green cards.
"It would lead to chain migration," said Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, which supports stricter controls on immigration. "And they would create a lot of extra competition for our own students."
There are dozens of undocumented students attending Ivy League and other selective universities and hundreds at state schools, he said. They often speak flawless English and have few memories of their native counties. Many were not aware they were illegal until they began applying to college.
"I grew up thinking I was just like everybody else," said Jessica Lopez, 19, who just finished her first year at Cal Poly Pomona. "That is when it hit me, 'I am undocumented.' "
Lopez is trying to avoid deportation to Mexico — a country she hasn't seen since she was 7. Her family came to the attention of authorities after her father's employer initiated, then withdrew, petitions to secure green cards for the family, she said.
Lopez graduated near the top of her high school class in Pomona, then was accepted to UC Berkeley, UCLA and Bates College in Maine. She decided on Cal Poly Pomona because it was less expensive — and as an illegal immigrant, she couldn't qualify for federal aid.
Lopez, who is studying to become a chemical engineer, is gathering letters of support from her professors, coaches and counselors to present at the next Immigration Court hearing. At the same time, Lopez said, she is praying that the Dream Act passes.
"We are all just crossing our fingers," she said. "It will benefit so many of us. It's not just me."