WASHINGTON - The House narrowly passed immigration legislation Wednesday evening to give hundreds of thousands of foreign-born youngsters who were brought to the United States illegally a chance to gain legal status.

The so-called Dream Act, pushed in a last-ditch and possibly futile effort, passed 216-198.

In the Senate, however, Democrats are unlikely to muster the 60 votes needed to advance the bill past opposition from the GOP and a handful in their own party who view it as amnesty for lawbreakers.

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 join the military or attend college.

"It's an uphill struggle," Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat, said. "We're trying."

In a bid to ensure the strongest possible show of support for the bill, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) abruptly announced he was delaying action on it for hours Wednesday evening to give the House a chance to vote first. The Senate vote was then postponed to Thursday.

Reid's move was intended to avoid putting House members in the position of voting for a measure that might already have been dealt a death sentence in the Senate.

The act is a top priority of Democrats and Hispanic groups, who call it a crucial down payment on a broader immigration overhaul. Critics call it backdoor amnesty.

With the GOP taking control of the House and representing a stronger minority in the Senate next year, failure to enact the legislation by year's end would likely 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 Obama's team made an intense push for the bill, under pressure from Hispanics angry that the White House had not pressed harder for a broad immigration overhaul to give millions of illegal immigrants a shot at legal status.

The administration dispatched officials from the departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Commerce and Education to argue vociferously in public that the legislation would boost national security, competitiveness and economic growth.

On Wednesday, the White House issued statements of support for the bill, calling the current immigration system "broken" and urging both chambers to pass it.

The statements said, "Young people who have spent much of their lives in the United States and want to improve their lives and their nation by pursuing higher education or defending the United States as members of the armed forces should be given this opportunity to earn legal status."

House Democrats needed at least a handful of Republicans to join them in backing the bill since dozens of their own opposed it.

Even then, the bill would die if, as expected, Senate Democrats are unable to muster the 60 votes needed to scale procedural hurdles and call it for an up-or-down vote.

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.