WASHINGTON President Barack Obama sought to assure Hispanics on Tuesday that their goal to overhaul U.S. immigration policy would remain a top priority, despite the recent failure of Congress to advance reforms.
The issue is important for many Democrats and could help Obama mend fences with the left wing of his party, which is unhappy at his pact with Republicans to extend Bush-era tax cuts for richer Americans that he signed last week.
Immigration may also play a role in the 2012 presidential election if Hispanics, an increasingly weighty voter block, blame Republicans for blocking reform. Latinos voted heavily in favor of Obama in 2008.
Senate Republicans on Saturday effectively killed the so-called Dream Act that would have provided a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants brought to the United States as children.
Obama immediately voiced deep disappointment over the failure of the Dream Act to advance in Congress and made plain that he would keep the issue alive.
"Immigration reform should remain a top priority for the coming Congress," the White House said in a statement about Obama's Tuesday meeting with the five lawmakers.
Republicans take control of the House of Representatives next month and increase their sway in the Senate after making hefty gains in November elections.
Analysts say this will make it much harder to advance progressive immigration reform. But Obama says he will keep pushing for the Dream Act and wants a bipartisan approach to its passage.
"The American people expect both parties to come together around common-sense approaches to solve our toughest problems, not kick them down the road," the White House said.
A Gallup poll in early December found 54 percent of those surveyed would vote for a law that would allow illegal immigrants brought to the United States as children to gain legal resident status if they join the military or went to college.
These were key components in the Dream Act, which would have provided legal residency for young people who came to the United States illegally before the age of 16.
Analysts expect Republicans in the new year to focus on tougher enforcement of rules to send illegal immigrants back home and to prevent them entering the country in the first place.
Obama and the Hispanic lawmakers understand this is a delicate issue, with voters unhappy over illegal immigrants.
They pledged "to work together to advance proposals that not only to strengthen security at the nation's borders, but also restore responsibility and accountability to ... a badly broken immigration system," the White House said.
(Reporting by Alister Bull; Editing by Philip Barbara)