PHOENIX Defeat of a bill that would have created a pathway to citizenship for some young illegal immigrants dashes President Barack Obama's hopes of passing broad immigration reform in the new Congress, but his popularity among Hispanics is undiminished, analysts said.
The so-called "Dream Act" giving legal status to illegal immigrants brought to the United States before age 16 was dealt a death blow in the Senate on Saturday by Republicans who said it would reward illegal activity.
Obama and Democratic supporters immediately vowed to push again for the measure. The president pledged that he would not give up on "the important business of fixing our broken immigration system."
But analysts said Saturday's outcome killed prospects of passing a comprehensive immigration bill in the next Congress, where Republicans will have control of the House of Representatives and a stronger hand in the Senate.
"Immigration reform is effectively dead in the water for Obama," said Mark Jones, a political scientist at Rice University.
"It will be impossible to get any progressive bill through the House in the next Congress, and it will be virtually impossible in the Senate ... as it won't make sense politically," he said.
In the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama had promised to push for an immigration overhaul, boosting border security and offering steps to legal status for many of the nearly 11 million illegal immigrants living in the shadows.
After Republicans take control of the House next month, immigration measures are likely to focus on tightening enforcement and limiting immigration, said Steven Camarota of the pro-enforcement Center for Immigration Studies think tank.
"There will be more focus on robust enforcement, more hearings designed to highlight problems in the immigration services ... and efforts to try to limit chain migration" which admits relatives of immigrants already in the United States, he said.
WINNING POINTS WITH LATINOS
The Dream Act would have provided legal residency to young people who came to the United States illegally before age 16 and who graduated from high school, completed two years of college or military service and had no criminal record.
But Obama's failure to push it through the Senate was unlikely to have damaged his support among key Latino voters as he seeks re-election in 2012, analysts said.
Latinos turned out for Obama by a 2-to-1 margin in 2008, and their support in last month's midterm congressional elections helped Democrats hold on to important Senate seats in the Southwest.
"Obama and the White House fought hard for the Dream Act and won points for doing so" among Hispanics, said Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, which advocates for immigration reform.
"If you are a Republican who voted against this, you will be forever known for standing in the schoolhouse door and saying 'no' to the best and brightest," he added.
With dim prospects for pushing immigration reform legislation in the next Congress, some Hispanic activists caution that they will look to Obama to use his executive powers to help immigrant causes.
Jorge Mario Cabrera, of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, gave as an example a moratorium on immigration raids.
"He can change a lot of suffering for our community by the stroke of a pen, and we will be pressing him to do that during the next two years," he said.
(Editing by Xavier Briand)