* Judiciary panel Republicans note need to enforce laws
* Committee chairman hints at "middle ground" on citizenship
* Hearing underscores difficult path for legislation
By Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON, Feb 5 Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday challenged President Barack Obama's central goal for immigration reform that would put 11 million undocumented residents on a path to citizenship, adding fresh doubts on whether legislation can be passed this year.
During a kick-off hearing, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte explored a possible "middle ground" between the current U.S. policy of deporting those who have come to the United States illegally and of placing them on a path to citizenship, as Obama has demanded.
The hearing was the panel's first since last November's elections when Hispanic-Americans voted in droves for Obama and his fellow Democrats in Congress.
Those election results caused Republicans to rethink their anti-immigration stances, which were highlighted by presidential candidate Mitt Romney's urging that illegal residents should simply "self-deport."
A standoff over Democrats' goal of providing citizenship hopes for the immigrants living illegally in the United States could torpedo reform efforts in this Congress.
Still, many Republicans expressed concerns about rewarding illegal immigrants with eventual citizenship, which they often decry as an "amnesty."
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, in a speech to the conservative American Enterprise Institute, noted, "While we are a nation that allows anyone to start anew, we are also a nation of laws." Cantor of Virginia is the second-ranking House Republican and has a say in which bills are debated before the full House.
At the House Judiciary hearing, Goodlatte, another Virginia Republican, asked, "Are there options to consider between the extremes of mass deportation and pathway to citizenship?"
Julian Castro, the Democratic mayor of San Antonio, Texas, who testified before Goodlatte's panel, responded: "I believe, as the president has pointed out ... that a path to citizenship is the best option" for the 11 million, many of whom have lived in the United States for a decade or more.
Some Republicans have sketched out more modest steps in dealing with illegal immigrants who live under the threat of deportation. Instead of putting them in line for citizenship, they have suggested a permanent work visa system.
But last week, Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Senate Democrat, told Reuters legislation could not be enacted unless it contains a path to full citizenship.
During Tuesday's House committee hearing, Democratic Representative Zoe Lofgren of California warned: "Partial legalization, as some are suggesting, is a dangerous path and we need only look at France and Germany to see how unwise it is to create a permanent underclass" in the United States.
A PIECEMEAL APPROACH
Other Republicans in the House Judiciary Committee raised additional ideas that could complicate comprehensive immigration reform this year, or make it impossible.
Representative Spencer Bachus, an Alabama Republican, suggested splitting immigration reform into pieces so that the "more toxic and contentious issue" of citizenship for the 11 million was separated from reforms that have more widespread support.
Those reforms include efforts to encourage foreigners earning advanced degrees in mathematics, engineering and science at American universities to stay in the United States and work for American companies.
Cantor also hinted at a piecemeal approach, rather than the comprehensive action that Obama and his fellow Democrats want.
He called for starting with legalization and citizenship for children who were brought illegally into the United States by their parents, an action that Obama last summer approved temporarily.
"One of the great founding principles of our country was that children would not be punished for the mistakes of their parents," Cantor said.
While Cantor's call marked movement for Republicans, many of whom opposed citizenship for the youths, it also falls well short of Obama's drive for broader legislation.
A bipartisan group of senators last week unveiled a comprehensive plan that they hope to translate into legislation in coming weeks. Major holes in their outline included the kind of system that would be created for allowing future visa applicants.
Senate Democrats hope to pass a comprehensive bill by mid-year with a large, bipartisan vote that could improve chances for passage of a bill in the Republican-controlled House.
But House Republican leaders have not decided on whether they would pursue a major reform bill this year, according to one aide.
Goodlatte acknowledged that U.S. immigration laws were badly in need of repair, but he warned against rushing to enact an immigration bill.
Congress, he said, "needs to take the time to learn from the past so that our efforts to reform our immigration laws do not repeat the same mistakes."
He added that there were many questions about how a "large-scale legalization program would work, what it would cost and how it would prevent illegal immigration in the future."
Reformers and minority groups are hoping the legislative effort gets a boost from conservative Representative Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, the new chairman of the House's immigration subcommittee.
On Tuesday, Gowdy captured the attention of the crowded House hearing room when he detailed the story of a 12-year-old immigrant from Sierra Leone whose hands were cut off by soldiers with machetes during the civil war in her country.
She "tried to run, tried to hide, asked God to let her die," Gowdy said.
But, like Cantor, in a reference to those who have crossed into the United States illegally, Gowdy also warned that the federal government must enforce the laws it has on the books.
"What we cannot become is a nation where the law is enforced selectively, or not at all," Gowdy said.