* Republican panel chairman casts doubt on citizenship plan
* Hispanic activists ask Obama to stand firm on path
* House Republicans recall flawed 1986 immigration deal
By Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON, Feb 5 The first major U.S.
immigration reform effort since 1986 came under attack on
Tuesday from congressional Republicans who cast doubt on a
proposal backed by President Barack Obama to give 11 million
illegal immigrants a chance to become citizens.
An immigration overhaul suddenly looked possible last week
when a group of senators from both parties launched a reform
campaign. But it has not taken long for partisan rancor to
Republicans in the House of Representatives are questioning
a core element of the immigration plan: a path to citizenship
for undocumented residents, most of them Hispanic, who are
already in the United States.
Bob Goodlatte, Republican chairman of the Judiciary
Committee, raised the possibility of a "middle ground" between
the current U.S. policy of deporting illegals and of placing
them on a path to citizenship, as Obama demands.
"Are there options to consider between the extremes of mass
deportation and pathway to citizenship?" the Virginia lawmaker
asked during a session on immigration reform.
Any challenge to the Democrats' goal of providing a route to
citizenship might derail reform at a time when other divisive
issues like gun control and deficit reduction share the
Some House Republicans are wary of a repeat of the last big
immigration push in 1986, when about 3 million illegal
immigrants were granted legal status.
At the time, proponents of the overhaul said it would stem
the flow of undocumented people across the Mexican border. But
illegal immigration just got worse.
"We look at the promises of the 1986 immigration reform when
we granted citizenship to so many people, that we were going to
seal the border and make sure this was a one-time deal ... and
we see that that has failed," Republican Blake Farenthold of
Texas told the Judiciary Committee.
"My question to you is: How do we not end up in the same
situation 10, 20 years down the road if we do this again?" he
asked San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, a rising Hispanic star in
the Democratic Party and a witness at the immigration hearing.
'EARLY SHADOW BOXING'
Democratic Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York warned
against reading too much into Republican objections, calling
them "early shadow boxing" before rigorous negotiations get
Senate Republicans who favor citizenship for illegal
immigrants under the bipartisan outline want to defer it until
the country's borders are deemed more secure by a commission of
border governors and other officials.
Democratic senators involved in the bipartisan group that is
drafting an immigration bill also approve of a border security
But immigration reform activists asked Obama at a White
House meeting to stick to his position that 11 million people
should not have to wait until the border is declared secure.
"It can't be a trigger that keeps moving the goal posts and
is indefinable. So it has to be meaningful, real and tangible
for us to accept it," said Janet Murguia, president of the
Hispanic group National Council of La Raza.
The Obama administration points to a steep drop in illegal
immigration from Mexico in recent years and the deployment of
thousands of Border Patrol officers as evidence that the border
is more secure.
Spokesman Jay Carney said the White House had already met
many of the Republican criteria for border security.
"Close to all of those goals, if not all of those goals,
have been met because of the president's commitment to enhanced
border security," he said.
Congressional Republicans have become more willing to work
on an immigration reform after Hispanics delivered a clear
message in the 2012 election. Seventy-one percent of Latinos
voted for Obama, compared to 27 percent for his Republican rival
He was vilified by many Hispanics for calling on illegal
immigrants to "self-deport."
In a speech billed as a move to present a softer image of
House Republicans, Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia on
Tuesday expressed an eagerness to help the needy in such areas
Cantor told the conservative American Enterprise Institute
he favored providing "an opportunity for legal residence and
citizenship for those who were brought to this country as
children and who know no other home."
That appeared to represent a reversal for Cantor, who in
2010 voted against the Dream Act, which would have cleared the
way for such young people to remain in the United States.
Last summer Obama gave a temporary reprieve from deportation
to qualifying children who came to the United States with their
Late on Tuesday, the president met with chief executives
from 12 companies on immigration reform and other issues,
including Goldman Sachs Group Inc's Lloyd Blankfein,
Yahoo Inc's Marissa Mayer as well as Arne Sorenson of
Marriott International Inc, Jeff Smisek of United
Continental Holdings Inc, and Klaus Kleinfeld of Alcoa
Obama is expected to use his Feb. 12 State of the Union
speech to Congress - a major annual address by the president in
which he lays out his legislative priorities for the year - to
keep the heat on Republicans.