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Obama Urges Citizenship for Immigrants, Despite Lingering GOP Opposition

President Barack Obama used his State of the Union address Tuesday night to once again prod Congress to pass a comprehensive immigration overhaul, a goal that could be within reach this year.

In his speech, Obama laid out a three-part immigration policy plan. He called for tighter border security, a path to citizenship for the 11 million illegal immigrants already in the country, and a rewrite of immigration laws to make it easier for high-skilled workers to stay in the country.

“We can build on the progress my administration has already made — putting more boots on the southern border than at any time in our history and reducing illegal crossings to their lowest levels in 40 years,” he said. “Real reform means establishing a responsible pathway to earned citizenship — a path that includes passing a background check, paying taxes and a meaningful penalty, learning English and going to the back of the line behind the folks trying to come here legally.”

He also called for “fixing the legal immigration system to cut waiting periods, reduce bureaucracy and attract the highly-skilled entrepreneurs and engineers that will help create jobs and grow our economy.”

Bipartisan groups in both the House and the Senate are working on legislation that could achieve those objectives, and plan to release draft bills within weeks. The Senate group released a set of principles Jan. 28 that included a path to citizenship.

“I applaud their efforts,” Obama said of the two groups.

Although neither side has produced a bill so far, Republicans — particularly in the House — have raised objections to allowing undocumented people to gain citizenship, a prerequisite for Democrats and immigration advocates. Obama has repeatedly said he is committed to a change that would ultimately grant citizenship, including in the immigration overhaul principles he outlined in a Jan. 29 Las Vegas speech.

Immigration, one of the most controversial policy areas in Washington, re-emerged onto the national consciousness after Latino voters propelled Obama to re-election last year. And although immigration did not feature prominently in his State of the Union speech — Obama devoted only five paragraphs to it — the White House feels strongly enough about the issue to have invited Alan Aleman, an undocumented college student from Nevada, to sit with the first lady on Tuesday night.

Lawmakers evidently also feel strongly about the issue and gave the immigration part of the speech some of the night’s loudest cheers.

Since the election, Republicans have tried to change their message to appeal more to Hispanics and they selected Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida to deliver their party’s response in both English and Spanish. Rubio, the child of Cuban immigrants, has become one of the GOP’s preeminent voices on immigration. As a member of the Senate working group, he has endorsed granting illegal immigrants a path to citizenship, a position that puts him at odds with many of his more conservative colleagues.

“We need a responsible, permanent solution to the problem of those who are here illegally,” Rubio said in the Republican response Tuesday night. “But first, we must follow through on the broken promises of the past to secure our borders and enforce our laws.”

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., delivering the tea party rebuttal, also said that Republicans should work more to welcome immigrants, suggesting cracks in the GOP’s opposition to citizenship for the undocumented.

“We must be the party that embraces the immigrant who wants to come to America for a better future,” Paul said in prepared remarks. “We must be the party who sees immigrants as assets, not liabilities. We must be the party that says, ‘If you want to work, if you want to become an American, we welcome you.’”

Last week, an ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 55 percent of people supported a path to citizenship. Almost half of all Americans support Obama’s handling of immigration, an increase from seven months ago, according to the poll.

Nevertheless, in response to the president’s speech, Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, issued a statement blasting his “continued calls for amnesty.”

“If the president was serious about creating jobs and spurring economic growth, amnesty for illegal immigrants would not be on his agenda,” said Smith, a former House Judiciary Committee chairman.

“The president’s plan to legalize all those in the U.S. illegally will make it easier for 11 million illegal immigrants to compete with hard-pressed American workers,” he said. “Amnesty means fewer jobs for legal immigrants and unemployed Americans.”

Current House Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., called immigration reform “a top priority” for his panel but added that “many questions ... need to be answered” through additional hearings.

“I caution members of Congress and the American people, regarding the president’s immigration reform proposal, since this administration has such a poor record of enforcing the immigration laws that are already on the books,” Goodlatte said. “Immigration reform is a massive undertaking and is far too important to not examine each piece in great detail.”

Goodlatte said his committee is about to offer briefings for House Republicans and their aides. Subcommittees will begin holding hearings on issues including agricultural worker overhaul, STEM visas, E-Verify, border security and how the visa system works.

Goodlatte said he will attempt to find common ground on “what is the status going to be of people not lawfully here today and what is the way to prevent what has happened over the last almost 40 years since the last immigration reform was done to assure that that won’t happen again.”

“We don’t have a time table yet but we certainly hope to do it this year,” Goodlatte said.

Anne L. Kim contributed to this story.

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