Students leave the Senate gallery on Saturday after watching as passage… (Jonathan Ernst, Reuters )
Reporting from Washington and Los Angeles — President Obama and Latino lawmakers agreed Tuesday that chances are dimming for passage of an immigration overhaul that would provide a path to legal status for millions of illegal residents, according to people familiar with the private session.
Instead, the president and members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus concurred that, until after the 2012 election, a more realistic goal would be to stave off legislation targeting illegal immigrants.
That said, Obama told the group, he was not giving up on an immigration overhaul, which he promised to accomplish during his 2008 presidential campaign. He said he would mention the issue in his State of the Union address next month, a move that Democrats hope might pressure Republicans into accommodating the fast-growing Latino voting bloc.
"The reality is, we're no longer on the House side in charge of the agenda,'' said Rep. Charlie Gonzalez (D- Texas), who attended the meeting. "We would never have had a vote on the Dream Act if the Republicans were in charge. So we need to understand that.''
The Dream Act, which died over the weekend when the Senate failed to cut off debate, was an attempt to offer a path to legal status for young undocumented immigrants who met certain criteria. It would have allowed those brought to this country before age 16 to attain legal residency and perhaps eventually citizenship if they had lived here more than five years and attended college or served in the military. Opponents derided it as a form of amnesty. Experts estimated that about 1.2 million immigrants could have benefited.
Proponents of a new immigration system fear that once Republicans take control of the House next month, they will put together a package of laws that stress tough enforcement.
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the incoming chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, helped pass legislation in 1996 that increased penalties against illegal immigrants. The bill, signed by President Clinton, limited the discretion of U.S. immigration judges and increased the time immigrants could be detained while awaiting a hearing.
In the last few weeks, Smith stated that immigration enforcement would be one of his priorities and that he intended to "enact policies that will better secure our borders and discourage illegal immigration, human smuggling and drug trafficking."
Amid concern about such efforts, Obama told the five Latino lawmakers who met with him in the Oval Office that he would veto certain punitive legislation if need be.
Democrats will still control the Senate. But with power realigned in the Capitol, prospects for a comprehensive immigration overhaul are far dimmer than at any point in the last two years, when Democrats controlled both chambers.
For starters, an immigration overhaul would go through Smith's Judiciary Committee. In a statement, Smith said it is "pointless'' to take up immigration bills granting "amnesty'' until the border is better secured.
More delays in passing an immigration bill pose risks for both parties. As a candidate in 2008, Obama said he would deal with the issue in his first year in office. Now he faces the reality that his promise might not be met before 2013.
As for the GOP, some seasoned Republican operatives warn that it is self-defeating for the party to take an uncompromising stance on immigration given the growing numbers of Latino voters.
"As a practical political issue and as a principled position, the majority of the party needs to speak up against a very small minority that are coming at this from a jingoistic or racist perspective," Rob Stutzman, a longtime Republican strategist based in California, said in an interview. "It's time to really condemn and put that behind us.''
Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said he believes some Republicans grasp the political risks.
"There are Republican senators who view the exclusion of Hispanic voters to be very short-sighted politically, and they are looking for a way to meet the needs of the Hispanic community without antagonizing their political base,'' Durbin said.
During the waning days of the lame-duck Congress, Republicans and Democrats failed to find an immigration compromise. Democratic senators had offered to negotiate on the Dream Act — for example, by lowering the age limit for those who would qualify.
But a counter-offer never came, according to an Obama administration official familiar with the negotiations.
In the end, only three Republican senators backed a procedural move that would have brought the Dream Act to a vote. Five Democrats voted against it. The final tally was 55 to 41, five votes short.
Nicholas reported from Washington and Bennett from Los Angeles.