By Thomas Ferraro and Rachelle Younglai
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Barack Obama jumped into the immigration debate on Wednesday by releasing a report touting economic benefits from reforms and meeting with Hispanic lawmakers, as Republican lawmakers gathered to try to craft their response.
The release of the White House report signaled a new engagement by Obama, who has made immigration a top legislative priority but stayed on the sidelines of the debate that raged in the Senate in May and June.
The report said passing reforms would expand the economy 3.3 percent by 2023 and reduce the federal deficit by almost $850 billion over 20 years.
Obama also met with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus as he launches an offensive to pressure hesitant Republicans in the House of Representatives to act on comprehensive immigration legislation this year.
“He said he was open to do anything we thought in Congress would be helpful,” Democratic Representative Xavier Becerra said following the White House meeting.
Meanwhile, House Speaker John Boehner invited all 233 of his fellow House Republicans to a two-hour meeting to discuss the bipartisan Senate bill to give legal status to around 11 million undocumented residents and eventually allow them to apply for U.S. citizenship.
The Democratic-led Senate passed the sweeping immigration bill at the end of June. But the legislation’s fate is unclear in the Republican-controlled House.
Immigration advocacy groups said they hoped the meeting would bring clarity on whether enough House Republicans want to try to pass some sort of bipartisan bill this year.
Boehner is likely to have a tough time convincing conservatives that the Senate approach is anything other than amnesty for people who have broken the law after entering the United States illegally or overstaying their visas.
Senator Jeff Flake, the Arizona Republican who helped write the Senate-passed bill and served 12 years in the House, told Reuters: “It’s hard not to be discouraged right now.”
A House aide said Republicans must decide whether a narrow immigration bill should be put to a vote by the full House before the August recess, when lawmakers will be home and facing their constituents.
Such bills could deal with border security, identifying and punishing those here illegally or helping U.S. high-tech firms hire more skilled labor from abroad.
The Senate bill calls for tough security measures with $46 billion in spending over 10 years to put 20,000 more agents at the U.S. border with Mexico and buy high-tech surveillance equipment.
Nevertheless, only 14 of the Senate’s 46 Republicans voted for the bill and many House Republicans complain that the 11 million illegal residents would be mainstreamed into American society before the border is fully secured.
Last November’s presidential election, in which Obama captured more than 70 percent of the growing Hispanic vote, was a wake-up call to Republicans that their party must do more to appeal to minorities.
Former President George W. Bush, who failed to win passage of a comprehensive immigration bill when he was in office, on Wednesday said that he hoped there would be a “positive resolution” to Congress’ immigration debate
Speaking in Dallas at a naturalization ceremony, the two-term Republican president said, “We have a problem. The laws governing the immigration system aren’t working. … The system is broken.”
The call for comprehensive reform resonates with some Republican senators, who have to run in statewide elections, and with some prospective Republican presidential candidates.
But it holds less appeal to House Republicans, many of who fear conservative Tea Party challenges if they back a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million, a core demand of Obama and his fellow Democrats.
According to a recent study by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, which tracks congressional races, only 24 of the 234 House Republicans represent districts that are more than 25 percent Hispanic.
David Wasserman, who conducted the Cook study, said most House Republicans believe they could defeat a Democratic challenger in the general election. But “they don’t know if they will face a Republican primary challenge if they vote for an immigration bill backed by the president,” Wasserman said.
For many House Republicans, support for a comprehensive bill with the pathway to citizenship is tepid at best. Passing such legislation is “not urgent,” said Representative James Lankford of Oklahoma, a member of the House Republican leadership team.
“If we run out of time at the end of the year, I don’t think we push it. This is a problem that has festered for decades,” he added.
By Thomas Ferraro and Rachelle Younglai