By Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 23, 2010; 7:14 PM
Congressional Republicans are pronouncing President Obama's proposal that the next Congress overhaul the country's immigration laws as dead before arrival.
In his year-end news conference Wednesday, Obama said his biggest regret about the recent lame-duck session of Congress was the defeat of the DREAM Act, a measure that offered a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children.
"It is heartbreaking," Obama said, as he talked about how such immigrants often realize they are without legal status only when they try to go to college or join the military. "That can't be who we are. To have our kids, classmates of our children, who are suddenly under this shadow of fear through no fault of their own. They didn't break the law - they were kids."
Congressional Republicans said in interviews Thursday that their concerns about the measure remain strong, and both House and Senate GOP leaders said they would fight any attempt to legalize any of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country before the administration secured the nation's southern border with Mexico.
"It is pointless to talk about any new immigration bills that grant amnesty until we secure the border, since such bills will only encourage more illegal immigration," incoming House Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) said in a statement.
In an interview, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), the ranking Republican on the House immigration subcommittee, accused Obama of playing politics with immigration and toying with Latino voters.
"It is extraordinarily unlikely that any version of comprehensive immigration reform that includes amnesty will go through the House of Representatives," he said.
Obama's call on Congress to pass the DREAM Act "polarizes Americans along the lines of race and ethnicity," King added. "He implies there is a realistic chance - he knows better, and therefore it makes it a political statement designed to gin up his base and pit Americans against Americans."
During the recent contentious congressional debate over the act, Republicans said the measure would reward violators of the country's immigration laws and encourage new waves of illegal immigration. They also said that the measure was lax in allowing some lawbreakers to gain citizenship, and said that the requirement that DREAM Act beneficiaries obtain two years of college education or military service set the bar too low.
Revising the DREAM Act to eliminate those issues would not solve the underlying problem with the measure, said Stephen Miller, a spokesman for Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who led Senate Republicans in their opposition to the measure.
"When you're traveling in the wrong direction, modest alterations don't make a difference," Miller said. "You need to get off the road and head down a different one. As Senator Sessions has said, the first thing we need to do is end the massive illegality at the border."
Sessions has previously termed attempts to combine tougher enforcement with measures to provide legalization for undocumented immigrants a "ruse," because such measures would grant legal status to undocumented immigrants immediately, whereas it would defer border security for the future.
Recent analyses suggest that the number of people illegally crossing the border has declined - although no one knows how much of the decline is attributable to tougher border security and how much is because the recent recession has lessened the availability of jobs.
"My administration has done more on border security than any administration in recent years," Obama said Wednesday, highlighting sharp increases in resources for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, border patrol and surveillance. Obama said he was open to new measures to improve border security but also wanted the incoming Congress to pass measures that legalized some undocumented immigrants.
"I think it is absolutely appropriate for the American people to expect that we do not have porous borders and anyone can come in here anytime," Obama said. "But I also think about those kids and I want to do right by them."