WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama and Hispanic lawmakers agreed during a private meeting Tuesday that over the next two years, 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 session.
Instead the president and members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus concurred that until the 2012 elections are over, 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 trying to pass an immigration overhaul, a campaign promise he made during his 2008 presidential bid. He said he would mention the issue in his State of the Union speech next month, a move that Democrats hope might pressure Republican lawmakers to accommodate the fast-growing Hispanic voting bloc.
"The reality is, we're no longer on the House side in charge of the agenda," said Rep. Charles Gonzalez, D-Texas, who was in 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 in the Senate over the weekend, was an attempt to offer a path to legal status for young undocumented immigrants who met certain criteria, including those who had served in the U.S. military.
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 put forward a raft of laws in 1996 that increased penalties against illegal immigrants.
In the last few weeks, Smith stated that immigration enforcement would be one of his priorities and that he intends to "enact policies that will better secure our borders and discourage illegal immigration, human smuggling and drug trafficking."
Amid concerns about such efforts, Obama told the five Hispanic lawmakers who met with him in the Oval Office that he would use his veto pen to quash certain punitive legislation, if it comes to that.