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updated 4/20/2011 8:40:54 AM ET 2011-04-20T12:40:54

President Barack Obama revisited a key campaign promise when he hosted a White House meeting of elected officials and experts on immigration. But if a major overhaul of the nation's immigration policy is his goal, Republicans in the U.S. Congress say he shouldn't hold his breath.

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They say any bill that even hints at amnesty or legalization for millions of illegal immigrants already living and working in the United States is dead before it ever makes an appearance in a congressional committee.

A path to citizenship is "what has doomed all immigration legislation in the last two administrations," California Republican Dan Lungren said during a recent House hearing on immigrant agricultural workers.

The agricultural workers' bill discussed during that hearing, which first was proposed in the last Congress, isn't likely to be revived.

Story: Obama to hold meeting on 'broken immigration system'

"It's not going to pass," Lungren said matter-of-factly while taking testimony on the visa program that helps supply temporary workers to agricultural businesses. "And it's not going to pass because it has, frankly ... a path to citizenship."

Representative Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, said immigration reform proposals that offer a path to legal status are tantamount to amnesty.

"I think most members of Congress and most Americans don't want to reward lawbreakers and don't want to give them amnesty," Smith said Tuesday as Obama held his White House meeting.

The failure of the DREAM Act is a key example. The bill would have provided a path to legal status for law-abiding young people brought to the United States as children who either plan to attend college or join the military.

Story: Arizona-style illegal immigration bill heads to Ga. governor

"Remember, in the last Congress, the Democrats had large majorities and weren't able to pass the comprehensive amnesty bill," Smith said. "I don't think that bipartisan resistance to mass amnesty has (abated)."

'Broken immigration system'
Obama also promised to continue working to build a bipartisan consensus around immigration and said he would lead a "civil debate" on the issue in the months ahead, the White House said. But he also said he will not succeed if he alone is leading the debate.

"The president asked the group to commit to moving forward to keep the debate about this issue alive, to keep it alive in the sense that it can get before Congress, where the ultimate resolution of it will have to be obtained," said Bill Bratton, the former police chief in Los Angeles and New York City. "The idea being to go out into our various communities and to speak about the issue."

According to a statement from the White House, "The president urged meeting participants to take a public and active role to lead a constructive and civil debate on the need to fix the broken immigration system. He stressed that in order to tackle the issue successfully they must bring the debate to communities around the country and involve many sectors of American society in insisting that Congress act to create a system that meets our nation's needs for the 21st century and that upholds America's history as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants."

For his part, Smith said he thinks the Obama administration should first secure the U.S.-Mexican border and put a greater emphasis on rooting out illegal workers and the businesses that hire them.

"There are 7 million illegal workers in this country," Smith said. "I'd like to see those jobs go to American citizens and legal workers."

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He also criticized the Obama administration for what he sees as a substantial reduction in workplace enforcement.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is responsible for finding and removing illegal immigrants and enforcing bans on employing them, has greatly reduced the volume of highly public raids that became an enforcement staple of the Bush administration. ICE has been relying instead on audits of paperwork employers are required to maintain that proves their workers are legal.

"It's premature to talk about anything other than enforcing the law and protecting jobs for American citizens and legal immigrants," Smith said.

Lungren and Smith said they do see a relatively promising future for a bill that would require all employers to use the government's employee verification program, E-Verify, and perhaps an improved guest worker program.

Despite what appears to be solid opposition to immigration overhaul bills, Democratic Representative Zoe Lofgren of California, said she still sees hope for changes to what she describes as a broken system.

"Ultimately, the system will be reformed and the question is when and how much damage is the country going to have to go through," Lofgren said Tuesday.

Lofgren said she sees "big steps forward" in the future in the form of changes to immigration laws that affect immigrants married to U.S. citizens and a revamped DREAM Act, among others.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Pressuring the White House on immigration

  1. Closed captioning of: Pressuring the White House on immigration

    >>> once a campaign promise for barack obama , immigration reform has become a political after thought after the white house put it on the back burner. legislation, the dream act , that would offer a pass to citizenship through college enrollment or military service was blocked last year. congressman luis gutierrez is leading a charge to get it back on the president's desk. he joins me now. great to see you. you said over the weekend you were considering not supporting the president's re-election effort if he does not re-engage on immigration policy . that's fighting words. do you mean it?

    >> here's what i did say and i mean, i want to support barack obama for re-election. i want to be able to go across this country and energize an immigrant community , a latino community so he's successful. but the lack of progress on immigration reform and the lack of action that barack obama , our president, has, the discretion he has is really making that job difficult for me. so when i look at a community of people that is undecided, i want to bring them to the decision table in favor of the president. but the president has to act to complete his promise. i don't think it is unusual and what i said was, you know what, i'm undecided. i want him to make me a decided voter for barack obama , by making the kinds of decisions that is going to bring his promises to fruition during his administration.

    >> congressman, you are from chicago, you represent a very, very important part of the democratic base. if you are undecided, isn't the president in trouble?

    >> no. i think what the president needs to do is focus on the kind of agenda that will allow this immigrant community , the latino community , as we face this civil rights , human rights struggle we're in now for comprehensive immigration reform . look, andrea , the president of the united states , i believe, is doing so many wonderful things to steer this country in the right direction. but when it comes, you and i both know that the first lady, the first lady goes out to maryland. what does a little girl ask her. why is the president want to deport my dad? when president barack obama goes on hispanic radio or tv, about education, housing, the economy, and always the question comes back on, andrea , to immigration. i want this president to be successful. he can be successful if he addresses the issue and takes the kind of discretion he has in his hands in order to alleviate the problems.

    >> i know you have a plane to catch and we have to run, but do you think he's taking the hispanic community for granted?

    >> i think the president of the united states has to shore up his support among the latino community and those who believe that immigration is an important issue. he still has a great opportunity to do that. i'm going tonight to detroit. yesterday in milwaukee, i'll be in charlotte this wednesday. look, andrea , thousands of people are coming to the event and they're coming to the event because they want this president. but when i say let's all support barack obama when he supports us, they all cheer. they're for him. he needs to seal this deal. he can take the kinds of actions that are necessary.

    >> luis gutierrez , safe travels. thank you for joining us today.

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