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Senate Republicans cast doubt on broad immigration bill

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Immigrants hide from a border patrol vehicle while waiting a chance to cross into the United States at the border fence on the outskirts of the Tijuana, Mexico, September 19, 2009. REUTERS/Jorge Duenes
Immigrants hide from a border patrol vehicle while waiting a chance to cross into the United States at the border fence on the outskirts of the Tijuana, Mexico, September 19, 2009. REUTERS/Jorge Duenes

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - As President Barack Obama intensifies pressure for wide-ranging immigration reforms, some Republicans in the Congress on Wednesday made clear that a less ambitious, piecemeal approach might be more realistic for 2013.

Lawmakers are divided over how to update the nation's immigration laws while also dealing with the 11 million undocumented foreigners living in the United States. Also complicating the passage of legislation this year is both parties' efforts to woo Hispanic votes in the 2014 congressional elections.

In a State of the Union address the Democratic president delivered to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday, Obama declared, "Send me a comprehensive immigration reform bill in the next few months, and I will sign it right away."

Obama's top immigration official, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee to reinforce the administration's position.

"Our immigration system is not just broken, it is hurting our country.... and the way to fix it is with comprehensive immigration reform," Napolitano said.

But conservative Republicans, who mainly questioned Napolitano on what they see as inadequate border security measures, made their case for more limited legislation.

"We might be better dealing with discrete problems" that have bipartisan support rather than "massive immigration reform," Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama told Napolitano.

Sessions' comment echoed several Republicans in the House of Representatives suggested last week at an immigration hearing before that chamber's Judiciary panel.

Republicans note that there is bipartisan support for luring more high-tech workers - mathematicians, engineers, computer specialists and others - from places like India and China. They also see broad backing in Congress for toughening verification of the legal status of workers employed by U.S. companies and improving the overall visa system that controls the number of immigrants.

But most divisive is the emotional question of what to do about the millions of people who entered the United States illegally since 1986, when Congress last reformed immigration laws, and have been otherwise law-abiding residents.

Republicans have urged Obama first to improve border security and deal with people overstaying their visas before addressing the question of providing a path to citizenship for undocumented residents.

"I do not believe that the border is secure and I still believe we have a long, long way to go," said Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the second-ranking Republican in the Senate.

Nonetheless, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont vowed to advance an immigration reform bill through his panel and leading Democrats have vowed to oppose narrow bills that do not help the 11 million undocumented.

Two of the committee's Republican members, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Jeff Flake of Arizona, are part of a bipartisan group that has unveiled a comprehensive plan.

Democrats are hoping that a strong, bipartisan vote in the Judiciary panel would propel passage in the full Senate of a comprehensive bill and improve chances for action this year in the Republican-controlled House.

Trying to soothe Republican fears that legalizing the undocumented merely would encourage a flood of new illegal immigrants, Napolitano said: "Immigration enforcement now is light years away from what it was in 1986. You can see it by the numbers." She said the previously 3,000-member border patrol force is now at 21,000 and a few miles of chain-link fence has grown to 655 miles of "fence infrastructure."

(Editing by Fred Barbash and Cynthia Osterman)

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