By Matt Spetalnick
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama plans to launch his second-term push for a U.S. immigration overhaul during a visit to Nevada next week and will make it a high priority to win congressional approval of a reform package this year, the White House said on Friday.
Obama, who met leaders of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, intends to use his trip to Las Vegas on Tuesday to "redouble our efforts to make comprehensive immigration reform a reality," White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
He said Obama's proposals would be based on a "blueprint" the president put forth in a 2011 policy speech he delivered near the U.S.-Mexico border. The administration never put much effort into turning that plan, which included a controversial path to "earned" citizenship, into legislation.
Immigration reform, largely sidelined by economic issues in Obama's first term, is part of an ambitious liberal agenda he laid out in his second inaugural address on Monday, which also includes gun control, gay rights and fighting climate change.
The chances of a bipartisan agreement to revamp the U.S. immigration system are looking brighter despite the strong political passions that surround the issue.
Obama wants a deal and so do many Republicans in Congress, after having seen Hispanics vote overwhelmingly for the president and his fellow Democrats in the November 6 election.
Some political analysts have said Republicans must seize the chance to help achieve immigration reform or else forfeit the chance of gaining significant Latino electoral support for a generation or more.
Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican often mentioned as a future presidential contender, has begun drawing up his own set of proposals he hopes can appeal to conservatives. The White House has voiced interest in hearing more about his ideas.
Rubio has proposed giving illegal residents a way to earn a working permit and then one day citizenship, but they would have to wait behind legal immigrants.
As early as next week, a bipartisan group of senators could announce a set of principles for immigration reform consistent with what Rubio has been advocating, according to a Senate aide.
"We are encouraged by efforts under way in Congress to move forward on this issue, to address it in a bipartisan way," Carney told reporters. "It is certainly a top legislative priority for the president."
Carney said Obama would use his event in Las Vegas to push the broad proposals he laid out in May 2011. Nevada has a fast-growing Hispanic population that helped Obama carry the state in the November election.
RENEWING OBAMA BLUEPRINT
Obama's earlier plan, which he unveiled in El Paso, Texas, called for creating a path for some of the 11 million illegal immigrants already in the United States to earn citizenship.
Some Republicans have argued that would amount to amnesty, but administration officials have denied that, saying it would include fines, payment of back taxes, a lengthy probationary period and other hurdles to obtain legal status.
Obama's previous proposals also called for strict border enforcement, tough penalties for businesses that hire illegal workers and creation of a guest-worker program to meet agricultural labor needs.
Last summer, Obama took executive action so that the federal government stopped seeking to deport certain illegal immigrants who arrived in the United States as children - a dramatic change that was celebrated in the Hispanic community and seen as key to his re-election hopes that November.
After winning the bitterly fought election, he promised to tackle the issue comprehensively early in his new term.
Republicans have begun softening their stance after the party alienated many Latinos with hard-line rhetoric on immigration during the election campaign. Obama's unsuccessful Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, caused a stir by advocating "self-deportation" of illegal immigrants.
Republicans in Arizona and other states in recent years have pushed through tough laws cracking down on illegal immigrants.
Obama told Hispanic lawmakers on Friday, "There is no excuse for stalling or delay" on immigration legislation and promised to "move this debate forward at the earliest possible opportunity," according to a White House statement.
"The president will be traveling to Nevada on Tuesday to redouble the administration's efforts to work with Congress to fix the broken immigration system this year," the White House said. Obama has also promised specifics on immigration in his State of the Union address to Congress on February 12.
Representative Xavier Becerra of California, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said afterward: "Immigration reform is not a matter of 'if' but 'when.' Now is the time and this is our moment."
Senator Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat who has been part of Senate talks on immigration reforms, said Obama's leadership on the issue was essential.
"I applaud him for announcing his commitment at the very beginning of this term and hope that the bipartisan process that is ongoing in the Senate will lead us to passage of a bill he can sign," he said.
(Additional reporting by Rachelle Younglai, Jeff Mason and Roberta Rampton; Editing by Peter Cooney)
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