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In Congress, immigration debate turning

A GOP majority in the House is likely to shift efforts away from easing a path to citizenship.

WASHINGTON - The end of the year means a turnover of House control from Democratic to Republican and, with it, Congress' approach to immigration.

In a matter of weeks, Congress will go from trying to help young illegal immigrants become legal to debating whether children born to parents who are in the country illegally should continue to enjoy automatic U.S. citizenship.

Such a hardened approach - and the rhetoric certain to accompany it - should resonate with the GOP faithful who helped swing the House in Republicans' favor. But it also could further hurt the GOP in its endeavor to grab a large enough share of the growing Latino vote to win the White House and the Senate majority in 2012.

Legislation to test interpretations of the 14th Amendment as granting citizenship to children of illegal immigrants will emerge early next session. That is likely to be followed by efforts to force employers to use a still-developing Web system, E-Verify, to check that all their employees are in the United States legally.

There could be proposed curbs on federal spending in cities that do not do enough to identify people who are in the country illegally, and efforts to reduce the numbers of legal immigrants.

Democrats ended the year failing for a second time to win passage of the Dream Act, which would have given hundreds of thousands of young illegal immigrants a chance at legal status.

House Republicans will try to fill the immigration-overhaul vacuum left by Democrats with legislation aimed at sending illegal immigrants packing and deterring others from trying to enter the United States.

Democrats, who will still control the Senate, will play defense against harsh enforcement measures, mindful of their need to keep on good footing with Latino voters. But a slimmer majority and an eye on 2012 may prevent Senate Democrats from bringing to the floor any sweeping immigration bill, or even a limited one that hints at providing legal status to people in the country illegally.

President Obama could be a wild card.

He will have his veto power at his disposal should a bill denying citizenship to children of illegal immigrants make it to his desk. But Obama also has made cracking down on employers a key part of his administration's immigration-enforcement tactics.

Hispanic voters and their allies will look for him to broker a deal on immigration as he did on tax cuts and health care. After the Dream Act failed in the Senate this month, Obama said his administration would not give up on the measure.

"I'm going to go back at it," he said.

The president has taken heavy hits in Spanish-language and ethnic media for failing to keep his promise to address immigration promptly and for taking it off the agenda last summer. His administration's continued deportations of immigrants - a record 393,000 in fiscal 2010 - have also made his relationship with Hispanic voters tenuous.

John Morton, who oversees Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said in a recent conference call that there were no plans to change the agency's enforcement tactics, which focus on immigrants who commit crimes but which also have led to the detention and deportation of many immigrants who have not committed crimes.

The agency also will continue to expand Secure Communities, a program that allows immigration officials to check fingerprints of all people booked into jail to see if they are in the country illegally. Both illegal immigrants and residents can end up being deported under the program, which the Homeland Security Department hopes to expand nationwide by 2013.

Many of those attending a recent gathering of conservative Hispanics in Washington warned that another round of tough laws surrounded by ugly anti-immigrant discussions could doom the GOP's 2012 chances.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a possible 2012 candidate, cited Meg Whitman's failed gubernatorial bid in California despite her high spending. When 22 percent of the electorate is Latino, Gingrich said, candidates cannot win without a vigorous presence in that community and a "message that is understandable and involves respect."