WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama on Wednesday urged lawmakers to agree as early as January on a bill to lay a path to citizenship for the estimated 11.5 million illegal immigrants in the United States.
"I'm very confident that we can get immigration reform done," Obama told reporters at his first press conference since a decisive November 6 re-election victory in which Hispanic voters played a major role.
"My expectation is that we get a bill introduced and we begin the process in Congress very soon after my inauguration," said Obama, who is due to begin his second term after a January 21 inauguration ceremony.
Republican nominee Mitt Romney's tack to the right during his presidential campaign, particularly on immigration, was a key reason he lost the Hispanic vote by a substantial margin.
Now, with Republicans soul-searching in the aftermath of their defeat, agreeing to immigration reform is seen as one way to frame the party as more inclusive of Latinos, the fastest-growing ethnic group in the United States.
"Before the election I had given a couple of interviews where I predicted that the Latino vote was going to be strong, and that that would cause some reflection on the part of Republicans about their position," Obama said.
"I think we're starting to see that already. I think that's a positive sign," the president said, adding: "We need to seize the moment."
Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham have already begun talks on a bipartisan bill that was shelved two years ago.
"Some conversations I think are already beginning to take place among senators and congressmen and my staff about what would this look like," Obama said.
Comprehensive reform would include measures that would retain strong border controls and penalize companies that hire undocumented workers while opening an avenue for legalization.
"It's important for them to pay back taxes. It's important for them to learn English. It's important for them to potentially pay a fine," Obama said.
"But to give them the avenue whereby they can resolve their legal status here in this country, I think, is very important.
"I think there should be a pathway for legal status for those who are living in this country, are not engaged in criminal activity, are here simply to work," he said.
Republican Speaker John Boehner, whose party retained control of the House of Representatives in last week's vote, has since expressed confidence that he can work with Obama to hammer out a comprehensive deal on immigration.
Republicans rejected the DREAM Act, which would legalize undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children, and supported tough anti-immigrant legislation in Arizona along the border with Mexico.
Rising Republican star Senator Marco Rubio opposed the DREAM Act and has declined to say whether he believes Congress should allow those immigrants to become citizens without going home first.
But the Cuban-American lawmaker, seen as an early contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, made clear the day after the election that his party needed to reach out to Hispanics.
"The conservative movement should have particular appeal to people in minority and immigrant communities who are trying to make it," he said in a statement issued less than two hours after Romney's concession speech.
In a historic development in June, five months before he faced re-election, Obama suspended the deportations of young illegal immigrants under 30 who came to the United States before the age of 16.
The plan was welcomed by the Latino community and no doubt boosted Obama's re-election bid.
Obama ended up winning 71 percent of the Hispanic vote, second only to former Democratic president Bill Clinton, who managed 72 percent in 1996.
The Latino vote was seen as decisive in swing states with large influxes of Hispanics like Nevada, Colorado and Florida.
Romney, breaking his post-election silence in a phone call with his finance committee reported by the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, expressed bitterness about what he saw as Obama handouts, particularly to Latinos.
"The amnesty for children of illegals, the so-called 'Dream Act' kids, was a huge plus for that voting group," he said.
The number of eligible Hispanic voters in the United States is expected to almost double from 24 to 40 million by 2030. A record 12.5 million Hispanics voted on November 6, according to exit polls.
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