By Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The first major immigration reform effort since 1986 came under attack on Tuesday from congressional Republicans who cast doubt on a proposal backed by President Barack Obama to give 11 million illegal immigrants a chance to become citizens.
An immigration overhaul suddenly looked possible last week when a group of senators from both parties launched a reform campaign. But it has not taken long for partisan rancor to emerge.
Republicans in the House of Representatives are questioning a core element of the immigration plan: a path to citizenship for undocumented residents, most of them Hispanic, who are already in the United States.
Bob Goodlatte, Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee, raised the possibility of a "middle ground" between the current U.S. policy of deporting illegals and of placing them on a path to citizenship, as Obama demands.
"Are there options to consider between the extremes of mass deportation and pathway to citizenship?" the Virginia lawmaker asked during a session on immigration reform.
Any challenge to the Democrats' goal of providing a route to citizenship might derail reform at a time when other divisive issues like gun control and deficit reduction share the legislative agenda.
Some House Republicans are wary of a repeat of the last big immigration push in 1986, when about 3 million illegal immigrants were granted legal status.
At the time, proponents of the overhaul said it would stem the flow of undocumented people across the Mexican border. But illegal immigration just got worse.
"We look at the promises of the 1986 immigration reform when we granted citizenship to so many people, that we were going to seal the border and make sure this was a one-time deal ... and we see that that has failed," Republican Blake Farenthold of Texas told the Judiciary Committee.
"My question to you is: How do we not end up in the same situation 10, 20 years down the road if we do this again?" he asked San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, a rising Hispanic star in the Democratic Party and a witness at the immigration hearing.
'EARLY SHADOW BOXING'
Democratic Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York warned against reading too much into Republican objections, calling them "early shadow boxing" before rigorous negotiations get under way.
Senate Republicans who favor citizenship for illegal immigrants under the bipartisan outline want to defer it until the country's borders are deemed more secure by a commission of border governors and other officials.
Democratic senators involved in the bipartisan group that is drafting an immigration bill also approve of a border security "trigger."
But immigration reform activists asked Obama at a White House meeting to stick to his position that 11 million people should not have to wait until the border is declared secure.
"It can't be a trigger that keeps moving the goal posts and is indefinable. So it has to be meaningful, real and tangible for us to accept it," said Janet Murguia, president of the Hispanic group National Council of La Raza.
The Obama administration points to a steep drop in illegal immigration from Mexico in recent years and the deployment of thousands of Border Patrol officers as evidence that the border is more secure.
Spokesman Jay Carney said the White House had already met many of the Republican criteria for border security.
"Close to all of those goals, if not all of those goals, have been met because of the president's commitment to enhanced border security," he said.
Congressional Republicans have become more willing to work on an immigration reform after Hispanics delivered a clear message in the 2012 election. Seventy-one percent of Latinos voted for Obama, compared to 27 percent for his Republican rival Mitt Romney.
He was vilified by many Hispanics for calling on illegal immigrants to "self-deport."
In a speech billed as a move to present a softer image of House Republicans, Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia on Tuesday expressed an eagerness to help the needy in such areas as immigration.
Cantor told the conservative American Enterprise Institute he favored providing "an opportunity for legal residence and citizenship for those who were brought to this country as children and who know no other home."
That appeared to represent a reversal for Cantor, who in 2010 voted against the Dream Act, which would have cleared the way for such young people to remain in the United States.
Last summer Obama gave a temporary reprieve from deportation to qualifying children who came to the United States with their parents.
Late on Tuesday, the president met with chief executives from 12 companies on immigration reform and other issues, including Goldman Sachs Group Inc's Lloyd Blankfein, Yahoo Inc's Marissa Mayer as well as Arne Sorenson of Marriott International Inc, Jeff Smisek of United Continental Holdings Inc, and Klaus Kleinfeld of Alcoa Inc.
Obama is expected to use his February 12 State of the Union speech to Congress - a major annual address by the president in which he lays out his legislative priorities for the year - to keep the heat on Republicans.
(Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton; Writing by Alistair Bell; Editing by Xavier Briand)