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Immigration law advocates gear up for Senate battle

WASHINGTON - As President Barack Obama vows to refocus Democrats' attention on jobs and the economy, advocates for overhauling the nation's immigration laws say they are still gearing up for a battle in the Senate in coming weeks, despite fading hopes for victory.

The drawn-out health care debate badly damaged prospects for an immigration bill this winter. It ate up weeks of the Senate's time, sapped progressive lawmakers' energy and, most recently, stoked a populist backlash that cost Democrats the seat of the late Edward M. Kennedy, the Senate's most prominent champion of liberal health care and immigration policies.

With time running out before lawmakers want to start focusing on the November elections, "immigration is deader than a doornail," one veteran Senate lobbyist put it. Advocates' frustration peaked last week when Obama devoted a single sentence in his 71-minute State of the Union address to a topic that last summer he ranked as a top legislative priority, after health care and an energy bill.

"We should continue the work of fixing our broken immigration system," Obama said, offering no specific remedy or timing, ". . . and ensure that everyone who plays by the rules can contribute to our economy and enrich our nation."

Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), who has introduced a House bill favored by immigrant groups, said there was "disillusionment" among advocates across the country.

"There's almost universal consensus that the president - it was too little," Gutierrez said, noting that, by contrast, Obama pledged in the speech to repeal the military's ban on service by openly gay people this year. "He was very weak on immigration, lackadaisical," Gutierrez said.

"I had very low expectations, but he [the president] surprised even me with how little he said," added Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice. He and other advocates are pushing to legalize many of an estimated 12 million undocumented, strengthen enforcement of immigration laws and provide a mechanism to control the flow of immigrant workers.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who has taken the lead in drafting a Senate bill, rushed to reassure immigrant advocates that they were still working with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) to find Republican backers for a bipartisan bill, while shying away from setting a timetable.

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