Obama, aides seek momentum on immigration reform this week

* Obama to tout economic benefits of reform to CEOs, unions

* Republicans soften stance, citizenship remains big hurdle

* House panel to take up immigration on Tuesday

WASHINGTON, Feb 4 (Reuters) - President Barack Obama and his

aides will seek to build momentum for U.S. immigration reform

this week, laying down markers ahead of his State of the Union

address amid an increasingly contentious debate in Washington

over proposals for overhauling immigration laws.

Obama plans to hold a series of White House meetings with

corporate chief executives, labor leaders and progressives on

Tuesday to lobby for their support, and has dispatched Homeland

Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to the Southwest to tout the

administration's border security efforts.

The flurry of activity, including new moves in Congress,

comes amid disagreement between the Democratic president and

Republicans over the question of citizenship for illegal

immigrants, an obstacle that could make it hard to reach a final

deal on sweeping legislation.

Obama is expected to use his Feb. 12 State of the Union

speech to Congress to keep the heat on Republicans, who have

appeared more willing to accept an immigration overhaul after

they were chastened by Latino voters' rejection in the November

election.

But differences have emerged since Obama and a bipartisan

Senate working "group of eight" rolled out their proposals last

week aimed at the biggest U.S. immigration revamp in decades.

Obama wants to give America's 11 million illegal immigrants

a clear pathway to apply for citizenship and has vowed to

introduce his own bill if Congress fails to act.

But top Republicans want to defer citizenship until the

county's borders are deemed more secure - a linkage that Obama

and most of his fellow Democrats would find hard to accept.

Obama's aides are confident the president holds the

political advantage on immigration - not least because they

believe that if the reform effort fails in Congress, voters are

more likely to blame the Republicans and they would suffer in

the 2014 midterm congressional elections.

The contours of the Republican strategy could soon become

clearer. The Judiciary Committee of the Republican-controlled

House of Representatives, where reform faces the toughest fight,

will kick off hearings on Tuesday with a broad look at the

immigration system and border security and how to fix them.

A congressional Democratic aide said Republicans have lined

up a set of witnesses that is "a lot more balanced than you

would have seen in previous Congresses, when you would have seen

hard-line enforcement-only advocates be front and center."

SETTING NEW TONE

A number of leading Republicans, worried that their party

has alienated Hispanics with anti-immigrant rhetoric, have made

clear they want to set a new tone with the fast-growing Latino

electorate. More than 70 percent of Hispanic voters backed Obama

in the Nov. 6 presidential election.

Immigration reform advocates will be watching the hearing

closely to see whether Republicans mostly stress piecemeal

reforms, such as more border security and encouraging more guest

workers and high-tech visas, rather than the comprehensive

reforms that Obama and the Democrats are seeking.

Some conservatives have warned that the reform efforts now

taking shape essentially could offer "amnesty" for law-breakers.

A bipartisan group of House members has been working behind

the scenes on a comprehensive immigration reform package. They

hope to unveil their work before the State of the Union address,

but it was unclear whether they would meet that goal.

At the White House on Tuesday, Obama will try to rally

business and labor leaders with a sales pitch that immigration

reform will be good for the fragile U.S. economy and help boost

job creation, administration officials said.

Napolitano was headed to San Diego on Monday and El Paso,

Texas, on Tuesday to inspect security on the border with Mexico

and meet state and local officials, her office said.

Border security is expected to be a tough area for

compromise on the type of sweeping overhaul that Washington has

talked about for years but been unable to execute.

Obama and his aides have argued that his administration has

made strides in tightening controls at the border, resulting in

fewer people trying to cross over from Mexico. But some

Republicans say more must be done to prevent an increased flow

of illegal immigrants once the U.S. economy improves.

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