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* Judiciary panel Republicans note need to enforce laws
* Democrats urge citizenship for undocumented residents
* Hearing underscores difficult path for legislation
By Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON, Feb 5 (Reuters) - The U.S. immigration system is badly in need of reform but Congress should not rush legislation to President Barack Obama, who is demanding prompt action, a leading Republican said on Tuesday.
In the first of a series of hearings planned by the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee, Chairman Bob Goodlatte warned a packed hearing room that his panel "needs to take the time to learn from the past so that our efforts to reform our immigration laws do not repeat the same mistakes."
Obama and many of his fellow Democrats in Congress are pushing for passage this year of comprehensive reforms that would include putting 11 million illegal residents on a path to U.S. citizenship.
Pro-immigrant groups have been pushing for action for years without success. But November elections, in which Hispanic-Americans voted overwhelmingly for Democrats, gave new impetus for legislation. They also jarred Republicans into acknowledging the need for action - a turnaround after their presidential hopefuls campaigned on tough anti-immigration platforms in 2011 and 2012.
But there still are significant disagreements between the two parties over how to balance the need for border security and regularize the status of illegal immigrants. The most contentious issue is the possible legalization of those who emigrated to the United States without permission.
Goodlatte acknowledged that Congress must address how to deal with those who have come to the United States illegally, many of whom now have deep roots, with children attending American public schools.
But the Virginia Republican noted that members of Congress "have a lot of questions about how a large-scale legalization program would work, what it would cost and how it would prevent illegal immigration in the future."
Goodlatte's remarks focused on the need to enforce immigration laws and to accommodate more foreign workers with high-tech skills, which are needed by corporations in the Silicon Valley and elsewhere, and farm workers.
Some Republicans are calling for more modest steps in dealing with the 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States who live under the threat of deportation. Instead of putting them on a path to citizenship, some have suggested a permanent work visa for them.
But Representative Zoe Lofgren of California, the senior Democrat on the House judiciary subcommittee that will delve into legislative fixes, warned: "Partial legalization, as some are suggesting, is a dangerous path and we need only look at France and Germany to see how unwise it is to create a permanent underclass" in the United States.
A bipartisan group of senators last week unveiled a comprehensive reform plan that they hope to translate into legislation in coming weeks. Significant questions were unresolved in their outline, including what kind of system to create for allowing future visa applicants.
Senate Democrats hope to pass a bill by mid-year with a large, bipartisan vote that could improve chances for passage of a bill in the Republican-controlled House.
However, House Republican leaders have not committed to passing an immigration bill this year.
Reformers and minority groups are hoping the legislative effort gets a boost from conservative Representative Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, the new chairman of the House's immigration subcommittee.
On Tuesday, Gowdy captured the attention of the crowded House hearing room when he detailed the story of a 12-year-old immigrant from Sierra Leone whose hands were cut off by soldiers with machetes during the civil war in her country.
She "tried to run, tried to hide, asked God to let her die," Gowdy said.
But in a reference to those who have crossed into the United States illegally, he also warned that the federal government must enforce the laws it has on the books.
"What we cannot become is a nation where the law is enforced selectively, or not at all," Gowdy said.