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Obama urged to reject tying immigration reform to border security

By Mark Felsenthal and Roberta Rampton

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Immigration reform advocates urged President Barack Obama on Tuesday to reject congressional proposals that would delay a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants by making changes contingent on stepped-up border security.

After meeting Obama at the White House, the activists said they had pressed the Democratic president to ensure that reforms provide an unambiguous route to citizenship for the estimated 11 million people in the United States illegally.

"He's not going to accept a vague path to citizenship," said Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Rata, an Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization. She stopped short of saying that Obama had explicitly rejected linking reforms to increased border security.

The groups said they were "aligned" with Obama's plan on immigration, outlined in a speech in Las Vegas last week.

That plan would give illegal immigrants a clear process to achieve citizenship, including payment of fines, criminal background checks and going to the "back of the line" behind legal applicants.

Obama has vowed to introduce his own bill if Congress fails to act in a timely fashion. Republicans want to defer citizenship until the country's borders are more secure, especially the frontier with Mexico.

A group of Democratic and Republican senators is drafting a bill that could include such a trigger.

"We expect there to be language around the trigger, but it can't be a false trigger," Murguia said. "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."

The White House said Obama has already addressed most border security goals sought by Republicans, said spokesman Jay Carney, who added that the president would wait until senators draft a bill before judging any proposed trigger.

The immigration reform groups vowed they would make their opinions heard in Congress, and noted that the Latino electorate overwhelmingly backed Obama in the November 6 presidential election and are counting on quick action on the issue.

"Our community feels momentum and our collective power," said Marie Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center.

The Republican-controlled House of Representatives held its first hearing on the issue on Tuesday and questioned the idea of providing a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

GUEST WORKERS AN ISSUE

Obama met separately on immigration reform with chief executives from 12 companies, including Goldman Sachs Group Inc's Lloyd Blankfein, Yahoo Inc's Marissa Mayer and Klaus Kleinfeld of Alcoa Inc.

The executives see immigration reform as good for the economy, said Arne Sorenson of Marriott International Inc.

"It's clear that immigration reform is an opportunity that really arises out of this last election," he told reporters. "It would be great to see the political leaders from both sides seize that opportunity, grab it, and pass something which is comprehensive."

Senators have also proposed an improved guest worker program, a major issue for the agricultural industry, which counts on migrant workers to pick crops, and for labor groups, which have opposed such proposals.

Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, the largest U.S. federation of trade unions, told reporters the group discussed a "data-driven system" for guest workers.

"We can fix what's wrong right now and prevent what's wrong from driving down the wages of everybody else," Trumka said.

Details of a new guest worker program must still be worked out, bu labor unions are eager to help shape a program to benefit their members, said Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, an advocacy group immigration reform.

"The good news is that labor is united and wanting immigration reform. That was not the case a few years ago," Sharry said.

(Editing by Alistair Bell and Christopher Wilson)

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