By Thomas Ferraro and Rachelle Younglai
WASHINGTON, July 10 (Reuters) - President Barack Obama jumped into the immigration debate on Wednesday, releasing a report touting economic benefits from reforms and meeting with Hispanic lawmakers, as House of Representatives Republicans gathered to try to craft their response.
The release of the White House report signaled a new outspokenness by Obama, who made immigration a top legislative priority but stayed on the sidelines of the debate that raged in the Senate in May and June. The report said passing reforms would grow the economy by 3.3 percent by 2023 and reduce the deficit by almost $850 billion over 20 years.
Obama also was scheduled to meet with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus as he launches an offensive to pressure hesitant Republicans in the House of Representatives to act on comprehensive immigration legislation this year.
Meanwhile, House Speaker John Boehner invited all 233 of his fellow House Republicans in his chamber to a two-hour meeting on Wednesday to discuss the bipartisan Senate bill that would give legal status to around 11 million undocumented residents and eventually allow them to apply for U.S. citizenship.
Boehner knows he will have a tough time convincing conservatives that the Senate approach is anything but amnesty for people who have broken the law after entering the United States illegally or overstaying their visas.
According to one House aide, Republican leaders will listen to ideas from members on how to proceed. The main question for now, the aide said, was whether any narrow immigration bill should be put to a vote by the full House before the August recess, when lawmakers will be home, facing their constituents.
Previewing Wednesday's meeting, Boehner told reporters on Tuesday that he would pursue a "step-by-step approach" to immigration and "the first big step is you have to have a serious border security" plan.
The comprehensive Senate-passed bill contained tough security measures with $46 billion in spending over 10 years to place 20,000 more agents at the U.S. border with Mexico and buy high-tech surveillance equipment.
Nevertheless, only 14 of the Senate's 46 Republicans voted for the bill and many House Republicans complain that the 11 million illegal residents would be mainstreamed into American society before the southwestern border is fully secured.
Last November's presidential election, in which Obama captured more than 70 percent of the growing Hispanic vote, was a wake-up call to Republican leaders that their party must do more to appeal to minorities.
Former President George W. Bush, who failed to pass a comprehensive immigration bill when he was in office, on Wednesday said that he hoped there would be a "positive resolution" to Congress's immigration debate.
Speaking in Dallas at a naturalization ceremony hosted by The Bush Center, the two-term Republican president did not endorse any specific bill, but said, "We have a problem. The laws governing the immigration system aren't working ... the system is broken."
The call for comprehensive reform resonates with some Republican senators, who have to run in statewide elections, and with some prospective Republican presidential candidates.
But it is much less of an incentive for House Republicans, many of whom fear conservative Tea Party challenges if they back a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million, a core demand of Obama and his fellow Democrats.
According to a recent study by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, which tracks congressional races, only 24 of the 234 House Republicans represent districts that are more than 25 percent Hispanic.
The study found that 148 of the Republican-held districts are less than 10 percent Hispanic, and another 62 are between 10 percent to 25 percent Hispanic.
David Wasserman, who conducted the Cook study, said most House Republicans believe they could defeat a Democratic challenger in the general election.
"But they don't know if they will face a Republican primary challenge if they vote for an immigration bill backed by the president," Wasserman said.
Republican Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, who heads a large group of House conservatives, told reporters: "In the House, we plan on addressing border security front and center. It has got to be the main component of anything that is done on immigration."
The House Homeland Security Committee has approved a border security bill that could be considered as a stand-alone immigration measure on the House floor.
It would direct the Department of Homeland Security to develop and implement a plan to control the entire southwestern border within five years and be able to catch or turn back 90 percent of illegal entries.
Meanwhile, the House Judiciary Committee has produced four targeted bills, which also could see action in the House. They include a tough measure aimed at finding and punishing those living in the United States illegally and another to help U.S. high-tech firms hire more skilled labor from abroad.
For many House Republicans, support for a comprehensive bill with the pathway to citizenship is tepid at best.
Passing such legislation is "not urgent," said Representative James Lankford of Oklahoma, a member of the House Republican leadership team.
"If we run out of time at the end of the year, I don't think we push it. This is a problem that has festered for decades," he added.
Even with such ambivalence, House Republican leaders still leave open the door to crafting some sort of proposal that would end the deportation threat for many of the 11 million, allowing them to openly seek work in the United States and potentially become American citizens, much like the Senate bill.
Boehner, asked about a bipartisan House plan, not yet unveiled, that would establish a 15 year pathway to citizenship, said, "Frankly, I think that they have done a lot of good work."
(Writing by Richard Cowan; Additional reporting by Lisa Maria Garza in Dallas; Editing by Vicki Allen)