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House Republicans struggle to strike a balance on immigration

House Republicans are being pulled in two directions as fall's immigration debate looms. A small group supports a path to citizenship for undocumented workers, but the majority of the party opposes citizenship, and is more focused on border security.

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Florida State Sen. Daniel Webster, R-Winter Garden, speaks at a Senate session in Tallahassee, Fla. in April 2008. In the five weeks since he declared his support for comprehensive immigration reform, Webster, now a House representative for Florida, has gotten an earful from his constituents, and as he returns to Washington this week, he faces an even tougher crowd: fellow Republicans.

Phil Coale/AP/File

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In the five weeks since he declared his support for a comprehensive immigration overhaul, US Rep. Daniel Webster has gotten an earful.

One constituent told the second-term Republican that immigrants carry disease. Another said immigrants would steal jobs away from Americans.

"You cannot stop illegal immigration by rewarding it," another man said at a recent town hall-style meeting in Groveland, a rural community west of Orlando. "Amnesty is a reward."

As Congress returns to work this week after its summer break, Webster faces perhaps an even tougher crowd: fellow Republicans.

Webster is among about two dozen GOP lawmakers who support an eventual path to citizenship for millions of people who are living in the US illegally. These Republicans are facing the daunting challenge of trying to persuade colleagues to follow them.

Most Republicans oppose this approach on citizenship, and there is little political incentive for them to change their minds. Only 24 of 233 Republicans represent districts where more than one-quarter of their constituents are Hispanic.

Even so, some in the Republican Party argue that its future hinges on whether the House finds a way to embrace an immigration overhaul, which is a crucial issue for the country's fast-growing bloc of Hispanic voters.

Supporters of a path to citizenship point to demographic changes and business backing that have helped sway Webster, who for years opposed immigrant-rights legislation, as potential motives for wavering lawmakers to sign on.

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