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Obama says immigration overhaul possible by first half of 2013

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama rejected Republican complaints about his proposals for overhauling the U.S. immigration system on Wednesday and said he believed it was possible to get a deal done by the end of the year if not in the first half.

Obama gave an interview to a pair of Spanish-language U.S. television networks to promote his proposals for giving 11 million illegal immigrants a pathway to U.S. citizenship after a bipartisan Gang of Eight senators offered its own plan.

"I´m hopeful that this can get done, and I don´t think that it should take many, many months. I think this is something we should be able to get done certainly this year and I´d like to see if we could get it done sooner, in the first half of the year if possible," Obama told Telemundo.

If Congress delays, he said, "I've got a bill drafted, we've got language" ready to offer Capitol Hill.

Obama offered his own principles on immigration at an appearance in Las Vegas on Tuesday. He pushed for a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants that is faster than the one the Senate group proposed.

Rather than emphasize border security first as the senators want, he would let undocumented immigrants get on a path to citizenship if they undergo national security and criminal background checks, pay penalties, learn English and get behind those foreigners seeking to immigrate legally.

Asked by the Univision network about Republican criticism of his proposals, particularly from a Hispanic senator, Marco Rubio, Obama argued his administration had already done much work on securing the U.S. border with Mexico.

"Look, we put border security ahead of a pathway to citizenship. We have done more on border security in the last four years than we have done in the previous 20," Obama said. "We've actually done almost everything that Republicans asked to be done several years ago as a precondition to move forward on comprehensive immigration reform."

Obama offered to meet publicly or privately with Rubio and other senators to try to move the process forward.

The border security issue may be the toughest the two sides will have to overcome to reach the type of comprehensive overhaul that Washington has talked for years but been unable to execute.

After years on the back burner, immigration reform has suddenly looked possible as Republicans, chastened by Latino voters who rejected them in the November election, appear more willing to accept an overhaul.

Congress is now grappling with two major issues - immigration and Obama's efforts to tighten gun regulations. The president told Univision he believed Congress could handle both at the same time.

Obama said he wanted Congress to get legislation on immigration reform to the floor of the Senate by the beginning of March.

(Reporting by Steve Holland and Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Eric Walsh and Peter Cooney)

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