WASHINGTON – In a potential breakthrough on immigration reform, President Barack Obama on Friday signaled a surprising openness to a new Republican proposal that does not include a special pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million people who are in the country illegally.
The comments by the president, who previously insisted on a special citizenship route, raised hopes for a bipartisan compromise on immigration during an election year that is otherwise likely to be short on legislative achievements.
But it remained unclear whether other Democrats and labor groups who have advocated changing the nation’s immigration laws would follow the president’s lead. And a growing number of Republicans remain wary of tackling any sort of immigration reform bill this year, fearing that it will further divide the GOP before the midterm election in November.
Obama’s comments to CNN and during a Google Plus online chat came after Republicans released a proposal Thursday that would offer legal status to immigrants but contained no special citizenship process except for children brought here illegally by their parents. Republican support for legalization was itself considered a breakthrough.
Previously, Obama had signaled that he would only support a reform bill modeled on a bipartisan Senate bill passed last year, which offered a 13-year path for immigrants to obtain citizenship. The bill stalled in the House.
In his latest comments, Obama emphasized that he still wants immigrants to eventually be offered citizenship to avoid being relegated to second-class status. But hinted that he might accept a compromise that directed immigrants to use the existing citizenship application process, which was part of the blueprint offered by Republican House Speaker John Boehner.
“If the speaker proposes something that says right away, folks aren’t being deported, families aren’t being separated, we’re able to attract top young students to provide the skills or start businesses here, and then there’s a regular process of citizenship, I’m not sure how wide the divide ends up being,” Obama said in the CNN interview, which was taped on Thursday during his visit to Waukesha, Wis.
When asked whether he would veto a reform bill that included legalization and no pathway to citizenship, the president said, “I’m not going to prejudge what gets to my desk.”
But during the online chat, he said he was “modestly optimistic” that a compromise could be reached, adding that Boehner “has principles for immigration reform that are moving in the direction of the principles that I had laid out from the time that I first ran for this office.”
The movement this week by Obama and House Republicans inched the two sides closer together and breathed life into immigration reform, an issue that has vexed Washington for decades, ever since the last overhaul under President Ronald Reagan.
Frank Sharry, executive director of immigration advocate America’s Voice, said the movement was substantial, particularly after an immigration overhaul was all but abandoned at the end of last year.
“Now you have Speaker Boehner owning the issue and President Obama giving him room to succeed,” Sharry said.
But much will depend on the details of any legislation.