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 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 came after Republicans released a proposal Thursday that would offer legal status to immigrants, but contained no 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 Thursday in 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.
One potential compromise might be to direct immigrants to use the existing citizenship application process, but take steps to clear the backlog of cases and create exemptions from certain rules, including one that would force many to return to their home countries for up to 10 years before winning citizenship.
Many Democrats and some immigration advocates welcomed the Republicans’ engagement on the issue. But AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said the GOP proposal “would create a permanent class of noncitizens” and should be condemned.
Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., one of a handful of Republicans who supports a pathway to citizenship, said Obama’s flexibility would increase the chances for a legislative compromise. “The president’s comments are helpful,” he said.
But Obama’s comments come during a low point in trust between Republican and Democratic lawmakers in the House. Some Democrats suspect that the GOP is using immigration reform to court Latino voters and has no intention of passing a bill this year.
Republicans don’t trust Obama to enact tougher border security measures, and they complain that he has used his executive powers to unilaterally stop the deportation of young immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children.
House Republicans will return to Washington next week, but are unlikely to begin producing immigration bills for several months, according to several GOP lawmakers. Many Republicans prefer to punt the issue to next year to keep the midterm election campaign focused on problems with Obamacare.
But by expressing openness to the GOP alternative, Obama could maintain pressure on the Republicans to “keep the ball rolling” toward writing immigration bills, said Angela Kelley, an immigration expert at the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank with close ties to the White House.
“I don’t think (Obama) is throwing citizenship under the bus,” Kelley said in an interview. “I think he is trying to open the conversation by saying there are lots of ways to get to the finish line.”