US President Barack Obama pauses as he discusses unemployment, in the East Room of the White House in Washington on January 31, 2014. Photo: Reuters
President Barack Obama and top Republican leaders are signalling willingness to soften their stances on immigration legislation as they try to open the door for compromise before many in Congress face elections late this year.
Obama suggested in an interview aired Friday that he may drop his insistence that any legislation include a special pathway to citizenship for the 11 million people already in the US illegally.
A day earlier, House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner and other Republican leaders released immigration principles that would allow millions of adults who live in the country unlawfully to get legal status after paying back taxes and fines.
Immigration is Obama's best hope for a big second-term legislative victory after his attempts to push through gun control laws failed last year in the divided Congress. With November congressional elections approaching, many Republicans see the immigration measure as a chance to attract Hispanic voters who largely supported Obama and the Democrats in 2012.
Still, the negotiations are tense. The Republican leadership faces strong opposition from several conservatives who are suspicious of Obama's agenda and fear that legislation will lead to citizenship for people who broke US immigration laws.
Obama repeated his preference for a solid route to citizenship. But the president said he would have to evaluate the implications of a process to allow people get legal status and then have the option to become citizens.
"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 a CNN interview that was recorded Thursday.
The House principles released Thursday say "there will be no special path to citizenship for individuals who broke our nation's immigration laws." Still, it wouldn't preclude millions from trying to obtain permanent legal residence, often known as a green card, through sponsorship by an employer or adult child. Those individuals could later seek citizenship.
While strong majorities of Hispanics continue to back a pathway to citizenship, a Pew Research Center poll in December found that being able to live and work in the U.S. legally without the threat of deportation was more important to Latinos, by 55 percent to 35 percent.
Obama's flexibility is a clear indication of the president's desire to secure an elusive legislative achievement before voters decide whether to hand him even more opposition in Congress. Republicans are expected to maintain their grip on the House and have a legitimate chance at taking the majority in the Senate.
"I'm going to do everything I can in the coming months to see if we can get this over the finish line," Obama said Friday of an immigration overhaul in a Google Plus Hangout talk.
In an earlier compromise, Obama signaled late last year that he could accept the House's bill-by-bill approach to immigration changes after months of backing a comprehensive, bipartisan Senate bill.
"I think he realizes that this is a very delicate issue, it's very controversial and I think his recent statements have been very, very positive in allowing us to move forward," Rep Mario Diaz-Balart, a Republican, told reporters Friday.
Boehner has tried to sell some reluctant members of his party on tackling immigration by casting it as critical to job creation, economic growth and national security.
But several Republicans questioned the strategy of pushing a contentious issue that angers conservative voters - especially since the party has been capitalizing on Obama's poor approval ratings.
"Why in the world would we want to change the subject to comprehensive immigration reform," said Rep. John Fleming, a Republican, who called it a "suicide mission" for the party.
Still, the business community, advocacy groups and other proponents are optimistic about House action this year, with many Republicans arguing that it was imperative to eliminate a major political drag on the party ahead of the next presidential election in 2016.
Administration and congressional officials have suggested that Republicans could put legislation on the House floor in late March or early April.