WASHINGTON — President Obama signaled in an interview broadcast Friday that he might accept an immigration deal that does not include a special pathway to citizenship for those in the country illegally, possibly meeting Republicans in the middle on an issue that has divided them for years.
Obama and other Democrats have long insisted that legislation overhauling the immigration system must include a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants who pay fines and back taxes and meet other conditions.
Activists and many Democrats have called that nonnegotiable.
Speaker John A. Boehner and other House Republicans on Thursday released a statement of principles on immigration that would not include the citizenship pathway but would allow such immigrants legal status.
In the interview on CNN that was taped Thursday and aired Friday morning, Obama seemed to hint at finessing the difference as long as such immigrants could still apply under the regular citizenship process once they were legal.
“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.
Obama added, “What I’m encouraged by is the fact that Mr. Boehner and others seem to recognize our country will be stronger if we are able to resolve this issue in a way where, you know, kids, for example, who have grown up here and for all practical purposes are Americans but don’t have the right papers are not being punished.”
Pressed on whether the pathway to citizenship was a provision he could surrender if necessary to win a compromise, Obama did not reject the concept.
“The question is: Is there more that we can do in this legislation that gets both Democratic and Republican support,” he said, “but solves these broader problems, including strengthening borders and making sure that we have a legal immigration system that works better than it currently does?”
The president said his main concern on this point was that illegal immigrants be eventually brought into the system in a legal way.
“I think the principle that we don’t want two classes of people in America is a principle that a lot of people agree with, not just me and not just Democrats,” he said.
He noted that under his own plan, those in the country illegally would still have to go through “a very long process of earning citizenship” by learning English, paying back taxes and going “to the back of the line.”