Is Obama Open to Immigration Reform Without Citizenship?



At a time when most policy measures go to die in the U.S. House of Representatives, President Barack Obama signaled he may be open to offering legal status rather than strictly a path to citizenship as part of immigration reform, which could help bridge the divide. Obama told CNN he was encouraged by the immigration “principles” the House GOP leadership released on Thursday, one of which includes granting legal status rather than citizenship to undocumented people in the United States.

The Obama interview aired on CNN on Friday. Speaking to the network’s Jake Tapper, Obama said he liked the idea of reform in which “folks aren’t being deported, families aren’t being separated … and then there’s a regular process of citizenship.” Citing the efforts of both House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), Obama suggested a willingness to put a deal on the table without a direct path to citizenship, a place where the two parties have agreed to disagree.

One key sticking point between Democrats and Republicans has been the distinction of legal status, which Obama said could create “two categories of people in this country,” and full citizenship. However, the president’s openness to compromise on that point offered hope to many who have been discouraged by the pace and overall shape of immigration reform. After a bipartisan Senate bill on immigration issues reached the House of Representatives in mid-2013, House GOP leadership has declined to bring it up for a vote.

Comments by Ryan on the Sunday talk show circuit suggested supporters of immigration reform should table any optimism for the time being.

The representative described the possibility of an immigration bill being passed in the House of Representatives as “clearly in doubt” during a February 2 appearance on ABC’s “This Week.” In fact, Ryan said Republicans were “still having a debate” within their caucus. Despite record-low GOP approval ratings in October and the current Congress’s pace toward becoming the least productive in history, Ryan described the Senate immigration bill as nothing with immediate consequences.

“This is not one of those issues that has a deadline,” Ryan told “This Week,” emphasizing there was no need to take the Senate bill to conference.  At a glance, the Senate’s bill has a large majority of approval, with a 68-32 vote, as well as bipartisan support from Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who made up part of the “Gang of Eight” sponsors of the bill.

However, it is always an election year in the House of Representatives. Members of Congress, even in safe Republican districts, have the threat of primary challenges from the right if they appear to offer “amnesty” to undocumented immigrants — something Ryan said was unacceptable. Ryan suggested securing the borders was the chief concern of Republicans with respect to immigration, a view that sits well with the party’s base in an election year.

There may be an openness to compromise on the part of Obama and many members of Congress, but the chances of Obama getting an immigration bill on his desk in 2014 remain slim.

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