Signaling a possible opening in the tense immigration debate, President Barack Obama indicated he may consider legislation that does not include a special pathway to citizenship for the 11 million people already in the U.S. illegally.
Obama reiterated his preference for a concrete route to citizenship. But he said he doesn't want to "prejudge" what might land on his desk and would have to evaluate the implications of a process to allow people get legal status and then have the option to become citizens.
"I'm not sure how wide the divide ends up being," Obama said of the differences between a special citizenship pathway and legal status.
The president's carefully worded response in an interview with CNN marked a noticeable shift in the hard-line position he has previously taken on citizenship. He has repeatedly insisted that legislation must include a way for those in the U.S. illegally to become citizens, saying it "doesn't make sense" to leave that aspect of immigration reform unresolved.
On Thursday, House Republican leaders released immigration principles that would allow millions of adults who live in the U.S. unlawfully to get legal status after paying back taxes and fines. The proposal was greeted negatively by many conservatives who oppose granting any kind of legal status to immigrants in the country illegally.
The White House said it welcomed "the process moving forward in the House, and we look forward to working with all parties to make immigration reform a reality."
If Congress were to move forward on legislation that would allow people to gain legal status, the White House would likely insist that the millions affected by the measure have the option to eventually become citizens, even if a special pathway is not prescribed. The White House is also likely to take its cues from immigration advocates, some of which may see legal status as the best option that could be expected from the deeply divided Congress.
"I want to make sure that I'm not just making decisions about what makes sense or not," Obama said. "We're going to be consulting with the people who stand to be affected themselves."