WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama didn't rule out taking some sort of executive action on deportations, saying Friday he is still "modestly optimistic" immigration reform will be passed this year but would consider other options if it fails.
"It is my firm belief that we can get immigration reform done this year," he said on a Google Hangout hosted by the White House. "I don't want to pre-suppose that we can't. Obviously, if at some point we see that it's not getting done, I'm going to look at all options to make sure that we have a rational, smart system of immigration."
Obama has said repeatedly that he cannot simply halt deportations, and his words didn't indicate that he has plans to do so. Still, he did not rule out expanding some sort of relief for undocumented immigrants, giving a bit of hope to advocates who worry that a long fight for immigration reform could end with no bill and that hundreds of thousands of deportations will take place in the meantime, with no hope of stopping them in the future.
House Republican leaders unveiled their immigration reform principles on Thursday to GOP members, and notably included allowing undocumented immigrants to gain legal status if they met certain guidelines. Obama said he was open to a deal with the GOP. But some House Republicans strongly oppose immigration reform, and while the Senate passed an immigration reform bill last year, it's far from certain that a bill could get through the lower chamber and eventually be signed into law.
Activists have long been calling for Obama to expand his Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy to other undocumented immigrants as well. Under that policy, undocumented young people who came to the U.S. as children can apply to stay and work in the country for two years, with the possibility of remaining beyond that. They can still be deported under certain conditions, but for most people, it takes that fear off of the table and allows them to live more normally.
Advocates argue that Obama could create a similar policy for undocumented immigrants in other situations, such as those who are non-criminals generally, or those whose children are U.S. citizens. Obama has ruled out such action previously. "I'm not a king," he told Univision a year ago.
But hopes were reignited somewhat when Obama said earlier this month that he has "a pen and a phone" and would use them to do what he can with executive powers and work with outside groups to push policies.
Taking some sort of executive action, or even hinting he might do so, would likely only worsen Republicans' distrust of Obama's willingness to enforce immigration law, which they've held up as a top reason to leave reform alone.
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) told reporters Friday that GOP members questioned whether they could be sure the president would enforce border security or enforcement bills if they put them in place. The congressman, who supports reform, said statements like Obama's only serve to enhance that concern.
"There is a trust gap that I think is the biggest obstacle we have to deal with," he said on a conference call hosted by pro-reform advocacy group America's Voice. "That statement is not helpful, other statements like that are not helpful."
Jennifer Bendery contributed reporting.