Mr. Boehner has in recent weeks hired Rebecca Tallent, a longtime immigration adviser to Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican who has long backed broad immigration changes. Advocates for an overhaul say the hiring, as well as angry comments by Mr. Boehner critical of Tea Party opposition to the recent budget deal in Congress, indicates that he is serious about revamping the immigration system despite deep reservations from conservative Republicans.
Aides to Mr. Boehner said this week that he was committed to what he calls “step by step” moves to revise immigration laws, which they have declined to specify.
But other House Republicans, who see an immigration overhaul as essential to wooing the Hispanic voters crucial to the party’s fortunes in the 2016 presidential election, said they could move on separate bills that would fast-track legalization for agricultural laborers, increase the number of visas for high-tech workers and provide an opportunity for young immigrants who came to the country illegally as children to become American citizens.
Although the legislation would fall far short of the demands being made by immigration activists, it could provide the beginnings of a deal.
For Mr. Boehner, hiring Ms. Tallent suggests a new commitment to confronting an issue that has long divided the Republican Party. Ms. Tallent is a veteran of more than a decade of congressional immigration battles and fought, ultimately unsuccessfully, for comprehensive overhauls of the immigration system in 2003 and 2007.
Although Mr. Boehner’s aides say she was brought on to carry out his views and not her own, advocates of immigration change say the only reason for Mr. Boehner to have hired Ms. Tallent is his desire to make a deal this year.
In addition, immigration advocates say that Mr. Boehner’s end-of-year rant against Tea Party groups — in which he said they had “lost all credibility” — is an indicator of what he will do this year on immigration. The groups are the same ones that hope to rally the Republican base against an immigration compromise, and while Mr. Boehner cannot say so publicly, he will have more room to maneuver on the issue if he feels free to disregard the arguments from those organizations.
Aides continue to say that Mr. Boehner remains opposed to a single, comprehensive bill like the Senate-passed measure that would tighten border security, increase legal immigration and offer an eventual path to American citizenship for an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants. Conservatives are staunchly opposed to sweeping legislation that would offer a path to citizenship.
“The American people are skeptical of big, comprehensive bills, and frankly, they should be,” Mr. Boehner told reporters recently. “The only way to make sure immigration reform works this time is to address these complicated issues one step at a time. I think doing so will give the American people confidence that we’re dealing with these issues in a thoughtful way and a deliberative way.”
Nonetheless, immigration activists say they are hopeful that politics may ultimately lead Mr. Boehner to ignore conservative voices who oppose a path to citizenship. Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee for president in 2012, who took a hard line on immigration, won only 27 percent of the Hispanic vote — a key reason for his loss to President Obama.
Mr. Obama has in the meantime said he is open to the piecemeal approach on immigration favored by House Republicans, but only if it does not abandon comprehensive goals in legislation that passed the Senate last summer. Reconciling the House approach with the broader ambitions of the Senate bill is the biggest hurdle, strategists in both camps say.
Michael D. Shear reported from Washington, and Ashley Parker from Honolulu.