A White House official tells The New York Times Thursday that the president's goal is to enact "policy reform that controls immigration and makes it an orderly system."
A legislative debate could begin this fall and Mr. Obama is expected to formally address the issue in May, administration officials tell the newspaper.
"He intends to start the debate this year," Cecilia Muñoz, deputy assistant to the president and director of intergovernmental affairs in the White House, said.
Already an explosive issue, finding ways to legalize illegal workers while the U.S. economy is mired in economic turmoil could ignite even more outrage from critics, who helped sink President George W. Bush's attempt at a bipartisan immigration bill in 2007.
"It just doesn't seem rational that any political leader would say, let's give millions of foreign workers permanent access to U.S. jobs when we have millions of Americans looking for jobs," Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, a group in favor of reducing immigration, told the newspaper.
During the 2008 campaign, Mr. Obama said he would tackle immigration reform in his first year of office and recently acknowledged that the topic was rife with emotion. "I know that the people get real riled up politically about this," Mr. Obama told a California audience last month, but added that illegal immigrants "have to have some mechanism over time to get out of the shadows."