WASHINGTON—A key Republican House chairman said Wednesday he sees the need to bring illegal immigrants already in this country into legal status, and perhaps allow some of them to eventually obtain citizenship—suggesting new potential common ground with a bipartisan group seeking to overhaul the nation's immigration policy.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte has said in the past that he opposes a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S.

But at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast with media, Goodlatte expanded on that, saying that once legalized, immigrants could potentially avail themselves of the existing ways to attain citizenship—either through family or employer sponsorship. The approach could leave illegal immigrants facing a lengthy and difficult process before citizenship becomes a possibility.

"Having a system where if you have now a lawful status and then you have another opportunity, whether it's employment based or whether it's family based, to be able to legalize your status in the future, those are good opportunities we could address," the Virginia Republican told reporters.

The Senate bipartisan group supports a more direct pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, though it would be conditioned on border security first, and President Barack Obama also wants eventual citizenship for illegal immigrants.

Goodlatte said that his opposition to a special pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants doesn't mean he wants to foreclose the possibility for them ever to become citizens.

"There's a broad spectrum between deportation and an easy, special pathway to citizenship to find a way to bring people out of the shadows and give them a legal status that would allow them to be better able to participate in our society, and we should be focused there," Goodlatte said. "Now once you have that status you can qualify like anyone else."

Goodlatte also raised the prospect of eliminating the current requirement that immigrants who've been here illegally must return to their home country for as much as 10 years before returning to the U.S. "If you address some kind of reform of that aspect of it you can avail people of an opportunity that they don't have now," Goodlatte said.

Goodlatte declined to offer details of what a legalization program for illegal immigrants might look like, saying he didn't want to prejudge outcomes in the House, where his committee is in the midst of holding hearings on different aspects of the nation's immigration system, including employment verification and agriculture guest worker programs. Goodlatte said the approach should be deliberate and the issue doesn't necessarily need to be dealt with all at once in a single bill, as Obama and senators working on the issue support.

But he pledged action by his committee to improve the nation's broken immigration system.

"I believe you'll see the Judiciary Committee produce good legislation on this issue this year," he said.