President Obama visited a Tennessee community center on Tuesday in a bid to pressure congressional Republicans to pass immigration reform, but he conceded it might be a tough sell after his executive action.
Obama said his message to the GOP was to “work with me to reflect the wisdom of the American people,” and that voters wanted politicians to give those in the country “a shot” at legal status.
“Does that mean everybody's going to listen to me on the other side? Not necessarily. They're pretty sure I'm an illegal immigrant,” Obama quipped.
The president blasted House Republicans for last week passing a bill offered by Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.) that would roll back his executive actions that could shield an estimated 5 million people from deportation and provide them with work permits.
“So far the only response that we’ve had out of the House was a vote taken last week to force talented young people and workers to leave our country,” Obama said.
“Rather than deport students or separate families or make it harder for law enforcement to do its job, we just need Congress to work with us to pass a common-sense law to fix the broken immigration system.”
Critics of Yoho's bill said it was purely symbolic, noting that the Democratic Senate will not take up the measure.
The president did say he recognized “that there are controversies around immigration,” acknowledging concerns that reform could change the face of American society or take jobs from native-born citizens.
“I understand those concerns, but as I said, they’re not new,” Obama said. “As a country, we have had these concerns since the Irish and Italians and Poles were coming to Boston and New York, and had the same concerns when Chinese and Japanese Americans were traveling out West.”
The president spoke at Casa Azafrán, a Nashville community center home to nonprofits that help connect immigrants with medical care, education services and art spaces.
Following a brief speech, he fielded questions from members of the audience, many of whom expressed skepticism or fear over his executive actions. One audience member asked if signing up for the program would derail chances of obtaining citizenship through another means, while another wondered if a future president could use the program to target individuals who had self-identified as illegal immigrants for deportations.
Obama acknowledged that it was “true that a future administration might try to reverse some of our policies,” but he predicted it would not be politically viable for one of his successors to use the deferred action programs to target individuals for deportations.
“I think that the American people basically have a good heart and want to treat people fairly, and every survey shows that if in fact somebody has come out, subjected themselves to a background check, registered, paid their taxes, that the American people support allowing them to stay,” Obama said.
“So I think any future administration that tried to punish people for doing the right thing, I think would not have the support of the American people,” he added.
The president also defended his decision to only extend the new program to the parents of U.S. citizens or permanent residents, or those brought to the country as children.
Obama said he was “bound by the legal authority” he had available, although he had asked administration lawyers to investigate widening the scope of his actions. At the same time, Obama argued that new rules telling immigration officials to prioritize the deportation of felons meant that many illegal immigrants who were not directly eligible for the program would still benefit from his work.
“Even if somebody didn’t sign up, they’re still much less likely to be subject to deportation,” Obama said. “That’s because we’ve changed our enforcement priorities in a formal way.”