Likening immigration reform to the great civil-rights movements in U.S. history, President Barack Obama vowed during a brief visit to Miami on Wednesday to veto any legislation undoing his executive order protecting from deportation up to 5 million people who are in the country illegally.
“In the short term, if Mr. [Mitch] McConnell, the leader of the Senate, and the Speaker of the House, John Boehner, want to have a vote on whether what I’m doing is legal or not, they can have that vote,” Obama said, almost daring congressional leaders to challenge him. “I will veto that vote because I’m absolutely confident that what we’re doing is the right thing to do.”
His veto threat was met with rousing applause from the friendly audience assembled at Florida International University, where Obama taped an hour-long town hall-style meeting hosted by Miami-based Telemundo and sister network MSNBC. The event, moderated by bilingual anchor José Díaz-Balart, was later nationally televised on both networks.
McConnell, of Kentucky, wants a stand-alone bill blocking Obama’s 2014 actions, which were supposed to take effect this week but have been stalled by a Texas federal judge. Boehner, of Ohio, is waiting for the Senate’s move, after House Republicans passed a budget for the Homeland Security Department that wouldn’t pay for the president’s plan.
Obama defied Republican leaders while trying to persuade undocumented immigrants — who would be covered by his actions but are now in limbo — that his administration has not given up.
“We have appealed very aggressively. We’re going to be as aggressive as we can,” he said. “In the meantime, what we said to Republicans is, ‘Instead of trying to hold hostage funding for the Department of Homeland Security, which is so important for our national security, fund that and let’s get on with actually passing comprehensive immigration reform.’”
Republicans characterized Obama’s Miami visit as a strictly political move intent not on resolving a problem but on bashing the GOP to Hispanic voters, a crucial bloc in Florida and other swing states.
“President Obama tells Americans he wants to work with Republicans, but his actions don’t live up to his rhetoric,” Republican National Committee spokeswoman Ali Pardo said in a statement. “And as the President struggles to defend his executive action that was blocked by a federal court, his partisan campaign stops aren’t making things better.”
There is little chance that Congress will act during the remainder of Obama’s final term, with the 2016 presidential campaign season already under way and Republicans angered that the president has wielded executive authority in what they consider an overreach. Obama nevertheless insisted: “I haven’t given up passing it while I’m president.”
Like other Spanish-language interviewers have done in high-profile settings, Díaz-Balart reminded Obama that he could have made an immigration push during his first two years in office, when Democrats controlled the House and Senate.
“I don’t know if anybody remembers, José, that when I took office and I had a majority we had the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression,” Obama said. “It wasn’t as if I was just sitting back not doing anything.”
Still, several questions from immigrants in the audience or through social media centered on why the president hasn’t done more — and why federal immigration authorities have continued to deport people who do not have a serious criminal record and are not supposed to be a priority to remove from the country.
“Every time you have a big bureaucracy and you’ve changed policy, there is going to be one or two or three instances where people apparently haven’t gotten the message,” Obama said. “But if you talk to the head of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson, he is absolutely committed to this new prioritization. More importantly, I, the president of the United States, am committed … We are going to be focusing on criminals; we’re going to be focusing on potential felons.”
In the audience were young people who benefited from Obama’s first executive action in 2012 when he granted temporary legal status to nearly 800,000 immigrants brought into the country illegally as children. One of them was 26-year-old Nancy Palacios of Tampa, who said her parents would also be eligible for protection under Obama’s second executive action, which is now tied up in court.
“I go out of town a lot and worry about not coming home to my parents. I want to have that peace of mind,” said Palacios, who called the president’s message optimistic. “The victory won’t be fulfilled until my parents have their work permits.”
One of the few people who got to ask a question at the event was Eric Narvaez Alvarado, 26, a military veteran who served in Afghanistan. When he returned, the country he served was trying to deport his mother to Mexico.
“It’s like a slap in the face,” Narvaez Alvarado said after the meeting, in which he told Obama that his mother had been the one who signed off on his enlistment when he was 17. Esther Alvarado, who accompanied her son to FIU, said she knew that “in his heart” Obama wants to help.
“I kind of believe in him,” she said. “I have faith in him.”
Not everyone was pleased with Obama’s visit. A handful of protesters held signs outside FIU, including one that read, “Obama Jihadist Coward,” and another, by the hardline Cuban exile group Vigilia Mambisa, that read, “Freedom for Cuba/Helping Castro is a Crime.”
As he stepped off Air Force One, Obama was greeted at Miami International Airport by Florida Gov. Rick Scott and Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez. Scott, a Republican, gave the president a black Miami Marlins baseball cap, in honor of the 2017 Major League Baseball All-Star Game that will be held there, the governor said beforehand.
The only local member of Congress in attendance was Rep. Frederica Wilson, a Miami Gardens Democrat, who flew with the president. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, the Republican whose district includes FIU, was invited to the event late Monday but was denied an Air Force One seat after he could only find early-morning flights that he said would have required missing a full day of votes.
A spokesman for Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said the Republican was invited at 11:21 a.m. Tuesday, but the email was caught by a spam filter and her office didn’t see it. A spokesman for Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, brother of the town-hall moderator and a leading GOP proponent of immigration reform, said he was not invited.
Obama called on more people — youth in particular — to vote, and he urged immigrant advocates to keep telling personal stories that hopefully “softens the hearts of people who right now are blocking us from solving some of these problems.”
“Every major social movement, every bit of progress in this country — whether it’s been the workers’ rights movement or the civil rights movement, or the women’s rights movement — every single bit of that progress has required us to fight and push,” he said. “You don’t get everything right away, and then you push some more, and that’s how the country continually gets better.”
Eventually, he concluded, politicians will rewrite immigration laws, “because at some point, there’s going to be a President Rodriguez, or there’s going to be a President Chin.”
“The country is a nation of immigrants,” he said.
Miami Herald writers Kathleen Devaney, Rebeca Piccardo and Rebecca Savransky contributed to this report.
REACTIONS FROM THE “TOWN HALL” WITH PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA
Eric Narvaez Alvarado, 26, who served in the army in Afghanistan, said he is hoping President Barack Obama can help keep his mother from being deported.
“My 18th birthday was spent in boot camp,” he said. “On my 21st birthday I was in Afghanistan, and I was actually shot at on my birthday, but I was barely missed by inches on my head. So I dealt with all that and then I came back from Afghanistan.”
Upon returning home, he said, he learned the federal immigration authorities were trying to deport his mother, Esther Alvarez, to Mexico.
“I didn’t have anyone there, I was by myself. I showed up to America with none of my family to be there,” he said. “Its like a slap in the face, because here I am serving this country and here is this country deporting my mother who actually signed for me to join the military.”
He said he appreciated that Obama came to Miami to talk to about immigration, with so many other issues in the country. His mother, who also attended the event with Obama, said she knows he wants to help people like her.
“I kind of believe in him,” she said. “I have faith in him.”
Narvaez Alvarado said he still doesn’t know what’s going to happen, but he’s going to keep fighting for his mother.
“I feel like our situation is way different than others because I’m a veteran,” he said. “I served this country, I actually gave my body, literally gave my body for this country.”
Samuel Vilchez, 17, is an immigrant from Venezuela. He said he got political asylum to stay in the United States after he was politically persecuted in Venezuela. He said gunmen had fired shots at his home. Next year, he’ll be going to Princeton University. And he said he attended Obama’s speech to stand in support of the president’s executive action.
“We strongly believe it’s a step forward in our fight for a comprehensive immigration reform,” he said.
Vilchez was with the organization, Mi Familia Vota, which advocates for comprehensive immigration reform. He said he is fortunate to have been able to come to this country and attend college. He said he wants everyone to be able to have the same experiences he had.
“I do not believe that legal barriers should present a barrier to those people to reach their American dream,” he said. “I feel like any young person should have the same opportunities that I had.”
Marleine Bastien, executive director of Haitian Women of Miami, also attended the speech. She was a contributor to a report released earlier this month urging the Obama administration to stop deporting Haitians with a criminal background until conditions in Haiti improve. She said she was impressed by the president’s strong support and emphasized that his executive order needs to be passed.
“It is our responsibility and the responsibility of Congress to pass laws that protect immigrants that have been sacrificing themselves for this country — to pass a law to protect them from deportation,” she said.
Bastien said Obama’s executive action is a step in the right direction.
“The immigrants are here, they contribute,” she said.
Mark B. Rosenberg, president of Florida International University, said he was satisfied with the questions that were asked and the answers that were given during the town hall meeting. But he said he left feeling discontent about the status of the country’s current immigration issues.
“I’m dissatisfied that we can’t get the Congress and the President together on this critical issue, and that’s the part that leaves me with a lot of anxiety about where our county is going and how we’re going to get there,” he said.
Nicolas and Esteban Wulff, 24-year-old twins who attend FIU, originally came to the United States from Colombia when they were 5 years old.
The brothers who are DACA students, said one of the reasons they chose to attend FIU, is because it was one of the first schools in Florida to offer in-state tuition to undocumented students. The two have worked in the past to help pass the instate tuition law for DACA students at a statewide level.
In November, Obama announced two programs to protect immigrants in the country illegally from deportation. In the first, Obama expanded eligibility for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program first launched in 2012 by eliminating age caps and allowing immigrants who arrived as recently as 2010 to apply. The second program, known as DAPA and being challenged in federal court, would extended protections to parents of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents. Both groups would be protected from deportation for three years and get work permits.
“The issues discussed at the meeting impact us directly,” Esteban Wulff said, pointing to himself and his brother. For that reason, Wulff agrees with many of the points that the President discussed.
“For the most part, I think everyone is aware that the Republican Party is the one that has been impeding the approval of a large-scale bill. The President and other democrats have been urging the Republicans and are trying to pull as many strings as they can toward bettering the lives of undocumented immigrants and just immigrants in general,” he said.
Nancy Palacios, 26, drove with four other people on behalf of a group called Faith in Florida from Tampa Wednesday morning to attend the town hall.
Overall, she thinks Obama is sending out a message of optimism to the undocumented community.
“It’s important that the president was willing to come out and address the undocumented community,” she said. “Now we can take the message back to the community.”
Palacios and her sisters were DACA approved and her parents are DAPA eligible because their younger brother is a U.S. citizen. Hearing the president speak renewed her hopes that her parents can actually have a life after 20 years of living as undocumented.
“I go out of town a lot and I worry about not come home to my parents. I want to have that peace of mind,” she said. “The victory won’t be fulfilled until my parents have their work permits.”
Sarah Pitney, 26, works in FIU’s immigration law clinic, helping undocumented immigrants fill out their DACA paperwork and even help people who are detained and going through a removal proceeding.
Pitney, who wants to continue helping the undocumented community as an immigration lawyer, said the president got defensive at certain questions.
“He was very defensive. When he was asked about the timing and control in Congress,” she said. “But he explained how he was digging us out of hue he largest recession since 1929.”
Pitney said that her biggest criticism of the president is when he advises whoever comes next to ignore the short term politics and focus on a long term solution.
“What caught my attention is that DACA is a short term solution and he could have done something long term.”