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Obama explains why DREAMers' parents were left out of exec action

"It was a legal constraint on our authority, it was not because we did not care about those parents," Obama said of the parents of DREAMers.
President Barack Obama answers questions about his recent executive actions on immigration on Dec. 9, 2014, at Casa Azafran in Nashville, Tenn. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)
President Barack Obama answers questions about his recent executive actions on immigration on Dec. 9, 2014, at Casa Azafran in Nashville, Tenn.

President Obama's executive action last month to shield millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation amounted to the most far-reaching changes to U.S. immigration policy in decades. But for some, it fell short. The parents of DREAMers, young immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, were notably omitted from the list of millions who could soon seek temporary relief, to the dismay of families who hoped to remain together.

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Now for the first time since the announcement, the president has a detailed explanation why those parents were left out. With his jacket off and sleeves rolled up, Obama held an intimate town hall at the Casa Azafrán community center in Nashville, Tennessee, where he explained not just the lengths of his authority to change immigration policy, but also his legal limitations.

"It was a legal constraint on our authority, it was not because we did not care about those parents," Obama explained to a crowd of about 70 people. "And I know that there are a lot of DREAM Act kids who are concerned that their parents may still not qualify."

Modeled after a similar measure from 2012 that granted DREAMers work permits and allowed them to temporarily remain in the U.S. -- known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program -- Obama's latest actions apply to undocumented immigrants who don't have a criminal record, have lived in the U.S. for at least five years and have an American-born child. The measures mean three years of relief for as many as 5 million undocumented immigrants. But without firm roots in U.S. soil, Obama said the parents of DREAMers were legally left out.

“The challenge we had -- in the minds of the Office of Legal Counsel -- was we’ve already exempted the young people through DACA. And then you boot-strap off of that -- the capacity to exempt their parents as well -- you’re not rooted originally in either somebody who is a citizen or a legal permanent resident," Obama said.

Tuesday marked Obama’s third appeal for public support for the executive actions. But unlike previous stops -- the first in Las Vegas and another in Chicago -- Obama’s choice of Nashville drew focus on a southern city that only recently began seeing its immigrant population boom.

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Just six years ago, a pro-immigration rally in the heart of honky-tonk land might have been unlikely. In the same year that Obama was starting his first term in the Oval Office, Nashville residents were considering a voter referendum that would have made English the official language in the metro area. Voters shot down the measure by a wide margin -- 57% voting it down, compared to 43% who voted in favor -- marking a clear shift in the region's acceptance of its changing demographics.

Local immigration leader Renata Soto spoke to Nashville’s growing diversity while introducing the president Tuesday, and how her city is no longer simply about "cool cowboy boots" and hot chicken festivals. “The president finds inspiration in the people of Nashville who have learned from the lessons of the past and are striving to build a truly inclusive city for all native-born to the immigrant neighbor moving forward,” Soto said.

Nearly 12% of Nashville residents are foreign-born, nearly double what was recorded a decade earlier, according to the latest U.S. Census data. Beyond the greater Nashville metro area, there are an estimated 130,000 undocumented immigrants currently living in Tennessee. And together with Obama’s previous executive order offering deferred action to undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children, as much as 43% of Tennessee’s undocumented population could qualify for relief, according to analysis from the Pew Research Center.

RELATED: Americans split on Obama's immigration action

The president's journey to the South comes amid growing opposition at both the state and federal level from Republicans who say Obama's actions are outside his authority. Those elements seek to stifle the president's measures before the application process is even expected to begin, complicating the already-daunting task ahead for local governments to implement a system for millions of eligible immigrants to sign up for relief.

On Tuesday, Obama sought to calm fears from within the immigrant community that coming out of the shadows and applying for relief would put them in danger if a future administration reverses the actions and uses the rolls to deport undocumented immigrants.

“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,” Obama said.