In his first public address on immigration since putting promises on hold to take executive action, President Obama on Thursday said he would appeal to the American public in rallying support behind immigration reform. Seeking to reassure elected officials and Latino groups that he would ease back on his administration’s deportation policies by the end of the year, Obama vowed to keep his promise by taking broad steps to protect immigrants.
"I am not going to give up this fight until it gets done," Obama said in remarks before the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute Thursday night. "This is not a question of if, but when."
Advocates expressed outrage last month after Obama pledged to take executive action on immigration by the end of the summer, only to later put his vows on hold until after the Nov. 4 elections.
Obama, who last appeared before the institute's annual gala in 2011, faced a crucial test Thursday before caucus members who have been critical of the president for caving to political pressures.
"We look to you Mr. President for big, bold, unapologetic administrative relief for millions who are waiting," Sen. Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, told the crowd in introducing Obama on stage.
Advocates hoped Obama would extend deportation protections to certain groups of undocumented immigrants, including those who have U.S.-born children or strong roots in the country. Depending on the scope of action the president was willing to take, advocates expected Obama to shield millions of people from facing threats of deportation. Instead, groups say as many as 70,000 could risk being removed from the country because of the delay.
The Obama administration deported 438,421 people in 2013, a record number that surpasses the milestone of 2 million total deportations during the president’s time in office, according to data released by the Department of Homeland Security Wednesday.
The record deportations have earned Obama a reputation among prominent Latino groups as a “deporter-in-chief.” Angered by the delay on executive action, protesters gathered outside the annual gala in Washington Thursday, voicing their frustration in chants calling on the president to keep their families together. One heckler made it inside the event and interrupted the president's address midway through.
"I know there's deep frustration in many communities," the president said. "I understand that frustration because I share it."
Obama seemed to temper expectations by saying he needed broad support from the American public in order for executive action to last beyond his final term in office. "Anything I can do can be reversed by the next president," Obama said. "I’m going to need you have my back. I’m going to need you keep putting pressure on Congress."
Though intended to shield vulnerable Democrats in the upcoming midterms, the delay came with the considerable risk that it would do just the opposite. According to a poll released last month by NBC News/The Wall Street Journal/Telemundo, 47% of Hispanic voters said they did not approve of President Obama’s performance, a dramatic drop from 62% in April 2013. Meanwhile less than three in 10 Latinos said they are “very positive” about the president, the poll found.
Voting groups have said the president’s delay has slowed momentum in getting both Latinos registered to vote and willing to turn out in the polls on a non-presidential year.
Blaming congressional Republicans for sinking legislative efforts on immigration reform, President Obama urged Latinos to show up on election day and to keep lawmakers in check on immigration issues.
"In the end, DREAMer is more than just a title, its a pretty good description of what it means to be an American," Obama said.