MIAMI – A defiant President Obama pledged on Wednesday to do everything in his power to overhaul the immigration system and veto anything that stood in his way. At the same time, Obama challenged voters concerned about the issue to hold Republicans accountable for killing reform efforts.
“In the short term, if Mr. 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. “I will veto that vote, because I am absolutely confident that what we're doing is the right thing to do.”
Obama’s remarks came at an MSNBC/Telemundo town hall hosted by José Díaz-Balart at Florida International University, where the president took questions in English and Spanish about immigration policy. The president met earlier in the day with top immigration activists to discuss his next steps as well.
At the town hall, Obama predicted the nation’s rapidly shifting demographics – the Latino vote could potentially double by 2030 -- would compel Republicans eventually to pass comprehensive reform that would grant legal status to undocumented immigrants.
“Over, the long term, this is going to get solved because at some point there's going to be a President Rodriguez or there's going to be a President Chen,” Obama said to loud applause from the audience. “The country is a nation of immigrants, and ultimately it will reflect who we are and its politics are going to reflect who we are.”
The president’s immigration agenda is currently under pressure from the legislative and judicial branches alike. Republican governors are suing to block executive action by Obama that would protect up to 5 million undocumented immigrants from deportation, and a federal judge in Texas halted the new program this month just as it was about to go into effect.
In Congress, Republicans are demanding Obama sign legislation funding the Department of Homeland Security that would also block the White House's action and unwind a 2012 program to protect young undocumented immigrants, commonly referred to as DREAMers.
The president sounded confident he would prevail on both fronts. On Wednesday afternoon, Senate leaders announced a bipartisan plan to separate the immigration measure from the funding bill, which would prevent a shutdown of DHS, but the House has yet to back down. Obama at the town hall urged Congress to separate the two issues.
"Instead of trying to hold hostage funds 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," he said.
On the judicial front, Obama said the White House expects to win as the case makes its way up to higher courts.
“We have appealed it very aggressively,” Obama said. “We're going to be as aggressive as we can because not only do we know that the law is on our side, but history is also on our side.”
While Obama said he would “pursue all legal avenues” to improve the immigration system in his final two years, he noted that such moves would only be temporary and that Congress would have to pass a bill to provide undocumented immigrants with permanent legal status.
“There’s only so many shortcuts,” he said. “Ultimately we have to change the law and people have to remain focused on that and the way that happens is by voting.”
Obama took a hard partisan line in his answers, urging activists to focus their pressure on the GOP-controlled House, whose leaders publicly refused to take up a bipartisan Senate bill that passed in 2013 or come up with any alternative of their own. Rebutting complaints that he didn’t put enough effort into passing legislation in his first two years in office while Democrats controlled Congress, Obama blamed the financial crisis for taking up his time initially and Republican filibusters for blocking it down the line.
Obama appeared visibly annoyed answering a question about whether both parties were “playing political ping pong” with the issue.
“Democrats have consistently stood on the side of comprehensive immigration reform, Democrats have provided strong majorities across the board for comprehensive immigration reform, and you do a disservice when you suggest that nobody was focused on this, because then you don’t know who’s fighting for you and who’s fighting against you,” he said.
Obama won the Hispanic vote in 2012 by 71%-29% over Republican challenger Mitt Romney, a margin that helped push key swing states like Nevada, Colorado and Florida into the Democratic column.
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Obama challenged Republican 2016 prospects like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a longtime supporter of immigration reform, to take their own party to task rather than criticize the his use of executive actions.
“I appreciate Mr. Bush being concerned about immigration reform,” he said. “I would suggest that what he do is talk to the speaker of the House and members of his party, because the fact of the matter is that even after we passed bipartisan legislation in the Senate, I gave the Republicans a year and a half -- a year and a half! -- to just call the bill.”
"There’s only so many shortcuts. Ultimately we have to change the law and people have to remain focused on that and the way that happens is by voting."'
Turning to the broader Republican 2016 field, the president called on voters to press candidates for complete answers as to how they would handle the undocumented population currently living in the U.S.
“When they start asking for votes, the first question should be, ‘Do you really intend to deport 11 million people? And if not, what is your plan to make sure that they have the ability to have a legal status, stay with their families, and ultimately contribute to the United States of America?’” he said.
The points of the event that drew the loudest responses from the crowd were Obama's direct calls for Congress to pass comprehensive immigration.
For Blanca Gamez, the forum was a sign that the president was at least listening. The 25-year-old college student from Las Vegas was a guest at the Oval Office earlier this month as a symbol of the DREAMers who had benefited from the president’s executive actions. She had one request: Speak directly with the community.
“I said, ‘Mr. President, you need to leave the White House press room. You’re the leader in this, this is your executive action. You need to be the face and you need to showcase to the community that you’re there for them,'” Gamez recalled.