NASHVILLE — President Barack Obama spoke here Tuesday in an effort to enlist support for his executive action last month to defer the deportations of up to 4 million immigrants living in the country illegally.
In brief remarks at a Nashville community center, Obama defended a plan that has provoked outrage among congressional Republicans, who say he lacks the authority to enact such large-scale immigration policy without legislative action. Twenty states have thus far joined a lawsuit challenging the president’s actions.
Obama reiterated his challenge to Congress, which has thus far been unable to enact comprehensive immigration reform.
“When members of Congress question whether I have the authority to do this, I have one answer: yes, and pass a bill,” Obama said. “Nobody is going to have a path to actual citizenship until we get a law passed.”
The president delivered his remarks at Casa Azafran, a two-year-old immigrant community center located five miles from the city’s distinctive honky tonks and not far from the sleek strip of recording studios known as Music Row.
Obama noted that Nashville “is not what normally comes to mind” when discussing immigration. But White House officials picked the nation’s country music capital as the site of the president’s latest remarks on immigration because it is home to one of the fastest growing migrant populations in the United States, accounting for more than half of Nashville’s growth since 2000.
Immigrants now make up about 12 percent of the city’s population, a diverse group that includes Hispanic immigrants as well as a large number of Kurdish, Somali and Burmese refugees. An estimated 50,000 immigrants living in the city do not have legal status.
Nashville’s Mayor Karl Dean has responded to the spike in immigration by adopting a series of new government programs and services to assist the city’s new arrivals, praising the president’s actions. The mayor has pledged to open “new American corners” in the city’s libraries and community centers to assist immigrants seeking to benefit from Obama’s executive order.
But at the Nashville event, as Obama took questions for over an hour, immigrants expressed concern about what the future holds.
Martha Lugo, an immigrant living illegally in Nashville, said she believes she will qualify for deferred deportation under Obama’s plan.
“What is going to happen if the next administration decides not to follow the executive action?” she asked. Lugo said immigrants who did try to qualify under Obama’s plan could be drawing attention to themselves that might result in being deported under a new administration.
“It’s true that a future administration might try to reverse some of our policies,” Obama said. But he said that no president could deport 11 million people.
“It would be foolish to try, as well as wrong to try,” he said. “Any future administration that tries…would not have the support of the American people.”
However, Nashville, like the rest of the nation, remains deeply divided on the issue of immigration, and the continued backlash against Obama’s plan was apparent here.
Approximately 100 protesters waited for the president, one holding a sign that said “No’ amnesty for illegals! Muslims, get ‘Out’ of ‘Our’ country.”
Tennessee’s lieutenant governor Ron Ramsey blasted the president: “If (Obama) expects support for his brazen..unconstitutional action here in Tennessee, I’m afraid he will be sorely disappointed.” And Tennessee Rep Diane Black noted that more than 200,000 in Tennessee are out of work, saying “Obama is putting the interests of those who have broken our laws ahead of them.”
The speech comes less than two weeks after Obama issued an executive order to overhaul what he has called the nation’s broken immigration system. The measure will defer deportation and provide work permits to an estimated 5 million immigrants living in the country illegally, many whom have relatives that are U.S. citizens.
The Nashville immigration speech is the president’s third on the issue since Obama first announced his executive actions in an address to the nation on Nov. 20. Obama has also made speeches in Las Vegas and Chicago late last month.
The remarks come on the same day the Senate Intelligence Committee released a 538-page report detailing new allegations of torture by the CIA.
The president’s remarks also come two days before government funding is due to expire — a looming deadline some conservatives have urged Republicans to capitalize on in a forced showdown to protest the immigration actions.
Obama finished speaking about 3:40 p.m. CST, but the motorcade did not head straight for the airport.
Food came first. Obama stopped at La Hacienda, a taqueria nearby, where he ordered tacos and greeted those who had gathered for a watch party. Air Force One left the airport about 5:45 p.m. CST.