President Obama flew to a red state with a growing immigrant population Tuesday to sell his controversial actions delaying deportation for millions of people living illegally in the U.S. as a "net plus" for local economies and communities.
In a small, packed room at a community center, the president acknowledged the heated debate over his move and argued that cities like Nashville would benefit from the youth, vitality and diversity that immigrants bring.
"Generation after generation, immigrants have been a net plus to our economy and a net plus to our society," Obama said. "We can't deport 11 million people, and it would be foolish to try — as well as, I think, wrong for us to try."
The visit was Obama's third stop in recent weeks on a campaign to promote his plan to temporarily ease the threat of deportation for nearly 5 million people, about half of the 11 million or so people in the U.S. illegally. The president's tour has a dual purpose: shoring up his program against critics who've dubbed it an abuse of power and ensuring the program gets off the ground without the sort of self-created troubles that dogged last year's launch of his landmark healthcare law.
In the series of speeches, the White House is returning to its preferred political strategy of going outside the Washington Beltway to try to rally backing from community leaders.
In Nashville, Obama highlighted Mayor Karl Dean's efforts to incorporate new arrivals through a new city Office of New Americans, noting he'd created a White House task force with a similar aim.
Obama argued he was pushed to take executive action after months of delay on immigration legislation in Congress. He pitched his plan as a boon to the economy, even in communities far from the immigrant hubs of Los Angeles, New York and border towns. Nashville has seen thousands of immigrants from Latin America, Southeast Asia and Africa settle here in recent years, drawn by the region's relatively strong economy and affordable housing. Foreign-born residents now make up about 12% of the population in the Nashville area.
Obama's trip Tuesday offered a flavor of the impassioned debate he is diving into. As Obama spoke at Casa Azafran, an outreach center that assists immigrants with social services, supporters outside held a large banner reading, "Gracias Obama." Steps away, protesters waved signs reading, "Defund amnesty" and "Obama is killing America."
"More than 200,000 Tennesseans remain out of work, but rather than prioritize their plight, the president is putting the interests of those who have broken our laws ahead of them," U.S. Rep. Diane Black (R-Tenn.) said in a statement before Obama's arrival. "This is wrong, and the president does not have the authority to change our immigration laws without Congress."
Obama acknowledged his critics, at times casting them as misguided and fearful of change or brushing off their concerns with a few lighthearted jokes.
"They're pretty sure I'm an illegal immigrant," Obama said of some critics, adding quickly, "That was a joke."
While Obama continues his speaking tour, White House officials have fanned out around the country for briefings with mayors, immigrant advocates, community officials and church leaders. Cabinet secretaries will also join the road show in the coming weeks, and celebrities are being recruited to promote the programs, according to a White House official, who outlined details of the effort on condition of anonymity.
The official said Homeland Security Department officials planned more than 100 public education meetings in December, even before applications become available in the new year. The goal is to spread, in a community often targeted by scams, accurate information about costs, timing and eligibility.
"We are gonna make sure that families, people who are, you know, working and responsible in their communities, are not prioritized for deportation," Obama said in an interview with Telemundo, according to a transcript. "So the likelihood of their deportation's gonna be much lower."
At Casa Azafran, Obama took several questions from the group of mostly advocates and others affiliated with the community center, at times trying to relieve worries that a future president might undo his temporary reprieve and leave those who've registered for the program suddenly subject to deportation.
Obama said he was confident that such a move would be so unpopular, no future administration would try it.
If effective, the campaign may also help mobilize much-needed defenders of the most controversial executive action of Obama's presidency.
More than a dozen states have filed a lawsuit challenging Obama's actions, and Republicans in Congress are looking for ways to block it before it gets off the ground. Congress was moving toward a deal Tuesday to fund the government through September, but pull the plug in mid-February on funding for the Department of Homeland Security, which includes the nation's immigration and border patrol agencies.
The White House has criticized the maneuver but has not issued a veto threat.