President Obama's plan to spare millions from the threat of deportation shifted Friday from the political trappings of Washington to an emotional rally at a Las Vegas high school gymnasium, where he attempted to put a human face on his divisive immigration policy and win over public opinion.
Having delivered on a promise to act unilaterally, Obama is betting he can harness the presidential bully pulpit to convince Americans of the merits of his plan, even as Republicans tried just as hard Friday to unite the country against it.
Obama addressed nearly 1,600 students and supporters at Del Sol High School at a pep-rally-like event where he appealed to Americans' sense of compassion and morality, at times invoking religious themes and highlighting the personal struggle of one immigrant, Astrid Silva.
“Part of what makes America exceptional is that we welcome exceptional people like Astrid,” the president said after an introduction by the 26-year-old. “It makes us stronger. It makes us vibrant and dynamic. It makes us hopeful. It continues the promise that here in America, you can make it if you try.”
Silva, whose story was told in a 2013 Los Angeles Times profile, arrived in the U.S. as a 4-year-old, carrying her Ken doll as she crossed the Rio Grande in a raft with her mom.
Her parents worked hard — her dad was a landscaper — and she went on to become a star high school graduate before realizing her future was limited because she had no legal standing to live and work, or even drive, in the U.S.
As a young adult, Silva began writing letters about her situation and the constant fear of deportation. She slipped the handwritten notes to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid when he was back home in Nevada, drawing attention from one of the most powerful members of Congress. Silva became “my pal,” as the senator likes to say. Later, she sent one to Obama.
As Silva introduced the president Friday, the charismatic young woman recalled how her “Abuelito Reid” — Spanish for grandfather — had invited her to sit in the chamber as the Senate passed a bipartisan immigration bill last year. She blamed House Republicans for refusing to act on the legislation and praised the president for acting despite the congressional gridlock.
“This announcement will change so many lives, including my own,” said Silva, her voice cracking. “There are so many families in the same situation. Thanks to President Obama's action, they will go to bed without the fear of being awoken by a knock at the door.”
Republicans, meanwhile, are hoping to access other emotions driving the immigration debate, including many Americans' discontent with the president and opposition to liberalizing immigration policies for the estimated 11 million people living and working illegally in the U.S.
More than 2,000 miles away from the Las Vegas rally, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) stood in the gilded hallway outside his Capitol office Friday, surrounded by a complement of American flags, to deliver his first public rebuke of the president for choosing to “sabotage” any remaining hope of a legislative solution.
But absent from Boehner's reaction — and that of most Republicans thus far — was a legislative alternative to the president's immigration policy or a GOP answer to what should be done for people like Silva.
Instead, the party is focusing, as Boehner did, on what they see as a provocative presidential act —which they say cast Obama as “emperor” and “king.” They say the real issue is a president who is exceeding his authority. It's a view they say the American public shares.
“President Obama has turned a deaf ear to the people that he was elected, and we were elected, to serve. But we will not do that,” Boehner said. “In the days ahead, the people's House will rise to this challenge.”
In many ways, the national conversation over immigration has begun to resemble those of the past, as Americans debate how far they are willing to go to welcome newcomers.
Outside the gymnasium, that debate was in full swing Friday as protesters squared off. The familiar Spanish-language chant by immigration supporters of “si, se puede” — “yes, we can” — was rebutted by bullhorn shouts calling Obama the “worst president ever elected by the American people.”
The Nevada trip is just the start of a multi-state tour, as Obama sets out to explain his executive action, beginning with a Sunday interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos.
The next stop will be Tuesday in Chicago, where Obama plans to meet with immigration advocates and other community leaders.
But the limits of Obama's action were also clear at the event. One man shouted out about those who would not qualify for relief under the president's plan.
Obama acknowledged the man's statement, as the crowd applauded in support of a president who had been heckled throughout the year for his inaction on the issue.
“This is a first step,” the president said. “It's not the only step.”