President Obama’s striking town hall meeting on immigration

Protester at 2010 immigration reform rally

Protester at 2010 immigration reform rally

Yesterday, President Barack Obama participated in a town hall meeting on immigration, hosted by Jose Diaz-Barlart of Telemundo network and held before an audience at Florida International University in Miami. The Obama town hall meeting, broadcast on Telemundo and MSNBC, was striking for several reasons:

First, Diaz-Balart (who was shrill and seemed to be yelling much of the time) and some members of the audience displayed a shocking lack of knowledge about how the United States government works. They need to reread their U.S. Constitution, or at least watch Schoolhouse Rock. For example, Diaz-Balart seemed exasperated at the Obama administration that a federal judge in Texas has temporarily blocked Obama’s recent executive action on immigration (which would suspend many deportations in order to keep families together) from taking place. Diaz-Balart asked Obama:

How long will it take?  Because a lot of people are asking.  They said, we were 24 hours away from registering for the expanded DACA and just months from DAPA.  This happens 12 hours before.  What’s going to happen now? How long is it going to take?  And, again, a lot of the questions are, was the President caught by surprise?  And why is it taking so long?  This is what we’re getting, Mr. President.

President Obama had to explain the separation of powers that is central to our Constitution:

What I’m saying is, is that of course we weren’t surprised.  I’ve got a bunch of lawyers, we saw the judge who was rendering the opinion.  The fact that we weren’t surprised doesn’t mean we can stop the judge from rendering an opinion.  It means that we then go forward in the appeal process. That’s how the legal system works.

And we have asked –- first and foremost, we have asked for a stay.  What a stay means, by the way, for the non-lawyers, is simply that whatever the judge thinks, it shouldn’t stop us from going ahead and implementing.  The first step is to go before that same judge and say, judge, what you said is wrong, rethink it.  He may not agree with that.

The next step is to go to a higher court, the Fifth Circuit. That will take a couple of months for us to file that and argue that before the Fifth Circuit.  We expect to win in the Fifth Circuit, and if we don’t, then we’ll take it up from there.

Likewise, after one audience member from Haiti spoke, Diaz-Balart asked:

On a bigger question that kind of [sic] Boris brings up, to extrapolate his case, is some people wonder, well, are you focusing mostly on the undocumented population?  And through executive orders, could you not also include those that are here, that are participating already?

Again, President Obama had to remind everyone that he is a President, not a King, and that the Constitution provides for the Legislative Branch to make the laws that govern the United States:

Here’s the thing.  I was always very clear about this, even when I made the first announcement about the executive actions.  The reason I’m confident about our legal position in what we did with DACA, which was already in place since 2012, what we’re now proposing in terms of expanding DACA, and also for the parents of those who qualified for DACA — the reason I’m confident is that we could take those steps under my powers of prosecutorial discretion.

If, in fact, we were completely just rewriting the immigration laws, then actually the other side would have a case, because we can’t violate statutes.  We can’t violate laws that are already in place.  What we can do is make choices to implement those laws.  That’s what we’ve done with DACA and that’s what we’ve proposed with the expansion of DACA and DAPA.

In order for us to do most of the work that Boris refers to in terms of expanding opportunities, for example, to say to any young person who has got an advanced degree in math and science and engineering, which we know we’re going to need, even as we try to get more and more young Americans to go into those fields –- in order for us to do that, we’re going to need a congressional law to be passed.  I don’t have all the authorities that are necessary in order to get some of those things done.

Second, some audience members, perhaps succumbing to their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to address President Obama directly, starting asking detailed questions about their family’s immigration situation. Obviously, President Obama is not an employee of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and is not in a position to answer every specific question that may require study of thick case files. Again, some folks need to read the Constitution. The President is the Chief Executive of the country, which means that he or she delegates almost all initial detailed work to public servants who specialize in such matters.

Third, and perhaps most striking, was how forceful and animated President Obama was, and the degree to which he called out Republicans — sometimes by name — for holding up the immigration reform process. Obama first pointed out that:

One of the biggest challenges that we had on a lot of these issues was what’s called the filibuster in the Senate.  Even when we had a majority in the Senate, in order to get things passed, we had to get some Republican votes.  And if it were not for that filibuster process where — by the way, it’s not in the Constitution, but the habits in the Senate have gotten so bad where you’ve got to get 60 votes for everything.  As a consequence of that, things like immigration reform, that if I had just needed a simple majority of Democrats we could have gotten done, we could not get done in those circumstances.

Then, Diaz-Balart read a question from someone over social media: “Why did Democrats and the GOP play political Ping Pong with immigration when millions of American families suffer as a result?” Upon that, President Obama was adamant:

José, wait, wait, wait.  I appreciate the applause.  Let me just say, that’s just not true — the notion that Democrats and Republicans played political Ping Pong.  (Applause.)

Democrats have consistently stood on the side of comprehensive immigration reform.  (Applause.)  Democrats have provided strong majorities across the board for comprehensive immigration reform.  And you do a disservice when you suggest that, ah, nobody was focused on this, because then you don’t know who’s fighting for you and who’s fighting against you.

And the fact of the matter is that the Democratic Party consistently has, in its platforms, in its conventions, has taken a strong stand that we need to fix a broken immigration system.  And the blockage has been very specific on one side.

Now, to their credit, there are Republicans, a handful, who have agreed with us.  That’s how we got it passed through the Senate.  But let’s not be confused about why we don’t have comprehensive immigration reform right now.  It’s very simple:  The Republican Speaker of the House, John Boehner, refused to call the bill.  Had he called the bill, the overwhelming majority of Democrats and a handful of Republicans would have provided a majority in order to get that done.  (Applause.)

Kudos to President Obama from changing his rhetoric from “both sides do it” or “some in Congress are creating this problem” to calling out the Republicans in Congress, and specifically House Speaker John Boehner and members of his caucus, for holding up immigration reform. Hopefully, those in the audience learned a thing or two.

Photo by Sasha Kimel, used under Creative Commons license.

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