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President Barack Obama promises reprieve with immigration reform

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

While President Barack Obama reassured a small audience of immigrants gathered in a Nashville community center Tuesday that his recent executive order would provide a reprieve from deportation, he also delivered what, by now, has become a regular challenge to Congress:

"Pass a bill," he said.

But efforts to pass comprehensive immigration reform have thus far failed to succeed in a sharply divided Congress. And, as Tennessee's congressional delegation made clear during the Nashville presidential visit, the rancor over the president's actions last month giving up to 4 million immigrants a temporary safety net may make the chances over a bipartisan measure even worse.

Republican Rep. Diane Black pledged to "work with my colleagues in Congress to fight the President's unconstitutional power grab," while Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander called Obama's executive order a "decision to disregard the Constitution and make our broken system worse."

The divide, largely along partisan lines, has left many immigrants living illegally in the Nashville with an uncertain outlook, even when it comes to signing up for the president's new plan. That uncertainty was given voice in the first question posed to Obama by a woman sitting in the audience of the town hall meeting at the south Nashville community center, Casa Azafrán.

"What is going to happen if the next administration decides not to follow the executive action?" the woman asked "And I think many of the communities (are) afraid they are going to be first in line to deportation because they would give their information."

Obama's answer: "It's true that a future administration might try to reverse some of our policies."

But the president appeared skeptical any future president would do so, given the massive undertaking involved in deporting up to 11 million people estimated to be living illegally in the United States.

"It would be foolish to try, as well as wrong to try," Obama said. "Any future administration that tries...would not have the support of the American people."

The president held the hour-long town hall meeting at Casa Azafrán, a two-year-old immigrant community center located five miles from the downtown honky tonks and not far from the sleek strip of recording studios along Music Row.

 White House officials said Obama chose the nation's country music capital to deliver remarks about immigration because it is home to one of the fastest-growing migrant populations in the United States.

The city's immigrant population has doubled since 2000, accounting for more than half the city's overall growth.

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, compared to roughly 124,000 throughout all of Tennessee.

"Some people might think Nashville was an odd place to talk immigration," Obama said. "It's not what comes to mind when people think about gateways to America.

"But, as all of you know, Nashville's got tone of the fastest-growing immigrant populations in the country. New Nashvillians — they're from Somalia, Nepal, Laos, Mexico, Bangladesh ...'They' are 'us.'"

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 Nashville, like the rest of the nation, remains deeply divided on the issue of immigration, a divide that was evident while the president was in town.

Across the street from the community center, people held signs on both sides of the issue, including one that said ""Thank you Obama for your coverage." Another signs said ""Southern whites v. Obama."

No member of Tennessee's Republican delegation to Congress attended the event in Nashville, while both of Tennessee's congressional Democrats, Reps. Jim Cooper and Steve Cohen, accompanied Obama on Air Force One to Nashville.

After Obama signed the executive orders, attorneys general from 17 states joined in a lawsuit against the president, accusing him of overstepping his legal authority.

A spokeswoman for Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery said he hasn't made up his mind on joining the lawsuit, but that doesn't mean he opposes the lawsuit filed by other Republican attorneys general.

Immigrant advocates praised the president's stop in Nashville, while acknowledging the challenges that remain.

"It was a great thing for Nashville to have the president recognize how the story of immigrant is playing out in communities like hours, even with bumps along the way," said Renata Soto, co-founder of Conexion Americas and one of the main forces behind the building of Casa Azafràn.

"The president said it. The executive action by its definition is temporary. it is only a step forward but it's not the final conversation and final solution to a broken immigration system."

But Soto said she was optimistic that a comprehensive immigration reform will happen. She noted that 900,000 new Latino voters turn 18 every year, and the political reality of the nation's growing Hispanic population may be difficult for lawmakers to ignore.

"Even if they do not see into the eye of these people and see their humanity, I think it's a political reality that at some point this will turn the corner," she said.

"The more realistic outcome is a political calculation that our leaders will need to make.

"The community is watching and growing in political power not only in places like Nashville, but elsewhere, year by year, and generation by generation."

The president's remarks 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.

This is the second time Obama has visited Nashville this year. Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, didn't meet with the president when he discussed education policy in January at a Nashville high school, and he didn't meet with the president during his immigration event Wednesday.

State lawmakers are expected to discuss immigration policy in Tennessee this year, specifically as it relates to education. Right now undocumented immigrants in Tennessee are not eligible to pay in-state tuition prices regardless of how long they've lived in the state.

They are also not eligible to participate in the new Tennessee Promise scholarship program, a program that covers tuition for high school students who apply and seek other financial aid./Daily News Journal

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