MIAMI — Likening immigration reform to the great civil rights movements in U.S. history, President Barack Obama vowed Wednesday in Miami to veto any attempts by Congress to undo his executive order protecting from deportation up to 5 million people who are in the country illegally.
"In the short term, if Mr. (Mitch) McConnell, the leader of the Senate, and the speaker of the House, John Boehner, want to have a vote on whether what I'm doing is legal or not, they can have that vote," Obama said, almost daring congressional leaders to challenge him. "I will veto that vote, because I'm absolutely confident that what we're doing is the right thing to do."
His veto threat was met with rousing applause from the friendly audience assembled at Florida International University, where Obama taped an hourlong town hall-style meeting hosted by Miami-based Telemundo and sister network MSNBC. The event, moderated by bilingual anchor Jose Diaz-Balart, was later nationally televised on both networks.
McConnell, of Kentucky, wants a stand-alone bill blocking Obama's 2014 actions, which were supposed to take effect this week but have been stalled by a federal judge in Texas. Boehner, of Ohio, is waiting for the Senate's move, after House Republicans passed a budget for the Department of Homeland Security that wouldn't pay for the president's plan.
Obama defied Republican leaders while trying to convince undocumented immigrants — who would be covered by his actions but are now in limbo —that his administration has not given up.
"We have appealed very aggressively. We're going to be as aggressive as we can," he said. "In the meantime, what we said to Republicans is, 'Instead of trying to hold hostage funding for the Department of Homeland Security, which is so important for our national security, fund that and let's get on with actually passing comprehensive immigration reform.' "
Republicans characterized Obama's Miami visit as a strictly political move intent not on resolving a problem but on bashing the GOP to Hispanic voters, a crucial bloc in Florida and other swing states.
"President Obama tells Americans he wants to work with Republicans, but his actions don't live up to his rhetoric," Republican National Committee spokeswoman Ali Pardo said in a statement. "And as the President struggles to defend his executive action that was blocked by a federal court, his partisan campaign stops aren't making things better."
There is little chance that Congress will act during the remainder of Obama's final term, with the 2016 presidential campaign season already under way and Republicans angered that the president has wielded executive authority in what they consider an overreach. Obama nevertheless insisted: "I haven't given up passing it while I'm president."
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Several questions from immigrants in the audience or through social media centered on why the president hasn't done more — and why federal immigration authorities have continued to deport people who do not have a serious criminal record and are not supposed to be a priority to remove from the country.
"Every time you have a big bureaucracy and you've changed policy, there is going to be one or two or three instances where people apparently haven't gotten the message," Obama said. "But if you talk to the head of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson, he is absolutely committed to this new prioritization. More importantly, I, the president of the United States, am committed. . . . We are going to be focusing on criminals; we're going to be focusing on potential felons."
In the audience were people who benefited from Obama's first executive action in 2012 when he granted temporary legal status to nearly 800,000 immigrants brought into the country illegally as children. One of them was Nancy Palacios, 26, of Tampa, who said her parents would be eligible for protection under Obama's second executive action, which is now tied up in court.
"I go out of town a lot and worry about not coming home to my parents. I want to have that peace of mind," said Palacios, who called the president's message optimistic. "The victory won't be fulfilled until my parents have their work permits."
Not everyone was pleased with Obama's visit. A handful of protesters held signs outside FIU, including one that read, "Obama Jihadist Coward," and another, by the hardline Cuban exile group Vigilia Mambisa, that read, "Freedom for Cuba/Helping Castro is a Crime."
As he stepped off Air Force One, Obama was greeted by Gov. Rick Scott and Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez. Scott gave the president a black Miami Marlins baseball cap, in honor of the 2017 Major League Baseball All-Star Game that will be held there, Scott said beforehand.