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By Patricia Mazzei, Miami Herald (TNS)

MIAMI — Likening immigration reform to the great civil rights movements in U.S. history, President Barack Obama vowed during a brief visit to Miami on Wednesday to veto any legislation undoing 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 Texas federal judge. Boehner, of Ohio, is waiting for the Senate’s move, after House Republicans passed a budget for the Homeland Security Department that wouldn’t pay for the president’s plan.

Obama defied Republican leaders while trying to persuade 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 underway 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.”

Like other Spanish-language interviewers have done in high-profile settings, Diaz-Balart reminded Obama that he could have made an immigration push during his first two years in office, when Democrats controlled the House and Senate.

“I don’t know if anybody remembers, Jose, that when I took office and I had a majority we had the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression,” Obama said. “It wasn’t as if I was just sitting back not doing anything.”

Still, 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 young 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 26-year-old Nancy Palacios of Tampa, who said her parents would also 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.”

One of the few people who got to ask a question at the event was Eric Narvaez Alvarado, 26, a military veteran who served in Afghanistan. When he returned, the country he served was trying to deport his mother to Mexico.

“It’s like a slap in the face,” Narvaez Alvarado said after the meeting, in which he told Obama that his mother had been the one who signed off on his enlistment when he was 17. Esther Alvarado, who accompanied her son to FIU, said she knew that “in his heart” Obama wants to help.

“I kind of believe in him,” she said. “I have faith in him.”

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 at Miami International Airport by Florida Governor Rick Scott and Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez. Scott, a Republican, 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, the governor said beforehand.

The only local member of Congress in attendance was Rep. Frederica Wilson, a Miami Gardens Democrat, who flew with the president. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, the Republican whose district includes FIU, was invited late Monday but denied an Air Force One seat after he could only find early-morning flights that he said would have required missing a full day of votes.

A spokesman for Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said the Republican was invited Tuesday morning, but the email was caught by a spam filter and her office didn’t see it. A spokesman for Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, brother of the town-hall moderator and a leading GOP proponent of immigration reform, said he was not invited.

Obama called on more people — youth in particular — to vote, and he urged immigrant advocates to keep telling personal stories that hopefully “softens the hearts of people who right now are blocking us from solving some of these problems.”

“Every major social movement, every bit of progress in this country — whether it’s been the workers’ rights movement or the civil rights movement, or the women’s rights movement — every single bit of that progress has required us to fight and push,” he said. “You don’t get everything right away, and then you push some more, and that’s how the country continually gets better.”

Eventually, he concluded, politicians will rewrite immigration laws, “because at some point, there’s going to be a President Rodriguez, or there’s going to be a President Chin.”

“The country is a nation of immigrants,” he said.
___
Miami Herald writers Kathleen Devaney, Rebeca Piccardo and Rebecca Savransky contributed to this report.

Photo: President Obama sits down with Telemundo MSNBC’s anchorman Jose Diaz-Balart, left, during a town hall meeting on immigration at Florida International University in Hialeah, Fla., on Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2015. (Pool photo by Pedro Portal/Miami Herald/TNS)

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