President Obama speaks at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute awards banquet. (Susan Walsh/AP)

Rep. Linda Sánchez was kidding when she told the 2,100 or so guests at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute’s awards banquet Thursday night: “After the program, the Donald Trump piñata will be set up in that corner.”

But the California Democrat captured the spirit of many of the quips and digs at the annual fundraising gala in the Washington Convention Center. The Donald was scarcely mentioned by name — “a leading Republican candidate for president” is how Hillary Clinton put it. Yet he and others in the GOP who use tough rhetoric on immigration reform provided a useful foil for speakers at the event headlined by President Obama.

[Shrill rhetoric in the GOP primary race could come back to haunt the party]

President Barack Obama greets the crowd after his address. (Susan Walsh/AP) President Barack Obama greets the crowd after his address. (Susan Walsh/AP)

“The anti-immigrant sentiment that has infected our politics is not new, but it is wrong,” Obama said. “Think how much better off our country would be if Republican politicians hadn’t spent years precisely trying to scare voters with tales of immigrants flooding across our borders and taking our jobs, and destroying America as we know it. … Now some of the very same Republican politicians who championed reform in the past — some of whom sponsored these efforts — suddenly they want nothing to do with it.”

Many in the crowd of Latino activists and supporters have been troubled that large numbers of undocumented immigrants were being deported by the Obama administration. On this night they were in a forgiving mood. The president was interrupted by cheers and shouts of “I love you.”

“I love you back, too,” said Obama.

[Obama administration scales back deportations in policy shift]

Speaking for nearly 20 minutes, the president took the opportunity to list steps that have been made toward immigration reform during his seven years, including protection for “Dreamers,” or young people brought as children.

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton with Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-CA) gala. (Yuri Gripas/REUTERS) Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton with Rep. Linda Sanchez at the gala. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

“I believe that people who come here illegally should have to pay a fine, and pay their fair share of taxes, and get registered, and get right with the law, and go to the back of the line before they earn citizenship,” he said. “But when I hear folks talking as if somehow those kids are different from my kids, as if they’re less worthy in the eyes of God, that somehow their families are less worthy of our respect and consideration and care, as if somehow back in the day everybody had their papers in order when they came here, but now suddenly nobody has their papers in order — I believe we’re better than that.”

The nonprofit institute is dedicated to nurturing future Latino leaders. Clinton’s role was to present an award on behalf of the institute to Washington super-chef José Andrés. But first she whacked the piñata.

“Many people in our country don’t see how vital Latinos are to the United States and our future,” she said. “Latinos make America smarter. You make America stronger. You make America more creative and innovative. … We need people who will stand up to this ugly rhetoric and extreme thinking.”

[José Andrés hits back at Trump over restaurant deal; counter-sues for $8 million]

Chef Jose Andres with his medallion award at the banquet. (David Montgomery/The Washington Post) Chef José Andrés with his medallion award at the banquet. (David Montgomery/The Washington Post)

Andrés had taken such a stand. He cancelled a deal to put a restaurant in Trump’s planned D.C. hotel after the billionaire presidential candidate said Mexico was sending “rapists” across the border.

Clinton confided that she admired Andrés for his margaritas, and “I am grateful for his courage in standing up to hateful anti-immigrant rhetoric.”

(Whack!)

Puffing out his chest with the award medallion hanging from a red, white and blue ribbon, Andrés described seeing the Statue of Liberty as a young man. He yearned “to be part of that dream,” and now, 23 years later, “I call myself a proud American citizen. … ‘We the people’ means every single being that is living in this beautiful country of ours.”

(Whack!)

The banquet was the finale of a busy three-day public policy conference, with sessions on subjects ranging from citizen engagement, education and the environment to immigration, health and energy. Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley attended a forum Wednesday. At the gala, awards for excellence were also bestowed upon hall-of-fame football player Anthony Muñoz and education advocate Sonia Gutierrez. The band La Santa Cecilia from Los Angeles entertained the party after the food and speeches.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. poses for photos after he spoke at Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute Public Policy Conference. (Jose Luis Magana/AP) Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders poses for photos after speaking at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute’s public policy conference. (Jose Luis Magana/AP)

“I think tonight is all about Latinos finally getting on the agenda and driving the agenda and not being eaten by the agenda,” said Maryland Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez, now running for Congress, as she arrived at the gala.

She said she was hoping Obama would address the issue of women and children being detained in inadequate facilities near the Mexico border. But he didn’t.

“I think the president is doing all that can be done with the time he has” on immigration reform, via executive action, said Charlie Gonzalez, former Congress member from Texas. “You don’t hear any encouraging words from Republicans.”

(Whack!)