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Obama: ‘We will be as aggressive as we can’ on immigration appeal

President Obama arrives in Miami on Wednesday.  (Luis M. Alvarez/AP)

President Obama said Wednesday that the administration will be "as aggressive as we can" on a Texas judge's ruling that temporarily blocked the administration's deferred-deportation program and he will veto any potential congressional vote on whether or not his executive actions on immigration are legal.

“Unfortunately a group of Republican governors sued. They found a District Court judge who enjoined… but that’s just the first part of the process," Obama said at a town hall event hosted by MSNBC and Telemundo in Miami. "This is just one federal judge. We have appealed it very aggressively. We’re going to be as aggressive as we can. 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 passing comprehensive immigration reform.’”

Obama continued: “In the short term if Mr. McConnell, the leader of the Senate, and the speaker of the House, John Boehner, want to have vote over whether what I’m doing is legal or not they can have that vote. I will veto that vote because I’m absolutely confident it’s the right thing we do.”

Obama said that the administration was not surprised by the ruling by U.S. District Judge Andrew S. Hanen of Texas. Obama compared his immigration actions to those of George H.W. Bush, which Obama said “were not challenged by Democrats” for political reasons.  Obama said that the executive action program is on hold due to the court fight, but immigrants should be gathering their paperwork for their deportation relief applications so that they are ready to go after the legal fight is resolved.

The president said that no matter what happens, a bill on comprehensive immigration reform must pass Congress, because the changes from his executive order will only be temporary until the law is changed.

“We’ve got to pass a bill. The pressure’s got to continue to stay on Congress. The pressure’s got to continue to stay on the Republican Party that is blocking comprehensive immigration reform… For the next set of presidential candidates -- because I’m term-limited, Michelle’s happy about that -- when they start asking for votes, the first question should be, ‘Are you really going to deport 11 million people? If not, what’s your plan?’ ... We’re going to have to keep on the political process on a separate track.”

Obama met with 17 advocates at the White House, hours before the town hall in Miami. Marielena Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, said Obama hopes that the funding issue will be resolved soon so he can talk about possible immigration legislation with Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Despite that, the president is concerned that "this congress will never pass a bill that he could sign into law," one that addresses the nation's 11 million undocumented immigrants, she said.

However, Obama said in Miami that he  hasn't "given up passing it when I’m president. … Don’t suddenly give up and say, ‘Oh we have to wait the next two years.’ … I’m not just going to stand still over the next two years."

Obama highlighted parts of his executive action plan that were not part of the court order,  including refocusing border patrol agents on high-priority people, including felons, not families or people who have been in the country for years or decades. "Felons not families," Obama said when announcing the actions in November.

"He really wants to lift up the parts of the executive action that haven’t got as much attention that were not enjoined by the judge," said Frank Sharry, founder and director of America's Voice. Advocacy groups will also start highlighting that only one portion of the executive actions is part of the ruling.

Those include refocusing border patrol agents on high-priority people, including felons, serious criminals and people who recently crossed the border, not families or people who have been in the country for years or decades.

When asked by moderator Jose Diaz-Balart about the continued number of deportations despite the new policy, Obama said it takes time for a huge government to fully change.

“Every time you have a big bureaucracy and you change policy there is going to be one or two or three instances where people apparently haven’t gotten the message. But if you talk to the head of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson, he is absolutely committed to this new prioritization. More important, I, the president of the United States, am committed. ... We’re going to be focusing on criminals; we’re going to be focusing on potential felons.” 

If, for example, someone working for Immigration and Customs Enforcement doesn't follow the policy changes, "there's going to be consequences to it," Obama said.

Obama said that he has used all the legal power he has to try to change the nation's immigration policies.

“Not only are we going to have to win this legal fight.. but ultimately we’re still going to pass a law through Congress. The bottom line is I’m using all the legal power invested in me in order to solve this problem," he said.

Attendees said advocacy groups will also stress that young people who received temporary relief under Obama's 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, are not subject to the order and can still sign up and renew their status.

"We went into the meeting and left the meeting with the same sense, that the president acted within his full, legal authority when he announced these initiatives back on Nov. 20 and there’s an agreement between us," Hincapie said.

The administration on Monday filed a notice of appeal and motion to stay the decision. It argued that the states do not have standing to challenge federal immigration policy. The motion for stay cited the use of "prosecutorial discretion," where the government uses its discretion to decide how to best allocate resources and apply the law. While Hanen's order would halt the program nationwide, the administration argued that Texas is the "only State whose claims of harm the Court credited," and if a full stay is not granted the ruling should only apply to Texas. 

Johnson, the Department of Homeland Security secretary, won support Wednesday from two of his Republican predecessors – Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff – who joined him in warning that a shutdown would hurt the department’s ability to protect the homeland.

Ridge, the department’s first secretary under President George W. Bush, acknowledged that he strongly opposed Obama’s executive orders on immigration, which triggered the funding battle. “I personally believe that the president has greatly overstepped his constitutional authority,’’ Ridge said at a news conference with Johnson and Chertoff.

But Ridge called it “wrong and folly” to express that opposition by refusing to fully fund DHS. “We would not think of not funding our soldiers,’’ he said. “These are soldiers at DHS. They wear a different uniform, but the goal and objective and mission is the same – keeping America as safe as possible.’’

Diaz-Balart pressed Obama as to why he didn't push harder for immigration in his first term.

“It wasn’t like I was sitting back not doing anything. We were moving aggressively on a whole host of issues. We wanted immigration done; we pushed for immigration to be done, but ultimately we didn’t have the votes to get immigration done. … I don’t regret having done the ACA," Obama said, referring to the health-care law.

Obama said that the changing demographics of the United States will ultimately resolve the issue.

"Over the long term, this is going to get solve because at some point there’s going to be a President Rodriguez or a President Shin because we’re a nation of immigrants. So what I would say to the next president is think ahead…think long-term,” Obama said.

After past contentious meetings with immigration activists, the mood was relaxed and advocates felt that they were on the same page as the administration.

"There’s been a lot of difficult meetings with the president over the years and this was not one of them," Sharry said. "Lots of mutual gratitude and a clear alignment on strategy and tactics and lots of optimism that we're going to win in the courts."

Jerry Markon contributed reporting.