CHICAGO — The day after a grand jury in Ferguson, Mo., declined to indict a police officer in the shooting of teenager Michael Brown, President Obama said he would work to address inequities in the nation’s law enforcement system.
“And I want to work with you, and I want to move forward with you,” the president said, adding that he understood why many people were angry in the wake of Monday’s news that there will be no charges filed in Brown’s death. “The frustrations that people have generally, those are rooted in some hard truths that have to be addressed.”
Obama said he has asked Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to “set up a series of regional meetings focused on building trust in our communities” that will focus on “how to make sure that law enforcement is fair and is being applied equally to every person in this country.” The first will take place next week, he said.
“We need to make sure that we’re actually bringing about change,” he said. “And if any part of the American community doesn’t feel welcomed or treated fairly, that’s something that puts all of us at risk, and we have to be concerned about it.”
Obama decried the violence that has taken place in Ferguson. “Burning buildings, torching cars, destroying property, putting people at risk — that’s destructive, and there’s no excuse for it,” he said. “Those are criminal acts, and people should be prosecuted if they engage in criminal acts.”
The president was in his adopted home town primarily to tout the economic benefits of permitting millions of undocumented immigrants to remain in the United States, part of his effort to build public support for his new immigration policy.
He spoke in a neighborhood that was once predominantly Polish but is now overwhelmingly Latino. This historic progression of immigrants in U.S. society, Obama said, has allowed the nation to thrive economically and politically.
He was introduced by Billy Lawless, a restaurant and pub owner who immigrated to Chicago from Galway, Ireland, in 1998 and became a U.S. citizen this year. Lawless said he started his first business in Chicago with 10 people but now employs more than 250.
“But you know what? This is what we immigrants do,” Lawless said. “We work hard, and we build successful businesses.”
Obama joked later that it made sense for Lawless to start his business career in Chicago by opening a drinking establishment, “because there was a shortage of Irish pubs in Chicago.”
The event took a more confrontational turn when several hecklers interrupted the president’s speech as he began to speak about why he was focused on deporting “felons, not families.”
“Mr. President, that has been a lie!” a woman shouted, saying that the administration had deported immigrants who had not violated other U.S. laws. “That is not the truth. You cannot keep saying ‘felons, not families.’ ”
“Republicans are not the only ones to blame!” another woman declared.
Obama addressed the hecklers directly.
“All right, I’ve listened to you. I heard you. I heard you. I heard you,” he said, turning in succession to the different speakers. “Nobody is removing you. I’ve heard you. But you’ve got to listen to me, too. . . . I understand you may disagree. But we’ve got to be able to talk honestly about these issues.”
It is true that his administration has deported plenty of immigrants, Obama said. “But what you’re not paying attention to is the fact that I just took action to change the law,” he said, prompting applause from the crowd. “The point is that, though I understand why you might have yelled at me a month ago, although I disagree with some of your characterizations, it doesn’t make much sense to yell at me right now, when we’re making changes.”
The enthusiastic crowd at the Copernicus Community Center, which numbered about 1,800 people, welcomed Obama and his pro-immigration message. Kathleen Weiss Boyle, a 51 year-old real estate agent and dog-sitter, noted that her grandfather and three of his brothers came to the United States from Germany in 1921 while eight siblings remained behind.
“They’re slamming the doors shut [to immigrants], and who knows what great things they could accomplish if we let them in?” asked Boyle, a Democrat. “We need to open the doors back up and let people in. Why is it not okay now, and was back then?”
Even some of those supporting the changes the president is making to the nation’s immigration laws, however, said they were hoping to learn more details.
Marketa Lindt, a partner at the Chicago law firm of Sidley Austin and national secretary of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said she and other attorneys in the field are going to have a hard time providing specific advice to their clients until they see either specific guidance from the Department of Homeland Security or other documents that will flesh out the plan.
“It’s going to be extremely important and interesting to see what those details are,” Lindt said in an interview.