NASHVILLE — President Obama came here to drum up support for his executive action on immigration and acknowledged that this city might not seem like the most obvious choice.
“Some people might think Nashville was an odd place to talk about immigration. It’s not what comes to mind when people think about gateways to America,” Obama said at Casa Azafran, a local community center, but added: “Nashville’s got one of the fastest-growing immigrant populations in the country.”
Nashville, the legendary capital of country music, is also home to thousands of Mexicans, Burmese and as many as 11,000 Kurds, all drawn by the modest cost of living, job opportunities and an international community.
One out of every eight Nashville residents was born abroad, and 16 percent of the city’s population speaks a language other than English at home, according to the 2010 Census.
The president’s event here marked his third trip outside Washington to rally public support for his executive actions, following speeches in Las Vegas and Chicago late last month. On the trip to Nashville, he was joined on Air Force One by Frank Sharry of America’s Voice and Lorella Praeli of United We Dream, longtime immigration activists who were critical of Obama for not taking executive action sooner but have been supportive since his announcement last month.
The White House hopes Obama’s personal appeal on immigration can help rebut fierce criticism by Republicans, who have attempted to paint him as imperial and acting unlawfully in circumventing Congress on his immigration changes.
“When members of Congress question whether I have the authority to do this, I have one answer: Yes, and pass a bill,” Obama said during a question-and-answer session in a small room.
Nursing a cup of tea, Obama fielded questions from people worried that a future administration could roll back Obama’s protections for undocumented immigrants, something he said could happen. But the president said Americans “basically have a good heart” and would be opposed to any changes.
“I think any future administration that tried to punish people for doing the right thing I think would not have the support of the American people,” Obama said. He also stressed that people need to sign up for the protections and stressed that they would not be in danger.
Obama said he believes most Americans feel that people who are already in the country deserve a shot and that it is difficult to separate families for decades. Obama also stressed that his actions are meant to keep families together and place deportation priority on criminals.
“Now, does that mean everybody’s going to listen to me on the other side? Not necessarily. They’re pretty sure I’m an illegal immigrant and — that was a joke,” Obama said.
While Obama was joined by some members of the Tennessee congressional delegation, others voiced their opposition to his policy.
Republican Rep. Diane Black said Obama chose “Nashville as a destination to publicly thumb his nose at the American electorate that just rebuked him in the last election.”
Until recently, Nashville seemed an unlikely spot to highlight immigration success. Six years ago, the city was deeply divided during a referendum on whether to make English the official and only language of the city government. A broad cross-section of the city — businesses, civil liberties groups and others — united to defeat the measure.
In Tennessee, there are about 130,000 illegal immigrants, according to estimates by the Pew Research Center. Under the executive action, 40,000 will be eligible for deportation relief on top of the 15,000 who qualified under Obama’s 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Casa Azafran, which opened two years ago, is also a showcase for government assistance. It received $1.8 million from the Commerce Department’s Economic Development Administration and about $300,000 from the Department of Health and Human Services. It sits about three miles down Nolensville Pike, past taco trucks and auto body shops, from Maria Ramos’s store, California Fashion. Cowboy boots sit on the same wall as traditional Mexican woven shoes, which Ramos said she sells to remind people of home.
Ramos came to the United States from Mexico in 1994 with her two children. She applied for all three of them to get citizenship that year; so far, she has been the only one able to procure it. Her children, now in their mid-30s, said they are stuck in a backlog. They both have children who were born in the United States, meaning they will be eligible to stay under Obama’s action.
Ramos said she was excited about Obama’s visit to Nashville, which she said has changed dramatically in the 20 years she has lived here. “There’s a recognition that we are contributing members of society,” she said.
Ramos wants Obama to do more to help small businesses such as hers, which were battered by the recession, and while she is thrilled about his executive action on immigration, she said he should have done it long ago.
Steven Mufson contributed to this report.