By Josh Richman
President Barack Obama, left, has his speech interrupted by Ju Hong, right on stage, who heckled him about anti-deportation policies, Monday, Nov. 25, 2013, at the Betty Ann Ong Chinese Recreation Center in San Francisco. The young man shouted about his family being separated for Thanksgiving, and said Obama should use his executive power to stop this. "Stop deportations, yes we can," the man and other people chanted. The Obama stopped Secret Service agents who tried to remove the protesters. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
SAN FRANCISCO -- President Barack Obama on Monday urged Republicans in Congress to stop standing in the way of immigration reform, an issue he very dearly wants to return to the front burner of domestic policy and the headlines.
But the president's speech was dramatically interrupted by hecklers in a reserved seating section who urged him to halt deportations, of which his administration has conducted a record number. One young man shouted about his family being separated for Thanksgiving, and said Obama should use his executive power to stop this. "Stop deportations, yes we can," the man and other people chanted.
The president stopped Secret Service agents who tried to remove the protesters.
"I respect the passion of these young people," he said, noting they're fighting to keep their families together. "But we're also a nation of laws, that's our tradition."
"The easy way out is to yell and pretend I can do something" without addressing the laws that require such deportations, he said. "It's not just a matter of us saying we're going to violate the law."
"Ultimately, justice and truth win out," he said, returning to his exhortation for comprehensive reform.
"We look like the world -- you've got a president named 'Obama,'" he said somewhat wryly. "What makes us Americans is our shared belief in certain enduring principles, our allegiance to a set of ideas, to a creed, to the enduring promise of this country."
Obama, with his job approval ratings near the lowest point of his tenure amid the botched technology and political pressures of the new health care law's rollout, barnstormed the Bay Area to try to return immigration to the headlines and to raise money for Democrats.
Ju Hong, 24, of Alameda, who led the hecklers, said after the event it had been "a huge opportunity for me to be here and speak out."
"I wasn't impressed by his answer," said Hong, who came to the U.S. from South Korea at age 11. Halting deportation is well within the president's executive powers, he said, but instead "he's using political talking points to ease out the community members."
Janny Liang, 23, said most of the hecklers were DREAMERs affiliated with ASPIRE, Asian Students Promoting Immigrant Rights through Education.
"We needed to tell Obama we are sick of having our families deported and separated," said Liang, a Santa Rosa Junior College student.
She declined to comment on Obama's response to the protestors, or to the rest of his speech beyond saying that it was "expected."
Speaking to a crowd of about 400 invited guests at the Betty Ong Chinese Recreation Center on Mason Street in Chinatown, he mentioned the health care law only briefly, noting the federal enrollment website is getting better while California's has been far more successful from the start.
"States like California are proving the law works, people want the financial security of health insurance," he said.
He also briefly addressed the nuclear deal his administration has just brokered with Iran, which has met with mixed reactions at home and abroad. Along with ending the Iraq war, killing Osama bin Laden and next year's withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, this stands as a campaign promise kept, he said.
"We cannot commit ourselves to an endless cycle of conflict," and "tough talk and bluster" are no substitute for lasting security, he said.
But Obama spoke mostly on immigration reform, which he framed as a moral and economic necessity as the existing system isn't letting the nation reach its potential.
On Thanksgiving this Thursday, millions of American families will recall and retell their tales of immigration and self-sacrifice so their children could have better lives, Obama said. And though much of the political debate centers on the U.S.-Mexico border, he said, "we're blessed with immigrants from all the world who've put down roots in every corner of this country."
"The only thing standing in our way right now is the unwillingness of certain Republicans in Congress. There is bipartisan hope of getting it done" given passage in the Senate.
Reform includes eliminating the backlog of family visas, attracting skilled entrepreneurs, and providing a "pathway to earned citizenship for those living in the shadows" among many other things, he said.
"This isn't just the right thing to do, it's the smart thing to do," he said, though he acknowledged this doesn't mean it'll happen because "this is Washington... and everything is looked at through a political prism."
"I believe ultimately... good policy is good politics," he said.
Although House Speaker John Boehner said last week said last week that Congress must act on immigration reform, he has refused to let the bipartisan bill passed by the Senate in June come up for consideration in the House. Republicans remain split over whether reform should include providing a path to citizenship for immigrants who are already here without legal status.
"I believe the Speaker is sincere, I think he genuinely wants to get it done" as do some other House Republicans, Obama said Monday. "But its going to require some courage. There are some members of the Republican caucus who think this is bad politics for them back home."
"We can't leave this problem for another generation to solve," the president said. "If we don't tackle this now, we're undercutting our own future."
Introducing him at the speech was Geetha Vallabhaneni, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who immigrated to the United States from India 15 years ago. After working for 12 years to get a green card, she started Luminix, an enterprise software company.
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