President Obama told a heckler who interrupted a speech on immigration Monday that he would not circumvent Congress and try to halt deportations by executive order because the U.S. is "a nation of laws."
"Please use your executive order!" shouted the heckler, who was standing behind Obama on stage, close enough to be in the television camera shot, during an event in San Francisco's Chinatown as the president began a two-day visit to California. Urging Obama to give immediate relief to those separated from their families at Thanksgiving, the man yelled, "You have the power to stop deportations!"
"Actually, I don't," Obama responded, signaling security personnel not to remove the heckler or other protesters who joined in the shouting. "These guys don't need to go," Obama said. "He can stay there.… I respect the passion of these young people."
But the solution to the problem "won't be as easy as just shouting," Obama said to the young man. "If you're serious about making that happen, then I'm willing to work with you.
"The easy way out is to try to yell and pretend like I can do something by violating our laws. What I'm proposing is the harder path" of trying to get the law changed.
It was a dramatic beginning to a California trip otherwise dominated by Democratic fundraising events, mostly closed to the public. After the immigration event and two fundraisers in San Francisco, the president flew south for two events in Beverly Hills: a reception at the home of entrepreneur and former basketball star Magic Johnson and a dinner hosted by Hollywood mogul Haim Saban.
At Johnson's home, Obama leaned on sports analogies to criticize politics as practiced in Washington.
"Nobody played a team game better than he did," Obama said about Johnson, "and that's what we need in this country more than anything."
He blamed partisanship for holding up action on issues like immigration.
"What's stopping us is a failure of our politics and a lack of ambition," Obama said. "Our politics all too often encourages people to think selfishly or short-term."
The nation needs "that sense that we're in this together," he said.
Before the twin fundraisers, White House officials said, Obama met with the family of Gerardo Hernandez, a Transportation Security Administration officer killed in a violent attack at LAX on Nov. 1. He also met with Tony Grigsby and James Speer, two TSA officers wounded by gunfire that day.
In San Francisco, Obama used his speech to make a new appeal to Republicans to pass immigration measures before the end of the year.
As the prospects for immigration legislation in Congress have faded, activists have been increasing pressure on Obama to take executive action to reduce the record number of deportations during his administration.
Last year, Obama approved a step to shield one group of people from deportation, the so-called Dream Act youth, who were brought to the country illegally as young children. The administration justified that action as an exercise in prosecutorial discretion, the legal basis being that the executive branch has authority to say that some cases for deportation are less urgent than others.
That principle can't be extended to cover everyone, administration lawyers have said. Immigration advocacy groups say, however, that some additional groups could be covered if Obama was willing to act.
Obama urged House Republicans to act on immigration even if that required passing several separate measures rather than one comprehensive package like the one approved by the Senate this year.
"It's Thanksgiving. We can carve that bird into multiple pieces," Obama said. "As long as all the pieces get done, and we actually deliver on the core values we've been talking about for so long, I think everybody's fine with it."
Obama had suggested a piece-by-piece approach before but not in such vivid terms.
Some House Republicans may be interested in that approach if they can finesse the intraparty politics. House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said recently that his caucus was committed to considering immigration legislation, but he did not lay out a time frame.
The issue splits Republicans, and GOP lawmakers are particularly divided over the idea of providing a pathway to citizenship for more than 11 million immigrants in the country who have overstayed their visas or entered illegally. Obama has insisted that any immigration overhaul must include a pathway to citizenship.
"The speaker is sincere in wanting to get something done," Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck said after the president spoke, "and we're pleased the president said he can accept the step-by-step approach we're taking in the House."
The two Monday night fundraisers benefited the joint House and Senate campaign committee for Democratic candidates. Tickets for the event at the home of Johnson and his wife, Cookie, ranged from $2,500 to $15,000 per person. The dinner hosted by Saban and his wife, Cheryl, cost $16,200 per person.
Obama was scheduled to appear at another fundraiser, on behalf of the Democratic National Committee, on Tuesday morning before heading to Glendale for an appearance with entertainment industry officials at Dreamworks Animation. The company's chief executive, Jeffrey Katzenberg, has been a leading fundraiser for Obama.
Parsons reported from Washington and Linthicum from Los Angeles.