Eric Narvaez, an Army veteran and wounded warrior, said he fought for his country – only to come home to a different kind of war in the United States.
“I love this country,’’ he told President Barack Obama on Wednesday. “But I’m facing another war – trying to keep my mother here.’’
After thanking Narvaez for his service, Obama said his plan for immigration reform would allow Narvaez’s mother – and millions more like her – to stay in the United States.
“The message I want to send today is that we are not prioritizing people like your mother for enforcement or deportation,’’ he said. “We are prioritizing felons, criminals, gang members – people who are a threat to our communities – not families who have lived here a long time.”
The exchange was part of a town hall meeting on immigration held Wednesday at Modesto A. Maidique Campus.
FIU President Mark B. Rosenberg opened the event saying Miami – and FIU – were the most appropriate places to host a discussion on immigration.
“We live it every day,’’ he said. “This is the place that has discussed and debated immigration more than any other… and we are thrilled to be a part of this conversation with the president of the United States, Barack Obama.’’
FIU, with more than 54,000 students, is the largest Hispanic-serving university in the nation and the largest producer of Hispanic graduates in the country.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told MSNBC earlier in the week that the decision to hold the meeting in Miami was strategic.
“It makes for an interesting, dynamic place and a great symbol of how immigration has made our country unique,” he said. A televised event would also allow the president to connect with Hispanics throughout the country, Earnest added.
During the event, Obama stressed that the immigration system in the United States is broken – and needs a bipartisan fix.
“We need a comprehensive bill that would strengthen our borders … and provide a pathway for people to earn legal status in this country,’’ he said. “Not only is the law on our side, but history is on our side.
“We are a nation of immigrants and we are not going to deport 11 million people,’’ he added.
Obama scheduled the town hall meeting just days after a decision by a Texas judge to block his executive order on immigration.
Obama’s plan would have extended temporary work status and shielded from deportation nearly 5 million undocumented immigrants. The plan was met with stiff opposition from Republicans, who felt the president overstepped his authority.
In addition, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll in November 2014 found that nearly half of Americans – 48 percent – also opposed the president’s plan.
Obama acknowledged the opposition – but said he was certain that meaningful immigration reform would happen before his term ends.
“The stories of people like you here today will soften the hearts of those who would block us,’’ he said. “Ultimately we have to change the law.”
“I haven’t given up on passing this while I’m president,’’ he added. “We’ve got to keep on putting pressure on members of Congress, Republican and Democrat.’’
More than 60 FIU students were selected to attend the town hall, including members of the Student Government Association, Model U.N. team, College Democrats and the Immigration and Human Rights Clinic of the College of Law.
In addition, several FIU alumni, Board of Trustees members and student immigrants were included in the guest list. A standing-room only crowd of more than 200 students, faculty and staff crammed into the Graham Center to view a live stream of the event.
Boris Gilles, an FIU student who came to the U.S. from Haiti in 2011 on a student visa, asked the president what he can do to help international students who wish to remain in the United States.
“We would love for more ambitious young people to want to stay here,’’ Obama said. “They’re going to our universities, getting advanced degrees and then we’re sending them back. The answer is to provide greater incentives and opportunities to keep them here.’’
Hours before the event, FIU senior Kevin Love waited in the Graham Center with a dozen other students who were on a waiting list for tickets.
Less than an hour before the meeting, Love learned he had a seat inside. He said he’d thought long and hard about what he’d ask the president if he had the chance.
“I want to know what he’ll do for all the young people that may get to stay here, will they get the services they need,’’ said Love, who is part of FIU’s Fostering Panther Pride, a new program that provides extra support to former foster care and homeless students. “I’m excited about this opportunity,’’ he added. “It’s not every day you get to meet the president.’’
After the town hall ended and Obama had left campus, Rosenberg addressed the team of FIU staff who had worked for days with the White House to plan the event. He praised the team for working tirelessly to make the event – the first visit to FIU by a sitting U.S. president – a success.
“The president was very impressed, as was his staff,’’ Rosenberg said. “But I never had any doubt. It’s extraordinary what we can do when we come together with a single purpose. This was a historic moment for FIU. He could’ve gone anywhere and he chose FIU.”