SAN FRANCISCO — President Barack Obama was caught by surprise Monday when a former UC Berkeley student government official interrupted his speech on immigration, demanding Obama take more action on the issue.
Obama, who was in San Francisco as part of a brief West Coast fundraising tour, delivered remarks calling on Congress to pass immigration reform legislation but found himself struggling to speak over a heckler who shouted that his family had been torn apart by U.S. immigration policy and asked the president to use an executive order to halt deportations of undocumented immigrants.
Although the president spoke in favor of reform — saying it would strengthen border control, reduce the national deficit by $850 billion and grow the economy by $1.4 trillion over the next 20 years — Ju Hong, who graduated from UC Berkeley in 2012, remained unimpressed.
“My family has been separated for 19 months now,” he cried out. “I need your help … you have a power to stop deportation for all undocumented immigrants in this country.”
As members of the Secret Service attempted to remove Hong, the president brushed them away and said he respected the “passion of these young people.”
Obama said, however, that he was unwilling to “violate the law” and act without Congress’ explicit approval, adding that if he could solve these problems without passing laws in Congress, he would.
“The easy way out is to try to yell and pretend like I can do something by violating our laws,” Obama said. “What I’m proposing is the harder path, which is to use our democratic processes to achieve the same goal that you want to achieve. But it won’t be as easy as just shouting.”
After the speech, Hong called Obama’s remarks “very disappointing.” Hong, who said he immigrated to the United States from South Korea without documentation at age 11, said Obama’s “political will” was weak.
“He blames Congress but not himself,” Hong said. “He said he’s in full support (of immigration reform), but he’s not doing anything. An executive order is not violating the law.”
Hong was part of a coalition of students from the San Francisco-based immigrant rights advocacy group Asian Students Promoting Immigrant Rights through Education who were in attendance to “make (their) voices heard,” according to Dean Santos, a 23-year-old college student at Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, Calif.
Before Hong interrupted his speech, Obama emphasized the need to reform the path to citizenship for students and college graduates, saying the United States invites “the brightest minds from around the world to study” — many of them enrolled in the University of California system — but does not encourage them to stay.
“We end up sending them home to create new jobs and start new businesses someplace else,” Obama said. “So we’re training our own competition rather than inviting those incredibly talented young people … to stay here and start businesses and create jobs here.”
UC President Janet Napolitano, who recently announced that she would allocate $5 million in discretionary funds for undocumented students, was in attendance at Obama’s speech. Napolitano previously served as Secretary of Homeland Security in the Obama administration before taking the UC presidency in October.
Many undocumented students and allies, however, have said that they still do not think Napolitano has done enough — and that no matter what action she takes, she cannot undo the harm to thousands of families that have been torn apart by legislation she enforced while working for Obama.
Hong said he was personally affected by of one of the Obama administration’s more controversial policies, Secure Communities, which allows local governments to turn in undocumented immigrants to federal immigration authorities.
Hong said that his family home was burglarized in 2010 but that his family was too afraid of deportation to call the police.
“Speaking in front of the president is scary,” Hong said of his decision to interrupt Obama’s speech. “(But) I was compelled to say what I had to say.”
Hong, who graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in political science, also protested Napolitano’s confirmation as UC president in July and has said he will continue to protest to raise awareness of inhumane deportations of undocumented individuals in the United States.
Before the interruption, Obama said in his speech that reform required bipartisan support, which he said he was optimistic about achieving.
“Immigration reform isn’t just the right thing to do,” Obama said. “It’s the smart thing to do.”