JEFFERSON PARK — President Barack Obama Tuesday defended his plan to allow millions of undocumented immigrants to live and work in the United States without fearing deportation in front of an adoring — and at times angry — crowd.
Speaking at the Copernicus Center, 5216 W. Lawrence Ave., the heart of the Polish-American community in Chicago, one of the largest outside Warsaw, Obama said his actions were designed to fix a broken system and allow immigrants who make America stronger and more prosperous to "come out of the shadows."
The executive order will make the United States' immigration system "more fair and more just," Obama said.
But the president's actions did not go far enough for two protesters who interrupted the president and brought his speech to a halt with cries that he should stop deporting undocumented immigrants immediately.
Maria Gonzalez, 26, interrupted the president's speech while seated behind the president on bleachers reserved for special guests. As Gonzalez began shouting, she unfurled a white banner demanding that the president end deportations, which reached record levels under his administration.
Obama is a "hypocrite" whose actions will make it more likely that she and her family will be deported because they are not covered by his order, Gonzalez told DNAinfo Chicago after the president's speech.
"It makes me furious that he presents himself as a champion of immigrants," said Gonzalez, who said law enforcement officers confiscated the banner she unfurled on stage reading "Obama stop deportations now."
Obama engaged the protesters, acknowledging that many law-abiding immigrants had been hurt by the current system, and blasted Congressional Republicans for failing to bring a "comprehensive, bipartisan" reform bill up for a vote.
"It doesn't make much sense to yell at me now," Obama said, prompting laughter from the standing-room-only crowd. "I changed the law."
The president said "it was good to be back in Chicago, where everyone has something to say."
Obama acknowledged that families had been broken up during his time in office by deportation orders.
"It is not right," Obama said. "It is heartbreaking."
Neither woman was removed by Secret Service agents — even though one continued to yell even after Obama concluded his remarks and left the podium to loud applause and cheers.
After the speech, Obama plunged into the crowd and shook hands with those in the front row of the Copernicus Center and posed for pictures and signed autographs.
The president said he chose to defend his actions in Chicago, "the city of broad shoulders, built by immigrants."
After listing the many different languages spoken by Chicagoans, Obama threw a jab at Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who served as the president's chief of staff before becoming mayor of Chicago, and is known for his frequent use of expletives.
"It is true that Rahm speaks a language that can't be translated in front of children," Obama said, flashing his trademark grin.
The Copernicus Center's ornate theater — transformed with three large American flags and bunting in honor of the president's visit — was packed with Chicagoans lucky enough — or connected enough — to get a ticket to the nearly 30-minute speech.
Conrad Nowak, the former president of the Polish American Association board of directors, said it was an honor for the Chicago Polish community to be placed in the presidential spotlight.
The president's executive order will change the lives of many undocumented Poles in Chicago, Nowak said. Calls to the association's immigration services center have increased 100 percent since the president's announcement.
"A lot of people are rejoicing," Nowak said, a Polish flag pinned to his lapel.
The president's speech at the Copernicus Center will go a long way toward correcting a "misconception" that his order only applies to Latino immigrants, Nowak said.
The audience was full of schoolchildren whose parents started their Thanksgiving breaks a few days early to witness the president's visit.
"Whenever will this happen again?" said Daamien Espinosa, who brought his two sons, Adian and Owen to see the president. "I'm a supporter of the president, and I"m glad he's bringing the spotlight to Jefferson Park."
Before his speech, Obama participated in a closed-door roundtable discussion organized by the immigrant advocates about the impact of his executive order that is expected to make 4.1 million people eligible for work permits.
Obama is the second president to visit the Copernicus Center. In 1992, President George H.W. Bush visited the annual Taste of Polonia festival held on Labor Day weekend.
Traffic was snarled throughout the Far Northwest Side by traffic jams caused by the presidential visit during the afternoon rush hour as many people begin their Thanksgiving travels.
Heather Cherone says Mr. Obama won't be the first president to stop by the Copernicus Center:
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