NASHVILLE, Tenn. — President Barack Obama on Tuesday tried to reassure immigrants that if they register under his new executive action they won't be a priority for deportation in the future, while acknowledging another president could undo it all.
Obama heard from several participants in an hourlong town hall at an immigrant community center that they are fearful to give their information to the government. One young woman asked Obama what would happen to them if the next president ends the program.
Obama said although the assurance they won't be deported is temporary, he's confident they will be able to stay in the United States with their children.
"It's true that a future administration might try to reverse some of our policies," Obama said. "But I'll be honest with you, I think that the American people basically have a good heart and want to treat people fairly.
"I think any future administration that tried to punish people for doing the right thing would not have the support of the American people," he said.
He said giving people the confidence they can register will be an important part of the program's success.
Obama recently used his executive authority to extend deportation relief and work permits to some 4 million immigrants in the U.S. illegally. His action would affect those who have been here more than five years and have children.
Obama argued that immigration can help boost the economy, and to drive home the point he later picked up dinner to go at La Hacienda Taqueria. The White House said the business started out as a small taco stand in 1993 and now is a successful family-run restaurant and market.
Republican Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, who did not attend Obama's event, said the current immigration system isn't working, but Obama should have worked with lawmakers on a solution instead of taking executive action.
"I think this was kind of rolling a hand grenade in room and blew up the possibility for a good discussion that we should have had, and that long term it will be harmful to really solving the immigration situation," Haslam told reporters after a speech to the Farm Bureau in Franklin, Tennessee.
Obama said Americans may not think about Nashville as a gateway to America, but noted that the city has one of the nation's fastest-growing immigrant communities and is home to the largest Kurdish population in the U.S. "They are us," Obama said. And, he added: "They make the food better."
Obama said he recognizes it will be hard to convince some Republicans to work with him on immigration. "They're pretty sure I'm an illegal immigrant," Obama said, pausing before adding: "That was a joke."
Associated Press writer Erik Schelzig in Franklin, Tennessee, contributed to this report. Follow Nedra Pickler on Twitter at https://twitter.com/nedrapickler