President Barack Obama made time during his Chicago visit Tuesday to talk about the volatile situation in Ferguson, Missouri — but it was his planned comments about immigration that sparked the most passion.
The president was interrupted for about five minutes by a couple of very vocal hecklers yelling criticism and questions at him at the Copernicus Center on the Northwest Side. The outburst came after he stressed that the new executive orders he put in place last week would target “felons, not families.”
PHOTOS: Obama’s Chicago visit
A woman, who sat just rows behind the president on stage, first began yelling while holding a sign that read “Obama Stop Deportations Now.”
That woman’s shouts were followed by another heckler who stood up on the right side of the auditorium: “Mr. President, that has been a lie,” she yelled regarding deportations.
The president engaged in a conversation with the hecklers, for nearly five minutes before going back to his planned remarks.
“It’s good to be back in Chicago because everyone has got something to say,” Obama joked after responding to the hecklers concerns but asking them to be respectful and let him speak.
“OK, OK, I heard you,’ he said. “Hold on. Hold on. Young lady, don’t just start yelling, young lady. Sir, why don’t you sit down too.”
“I’ve heard you. But you’ve got to listen to me, too,” Obama said. “And I understand you may disagree. . . . But we’ve got to be able to talk honestly about these issues.”
After letting the hecklers vent their anger, Obama conceded “You’re absolutely right that there have been significant numbers of deportations. That’s true. But what you’re not paying attention to is the fact that I just took action to change law,” he said to applause.
“The point is that, though I understand why you might have yelled at me a month ago, although I disagree with some of your characterizations, it doesn’t make much sense to yell at me right now when we’re making changes.”
Although most in the crowd stayed silent during the disruption, one man stood up to yell at the women to sit down. Some others shouted “sit down” or booed.
The protesters were not removed from the auditorium.
The president began his remarks Tuesday with an addendum to his nationally televised speech Monday night as riots broke out in Ferguson following the grand jury’s decision not to hand down any indictments.
“The frustrations that we’ve seen are not just about a particular incident. They have deep roots in many communities of color who have a sense that our laws are not always being enforced uniformly or fairly,” Obama said.
Obama said those frustrations are “rooted in realities that have existed in this country for a long time.”
But he contrasted the productive ways to deal with that frustration and the destructive ways.
“Burning buildings, torching cars, destroying property, putting people at risk — that’s destructive, and there’s no excuse for it. Those are criminal acts, and people should be prosecuted if they engage in criminal acts.”
He credited the Americans who gathered Monday night and Tuesday in peaceful protests and spoke about the need to have more trust between law enforcement and communities.
“If any part of the American community doesn’t feel welcomed or treated fairly, that’s something that puts all of us at risk and we all have to be concerned about,” Obama said.
He said it wasn’t his job as president to comment on the ongoing investigation but said Attorney General Eric Holder will hold regional meetings focused on building trust in communities.
“My message to those who are constructively moving forward … I want all those folks to know that their president is going to work with them,” Obama said to applause.
Switching back to his calls for a comprehensive immigration bill, the president highlighted the economic benefits of immigration, citing a study that found immigrants and their children start over 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies.
“The actions we’re taking will grow the economy for everybody,” he said.
But he warned there’s much more work to do and urged the Congress to act.
“Pass a bill. I want to work with both parties on a more permanent legislative solution.”
Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Gov. Pat Quinn greeted Obama as Air Force One landed about 3 p.m. The president spent just under four hours in his hometown, heading straight to the Copernicus Center, where he and Emanuel first met with leaders involved in immigration services for Chicago’s Polish, Irish, Latino and Chinese communities.
Obama spoke to a crowd of 1,800 people in his push to boost support for a comprehensive immigration bill that would protect millions of immigrants from deportation.