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Amid Immigration Controversy, Obama Focuses on Economy

In a speech in downtown Austin on Thursday, President Obama largely avoided discussion of the ongoing immigration troubles in Texas, and instead talked about economic progress made under his watch.

President Barack Obama in a speech to Texas Democrats at the Paramount Theater July 10, 2014.

President Obama touted economic progress made under his watch since the nation fell into financial crisis, and he urged Americans to have faith in their government in a speech Thursday at the Paramount Theatre in downtown Austin.

"We have come farther and recovered faster, thanks to you, than just about any other nation on Earth," Obama said.

The speech came during the president's three-day swing through Colorado and Texas.

On Wednesday, he stopped in Dallas, meeting with Gov. Rick Perry and others to talk about the ongoing immigration crisis before arriving in Austin and speaking at a fundraiser.

After the speech Thursday, Obama ate at Austin's famous Franklin Barbecue — cutting its infamously long line — before heading back to Washington. There were no scheduled meetings or appearances with state Sens. Wendy Davis and Leticia Van de Putte, the Democratic nominees for governor and lieutenant governor, respectively. Davis said in a speech Thursday to the Association of Texas Professional Educators that she thought Obama should visit the border to view for himself the humanitarian crisis caused by thousands of immigrants crossing into Texas from Central America. Attorney General Greg Abbott, her Republican gubernatorial opponent, called Obama "all hat and no cattle" in a press conference in downtown Austin hours before the president spoke.

Obama has said he chose not to visit the border as a "photo op," and McAllen Mayor Jim Darling in the Rio Grande Valley said such a trip would have been expensive for the region, which is already facing the cost of caring for thousands of migrants. 

Despite the economic focus of Thursday's speech, it was the immigration crisis on the border that dominated Obama’s time in Texas. His speech, which was free and open to the public, avoided those issues. Obama focused instead — as he did in a similar speech Wednesday in Denver — on promoting his administration’s efforts to improve the economy in the wake of the recession, and on criticizing Republicans.

The president was introduced by Kinsey Button, a University of Texas student who wrote to Obama earlier this year about her parents' unemployment and about the difficulty of paying for college. Obama met with Button before the speech, and he cited the experience of her family her father recently found a job as a parallel to the nation's current economic trajectory.

Inside the theater, which was draped in Texas and American flags and patriotic bunting, Obama emphasized the gains that the middle class has made since the recession. He said that he has experienced many of the economic challenges facing Americans and that he would fight to alleviate them.

After reciting a laundry list of improvements the country has seen in recent years, Obama went on the attack. He lambasted congressional Republicans for stymieing his proposals on immigration, education, the minimum wage, equal pay for women and infrastructure. "They’re common-sense things; they’re not that radical. We know it’s what we should be doing," he said. "And what drives me nuts, and I know drives you nuts, is Washington isn’t doing it."

As the crowd  enthusiastic Obama supporters began to boo the Republicans, he said, "Don’t boo now, because what I want you to do is vote."

Obama criticized Republican efforts to sue him over what they call an overreached of his authority. They saying that he has issued executive orders at the lowest rate in 100 years, and mocked talk of impeachment. "You’re gonna sue me for doing my job?" he said. "I’ve got a better idea: Do something."

At the end of his speech, Obama roused the crowd, portraying disillusionment as the bogeyman.

"Cynicism is popular these days. It’s what passes off as wisdom," he said. "But cynics didn’t put a man on the moon. Cynics never won a war. Cynics didn’t cure a disease or start a business or feed a young mind. … Cynicism is a choice. Hope is a better choice."

Outside, after the speech, those words resonated with many. "It was really amazing," said Robin Burwell, a Pflugerville resident who traveled to Austin for the speech. "It was very motivational about hope and our economy — what we can do as citizens to make things happen."

Others weren't interested in his message. "I don't think he should have been allowed in Texas," said Debra Robinson, of nearby Round Rock, who protested outside during the speech with other members of the anti-Obama activist group Overpasses for America. "He needs to fix America." 

Robinson said she was concerned about the situation along the border. Though his speech largely sidestepped the issue, Obama participated in a roundtable in Dallas on Wednesday with local elected officials and faith leaders about the humanitarian crisis along the border, where tens of thousands of Central Americans have crossed illegally in recent months.

Obama also met with Perry — among his most vocal critics — to privately discuss the issue.

At a Wednesday news conference, Obama said he and the governor agreed on many immediate policy points and that Perry could help achieve them if he encouraged Texas Republicans in Congress to approve supplemental funding requested by the administration.

The White House on Tuesday asked Congress to appropriate $3.7 billion to bolster the response to the deluge of children that have come from poor, violence-wracked Central American nations. Republicans deeply opposed to Obama’s immigration policies were quick to signal their skepticism of his funding request.

Before the speech, Obama attended two Democratic National Committee fundraising events at private residences. On Wednesday night, he attended a dinner reception for about 150 at the Austin home of director Robert Rodriguez. Ticket prices started at $5,000, according to a DNC official. On Thursday morning, he attended a roundtable at the house of Aimee Boone Cunningham, a Democratic activist and assistant secretary of the Center for Reproductive Rights. About 30 guests donated up to $32,400.

Even at the fundraisers, Obama could not escape the drumbeat of immigration concerns. A block from Rodriguez’s home — as close as Secret Service would allow — protesters unfurled a banner that read “Defund deportations.”

Led by LGBTQ rights group GetEQUAL and United We Dream’s University Leadership Initiative, the group of roughly 15 people highlighted the plight of Erik Zumaya, who has been in the United States for 15 years and is scheduled for a deportation Friday that will separate him from his American wife and six children.

Jessica Zumaya, his wife, told reporters that the Austin family was out of legal options after fighting the scheduled deportation since 2010, when a police officer found Erik Zumaya driving without a license.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Zumaya said through tears. “We’re just lost at this point.”

A final notice of deportation reached the family Monday.

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Demographics Economy Immigration Barack Obama Rick Perry