Stepping up his demand to change the nation's immigration laws, President Barack Obama on Friday promised graduates at a vast, multicultural community college that he'll keep working to help students not legally in the U.S. to become American citizens.
The president's renewed endorsement of the DREAM Act, which has become a rallying cry for Hispanic and other students around the country, drew enthusiastic applause from more than 3,000 graduates of Miami Dade College at their commencement ceremony. The students are part of an increasingly important political constituency in a state that will be crucial to the president's 2012 re-election hopes.
The college graduates more Hispanic students than any other higher education institution in the U.S. Obama took note that some students had recently identified themselves publicly as immigrants without legal status in the country.
"Some were brought here as young children and discovered the truth only as adults," he said. "They put their futures on the line in hopes they will spur the rest of us to live up to our most cherished values."
It was Obama's first commencement address of this graduation season. He called on students to take responsibility for the future and portrayed the United States as an optimistic land with vast opportunities. But the speech had a clear political tone as well, demanding that older Americans have proper access to health care and calling for an overhaul of the immigration system.
Obama has made little progress on his commitment to immigration changes since taking office, discouraging some Latino voters and particularly students.
More than two dozen students, many of them undocumented, chanted and waved signs outside the graduation ceremony, calling on Obama to take executive action and halt the deportation of youths who would qualify for the DREAM Act. Inside, Obama said that he could not act on his own and that he needed Congress to change the law.
The students, from universities throughout the South Florida area, were dressed in black gowns striped with white masking tape to make them look like prisoners.
"Education, not deportation!" they shouted.
Obama has been elevating the profile of the immigration issue lately. He met with high-profile Hispanic entertainment and media figures on Thursday. Last week, he met with about 70 public officials and leaders from different constituencies to urge them to press for changes in immigration among their communities and spheres of influence.
Associated Press writer Christine Armario in Miami contributed to this report.