By Jeff Mason
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (Reuters) - President Barack Obama sought to reassure Latinos on Tuesday that signing up for deportation relief under his new immigration policy was safe and would not put them in jeopardy if his White House successor tried to overturn the action.
Supported strongly by immigration activists and staunchly opposed by many Republicans, Obama's controversial executive action removed the threat of deportation for up to 4.7 million undocumented immigrants. But it sparked fears that coming out of the shadows now could leave immigrants vulnerable later if another administration rescinded the policy.
Under the policy enacted last month, eligible undocumented immigrants must submit to background checks and start paying taxes.
During a town hall style question and answer session in Tennessee, Obama acknowledged a new president could try to reverse his orders.
"It's true that, theoretically, a future administration could do something that I think would be very damaging," he said. "It's not likely politically that they reverse everything that we've done, but it could be ... that some people then end up being in a disadvantageous position."
Nonetheless, he predicted that a future president would not reverse his policy because good-hearted Americans wanted immigrants who were registered and paying taxes to stay.
"Any future administration that tried to punish people for doing the right thing, I think would not have the support of the American people," Obama added.
Democrats largely support Obama's action and a successor from his party would be unlikely to change course, but a Republican president could shake up the system when Obama leaves office in early 2017.
Hispanics are an important political constituency for both parties, but tilt toward Democrats.
Obama noted it would take a lot of work from community organizations, churches and local agencies to register people.
Only 55 percent of the estimated 1.2 million young people eligible under Obama's 2012 executive action - known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals - have applied, according to a report in August by the Migration Policy Institute.
The latest program was modeled after DACA, which stopped deportation and granted work permits to immigrants brought illegally into the country as young children.
The White House said Obama came to Nashville because the city has one of the fastest growing immigrant populations in the country.
(Reporting by Jeff Mason. Editing by Andre Grenon)