Why These Undocumented Immigrants Joined President Obama At The State Of The Union

CREDIT: ThinkProgress/ Esther Lee

When Cristian Avila was rejected for a college scholarship a few years ago, his mother “fell to her knees” crying and profusely apologized. That was the moment Avila found out that he was undocumented. He had been rejected for a scholarship “not because of bad grades, but because I was missing nine numbers” on a Social Security card. Lorella Praella came to the United States as a toddler from Peru after a freak car accident left her with an amputated right leg. Her parents decided that the United States would offer her a better life and never left. On Tuesday night, they both joined many of the nation’s most powerful individuals (and at least four other undocumented immigrant advocates) to support President Barack Obama’s (D) likely call for immigration reform at his annual State of the Union Address.

Avila, Praella, and the other DREAMers were invited guests to the Address. They were all brought to the country as young children and would like Congressional members to understand the kind of pain that undocumented immigrants experience when there isn’t a fix to the broken immigration system. All the DREAMers qualified under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which has been a temporary blessing since the program only offers a two-year deportation reprive and work authorization.

For Avila, First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden’s invited guest, the fight was so personal that he fasted for 22 days late last year. Not only has he been unable to qualify for scholarships, but he also saw his best friend put into deportation proceedings. Avila is now working as a voter engagement coordinator in Phoenix, Arizona. But he also said in a press release, “We have an immigration crisis that needs to be addressed today. My family and millions of others are expecting Congress to produce and vote on legislation that could help keep our families together and continue building our economy … we’re not going away until Congress passes and the president signs into law immigration reform legislation that brings justice to families and workers.”

Lorella Praeli was two years old in Peru when a car pinned her leg against a wall. She was rushed to the hospital where doctors amputated her leg. Her parents brought her to the United States “driven by the belief that the U.S. would be a place where their daughter’s disability would not define what she could and could not do,” as Voxxi reported. She is Rep. Zoe Lofgren’s (D-CA) invited guest and now works as the Director of Advocacy and Policy at United We Dream, touted as the first and largest immigrant youth-led advocacy group. She has been instrumental in fighting for tuition equity, notably fighting for in-state tuition for undocumented students living in Connecticut. While Praeli is thrilled about her invitation, she hopes that Congress would “halt the deportations of men and women who would be on the path to citizenship under legislation currently on hold.”

The other invited undocumented immigrants also struggled with their legal status, but have thrived under the DACA program. Lucas Codognolla, Rep. Jim Himes’s (D-CT) invited guest, is finally able to apply for a driver’s license so that he can drive to work. Mayra Rubio Limon, Rep. Joe Garcia’s (D-FL) invited guest, can finally stop picking zucchinis and avocados to go to college. While she’s thrilled to go to college, she is worried that her parents will never be able to visit their aging parents. And both Maria Torres and Estefania Garcia, invited guests of the Illinois House Democrats Reps. Luis Gutierrez, Mike Quigley, Jan Schakowsky, Brad Schneider and Bill Foster, were brought to the country as youths. The DACA program has made it possible for them to work at nonprofit organizations to help immigrant families.

Meanwhile, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) invited Service Employee International Union’s (SEIU) Eliseo Medina as her guest of honor. Medina, a legal immigrant, fasted with Avila last year.

Each of these individuals represent the success of the DACA program. Before DACA, these individuals were largely excluded from pursuing permanent, professional employment and even basic privileges like a driver’s license (as Codognolla experienced). But their presence at the State of the Union was also an acknowledgment that the DACA program is not a permanent fix to the broken immigration system.

In a press release put out by United We Dream on Tuesday, Praeli said that she was “committed to fight just like we did for DACA and will not take no for an answer. We’ll remind the President of the promises he made as a presidential candidate and hold him accountable for the 1,100 people his administration deports every day.”