Written by Miriam Jordan
As President Donald Trump prepared to deliver his State of the Union address Tuesday, two guests who planned to be sitting in the gallery and listening closely were immigrants he has long known. They cleaned Trump’s cottage at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, despite lacking legal status in the United States.
Victorina Morales and Sandra Diaz are among some 20 immigrants, many of them facing possible deportation from the United States, on the list of guests to be seated in the secure gallery for the annual event.
Even as the president aimed to wrap his speech in a theme of national unity, he was expected to make immigration — his signature issue — central to it, as divisive as it may be. His determination to build a wall along the southern border led recently to a 35-day government shutdown, and before the next government funding deadline, on Feb. 15, there is still no deal in sight.
“I am grateful to be here as the voice for 11 million undocumented immigrants asking for immigration reform,” said Morales, 46, a native of Guatemala who said that she had never been in trouble with the law and worked hard in her adopted country — including the five years she worked at Trump’s golf resort.
“I never thought this could happen,” said Diaz, 47, a native of Costa Rica who is now a legal resident of the United States. “It is an honor to meet important people and feel that immigrants are loved by so many Americans.”
But the two former housekeepers, invited by a pair of Democratic lawmakers, represent just one side of the fractious immigration debate: Among those Trump invited were the daughter, granddaughter and great-granddaughter of Gerald and Sharon David, a Nevada couple killed in their home last month by an immigrant who was in the country illegally.
Republican lawmakers chose guests whose experiences they believe bolstered their calls for a crackdown on illegal immigration and fortification of the southern border.
Michael Burgess, a Republican lawmaker from Texas, was hosting Chris Odette, whose daughter, Chrishia, 13, was struck and killed as she was crossing the street in 2014 by a vehicle driven by an unauthorized immigrant who had no driver’s license. The driver was freed on bail and evaded immigration authorities when they went to arrest him, said Odette, a resident of Rockwall, Texas. “It is important to me to hear that the president is doing something to address the immigration issue,” Odette said. “People who keep trying to block it don’t seem to care because they are not touched by the loss.”
Sen. Marsha Blackburn and Rep. Tim Burchett, both Tennessee Republicans, invited the parents of Pierce Corcoran, 22, who died in a head-on vehicle collision in December with an unauthorized immigrant in the Knoxville area. Also among the Republican invitees were leaders of the U.S. Border Patrol union, which has been a staunch backer of the president and his plan for a wall on the border.
Democratic lawmakers, for their part, hosted immigrants who have been targeted by the Trump administration’s more vigorous immigration enforcement policies, including mothers separated from their children under the “zero-tolerance” border policy, which was suspended in late June amid widespread public outrage.
Albertina Contreras and Yakelin Garcia, a Guatemalan mother and daughter invited by Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., were separated at the border on May 24 and were unable to communicate for more than a month before being reunited July 12. Having fled domestic violence, they are living in Murfreesburo, Tennessee, while they fight in court to remain in the United States.
“I want to live here and get papers. It is a privilege to be here,” said Yakelin, who was dressed in a black-and-white dress and matching blazer for the occasion, which coincided with her 12th birthday.
Gerald Michaud, 47, has been living in Brooklyn under Temporary Protected Status since an earthquake ravaged his native Haiti in 2010. The TPS program enables him to live and work in the United States, but the Trump administration has moved to cancel the program later this year for Haitians, Salvadorans and others. “I am proud to represent more than 300,000 immigrants who would like a permanent solution,” said Michaud, who is a wheelchair attendant at La Guardia Airport and teaches martial arts to at-risk youth. “We are afraid. I am working legally, which I cannot do if I lose TPS.”
The State of the Union address has long been a platform for presidents to report on key issues and seek congressional support. This is not the first time it has been used to make a statement about the nation’s lingering divisions over immigration. In 2016, President Barack Obama invited a Syrian refugee to his State of the Union address to send the message that refugees were not a threat to the country.
But what will distinguish this year’s speech from past years’ is the sheer number of invitees whose immigration status is uncertain because of the president’s policies.
Attorney General Xavier Becerra of California was scheduled to deliver the Democrats’ Spanish-language response to Trump’s address. That, too, is likely to focus in part on immigration: California has been outspoken in combating the president’s immigration policies.
As for Morales and Diaz, the former housekeepers at the president’s golf club, Tuesday night marked a first. Until recently, neither had been to Washington before, let alone attended a joint session of Congress.
In recent weeks, though, the two women have been meeting with members of Congress and aides on Capitol Hill, hoping to spur an investigation into the difference between the president’s harsh words on immigration and his companies’ own hiring policies.
“We wanted to highlight the hypocrisy of the administration,” said Rep. Jimmy Gomez, D-Calif., who invited Diaz. “The president demonizes immigrants, documented and undocumented, and also relies heavily on them.”