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Five Years of the “Same Rhetoric”: Immigration Activist Faults Obama’s SOTU, Deportation Policy

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At last night’s State of the Union, a DREAM activist was among the guests invited by first lady Michelle Obama. Twenty-three-year-old Cristian Ávila of Arizona fasted for 22 days to push for immigration reform as part of the “Fast for Families” campaign, which took place on the National Mall. But Obama made no reference to Ávila and limited his remarks on immigration to a short passage. “This has been the same rhetoric that we’ve been hearing for the last five years,” says Lorella Praeli, director of advocacy and policy at the United We Dream coalition. “For us, we don’t need to give any room to the president on deportations, and we don’t need to give any more room to Republicans on immigration either. We have been waiting and fighting to get something done. The president’s remarks could have gone in deeper and set some legislative markers as well.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: On the issue of immigration, at last night’s State of the Union a DREAM activist was among the guests invited by first lady Michelle Obama. And that was 23-year-old Cristian Ávila of Arizona, fasted for 22 days to push for immigration reform as part of the Fast for Families campaign, which took place on the National Mall. But Obama made no reference to Ávila and limited his remarks on immigration to this short passage.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: If we’re serious about economic growth, it is time to heed the call of business leaders, labor leaders, faith leaders, law enforcement, and fix our broken immigration system. Republicans and Democrats in the Senate have acted. And I know that members of both parties in the House want to do the same. Independent economists say immigration reform will grow our economy and shrink our deficits by almost $1 trillion in the next two decades. And for good reason: When people come here to fulfill their dreams—to study, invent, contribute to our culture—they make our country a more attractive place for businesses to locate and create jobs for everybody. So let’s get immigration reform done this year.

AMY GOODMAN: Lorella Praeli, your response to President Obama addressing immigration last night?

LORELLA PRAELI: So, this has been the same rhetoric that we’ve been hearing for the last five years—President Obama getting up and saying, “It’s time for immigration reform. I’m committed to making it happen.” And I think some people interpret last night’s 121 words, or one paragraph, on immigration by the president as his positioning to be a little bit more cautious, given that the Republican Party is about to release their principles on immigration reform and the way forward. But frankly, for us, we don’t need to give any room to the president on deportations, and we don’t need to give any more room to Republicans on immigration, either, because we have been waiting and we have been fighting to get something done. So I think that the president’s remarks could have—could have really gone in deeper into the details and set some legislative markers, as well. He spent quite a bit of time in his speech talking about the meaning of citizenship. He spoke a lot about American values. And I think he could have connected the current struggle and the current conversation happening in America, about what does it mean to be an American, what does it mean when we talk about citizenship, and how do we treat and deal and integrate the 11 million people who are undocumented. So I think he didn’t do enough in this year’s State of the Union, especially given that he says immigration reform is his top domestic priority.

AMY GOODMAN: Lorella, we want to talk about what it was like there last night—you were an invited guest—and also go more into detail about what is holding up any kind of vote on immigration reform, and also talk about your own story. Lorella Praeli is with the United We Dream coalition. Jeremy Scahill has an Oscar-nominated film this year; it is called Dirty Wars. And Bob Herbert is with us, former New York Times columnist with Demos. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Dear Mr. President,” Pete Seeger and The Almanac Singers. Pete died at the age of 94 on Monday here in New York at Columbia Presbyterian. President Obama did issue a statement from the White House yesterday before the State of the Union address about Pete Seeger, saying, “Once called ’America’s tuning fork,’ Pete Seeger believed deeply in the power of song. But more importantly, he believed in the power of community—to stand up for what’s right, speak out against what’s wrong and move this country closer to the America he knew we could be.” He said, “Over the years, Pete used his voice—and his hammer—to strike blows for workers’ rights and civil rights, world peace and environmental conservation.”

This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: In the Republican reaction to Obama’s State of the Union address, Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington said securing our borders is a key part of immigration reform.

REP. CATHY McMORRIS RODGERS: Yes, it’s time to honor our history of legal immigration. We’re working on a step-by-step solution to immigration reform, by first securing our borders and making sure America will always attract the best, brightest and hardest-working from around the world. And with too many Americans living paycheck to paycheck, we have solutions to help you take home more of your pay, through lower taxes, cheaper energy costs and affordable healthcare.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Lorella Praeli, your response to what she said, and also if you could say a little bit more about what you think is preventing President Obama from taking further action on immigration?

LORELLA PRAELI: Sure. I mean, we’re waiting for—you know, to the Republican Party and to members of the Republican conference, we say, “Show us your bills.” Right? So, they’re about to go into—they are now in their three-day retreat in Maryland, and they’re going to talk about and shop around their Republican principles. And I think it’s great that they’re making progress, but I really do think that it’s not enough. We’ve been fighting for this. We’ve been having a conversation about immigration for over a decade in this country. The Senate was able to produce a bill by last June 2013, and since then, House Republicans have been really trying to figure out how to move this issue forward, how to deal with it in their conference. So, you know, they can continue to say it’s a step-by-step approach. They can continue to use the talking points of “we need to secure our borders first.” The real question today is: Show us your plan, show us your bills, so that we can begin to actually have a conversation about what the ultimate solution is going to be.



AMY GOODMAN: President Obama talked about executive action on, for example, increasing the minimum wage for workers who work for federal contractors. What about on the issue of immigration? He continually says his hands are tied. What could he do as president?

LORELLA PRAELI: There’s a lot more he can do. He can start by enforcing and implementing his own priority policies, right? So he is saying that “I’m only removing serious criminals from the United States,” and the truth is that that is actually factually inaccurate. The president is going after families. The president’s policies are separating families. We lost one of—we lost the father of two U.S. citizen kids last month. He was held in detention for over a year—his name is Ardani—all because of a minor traffic violation. He missed the birth of his second child and was then deported. He doesn’t need any priority. The administration’s policies made him deportable, and that’s what ended up happening.

And so, we think that there’s more that the president can do to stop the pain in the community and to stop the separation. He can use his pen, just like he did on DACA, right? He came out with this policy and said, “DREAMers are not a priority for my administration. We are going to make sure that they stay here, that they have an opportunity to work here, until Congress takes action.” Now, Congress has been having a debate on immigration for a long time. And we are, as United We Dream, committed to seeing a legislative, permanent fix to this issue, but we cannot kid ourselves. Since this debate started after the 2012 elections, over 400,000 people have been deported. So we’re coming to the president and saying, “You also ought to use your pen to stop the pain in the community. You’ve got to use the pen to make sure that you’re not deporting people who ought to be in the United States with their families. And there’s more that you can do today and continue to fight for immigration reform.”

AMY GOODMAN: You talked about DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, Lorella. You, yourself, gained legal status through this, after fighting for this, fasting for this, marching for this, among many other young immigrants. Talk about your own personal experience and last night being there. I mean, what’s interesting about a young immigrant activist like you is you were very much on the outside, risking everything, risking deportation of yourselves and your families, and now you’re being invited to the State of the Union address. Explain the feeling. You have access to at least speak to these people, whether or not they’re passing the legislation you’re pushing for. What was it like to be inside?

LORELLA PRAELI: It was really—it was kind of unreal, to be honest. I think that—I think about my own journey, and I think about the journey of all of the DREAMers who we work with on a regular basis. And I think about the sacrifices that our parents have made for that, for yesterday, to be possible, for me to be at—

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us your own story, quickly, Lorella.

LORELLA PRAELI: So, I came here when I was 11 years old. I had had a car accident, and my right leg was amputated. I had treatment in Shriners Hospital in the United States. And I was undocumented for almost 13 years. And I was actually able to adjust my status and get my green card a year and a half ago. But I spent many years—I spent many years being afraid of living my life, of being who I am, and feeling very ashamed of being undocumented. And it was because I found United We Dream and the immigrant youth movement that I felt empowered, and I came out of the shadows, and I began to talk about what it meant and what it was like to be undocumented, and then worked to pass a tuition equity bill in Connecticut, and then came to advocate for the DREAM Act here.

So it’s been a real evolution for many DREAMers. We have gone from being undocumented and afraid to being undocumented and unafraid and demanding what we think is right, working for a more just society, and really honoring the sacrifices that our parents have made, Amy, because I would not be here today speaking with you, speaking with America and sharing my story, had it not been for all of the sacrifices that my mom made for this to be possible. She pushed me when I wanted to give up. She left her own country, her own comfort zone, and every day risks deportation for my dreams to be true.

So that is what this fight is about. That’s what this conversation in 2014 ought to be about. We know that there are proposals to secure the border. We know that there are—there’s a conversation happening about creating a pathway to legalization and an opportunity for citizenship. But we’ve got to remember who we’re talking about. We’re not talking about criminals. We’re talking about people like Chela Praeli, who raised me in America.

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