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President Barack Obama delivered his final State of the Union address Tuesday night before an almost-full joint session of Congress. Almost full because of the empty seat next to first lady Michelle Obama. The White House stated, “We leave one seat empty in the First Lady’s State of the Union Guest Box for the victims of gun violence who no longer have a voice – because they need the rest of us to speak for them. To tell their stories. To honor their memory.”
That symbol, the empty chair, creates a moment to reflect on who else wasn’t seated in that august gallery in the Capitol, like the undocumented immigrants rounded up in the New Year’s raids by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Hundreds, if not thousands (the number is not known), of people, mostly from the Central American nations of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, have been arrested in raids across the country. Entire families, single mothers with children and individuals, many of whom fled for their lives from violence in their home countries, now are being swept up by armed federal agents and prepared for deportation.
I asked Maryland Congresswoman Donna Edwards, now running for the Senate, about the ICE raids. “I think it’s irresponsible,” she told me. “this sort of extreme enforcement in communities that, in the congressional district that I represent, is causing so much great fear - children not going to school, people not going to work, being afraid to be seen and visible in their communities.” Her sentiments have been echoed on the campaign trail by both Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The raids have provoked protests across the country. Last Friday, seven people were arrested in New York City in front of the local ICE headquarters, chaining themselves together and blocking traffic. Among those arrested was Claudia Palacios. Her story is remarkable. She was born in Texas and served for five years in the U.S. Marines, with two years in Okinawa and several years around the world deployed with a Marine Expeditionary Unit. Even though she served her country honorably, this U.S.-born military veteran has documentation issues of her own.
Her mother was undocumented. Like many pregnant women in her situation, she was afraid to go to the hospital. Claudia was born with the help of a midwife in a trailer park. It was the midwife who signed her birth certificate. “That birth certificate was recognized by the military in order for me to join the service,” she told us on the “Democracy Now!” news hour. “Once I was an active-duty service member, I applied with the Department of State for a passport, and they failed to recognize my birth certificate.” Now, out of the Marines without her U.S. military I.D. badge and no passport, “I’m basically stateless,” she explained. “I can’t leave my country.”
The empty chair was on the first lady’s right. On her left sat decorated war veteran Oscar Vazquez. The same White House press statement that described the symbolism of the chair said that Vasquez “came to the United States as a child in search of a better life. From age 12 when he moved from Mexico to Phoenix, Arizona, Oscar excelled in the classroom. ... But without legal status, he couldn’t secure a job to provide for his new wife and newborn child.” After receiving a green card, his biography continued, “Oscar enlisted in the Army to serve the country he loves and calls home. Oscar served one tour in Afghanistan and is now a proud U.S. citizen.”
Claudia Palacios was not satisfied: “I think it’s a mockery to have him be a guest, an honored guest, at the State of the Union,” she explained, “and then not even initiate the conversation of immigration and how we are going to deal with this or how we’re going to create sanctuaries for people that are being targeted.”
The victims of gun violence deserve a seat, they deserve to have their stories told, and the president is to be commended for taking that stand. But the people in this country who have fled gun violence, whether from Central America, or Syria or Afghanistan or Iraq, they, too, deserve a seat and a place of sanctuary. That will make the state of the union strong.