WASHINGTON -- When President Barack Obama stood before Congress on Tuesday and urged the House to "get immigration reform done this year," 22-year-old undocumented immigrant Mayra Rubio Limon watched Republicans in the crowd from her seat in the gallery, looking for their reactions.
State of the Union guests are often chosen to make some kind of statement, but for them, it's a chance to see the people up close who will determine their fates, especially for the undocumented immigrants and family members of undocumented immigrants who are invited.
"I was looking at the Republicans," Limon said after the president's address. "Most of the time they stayed seated, they didn't applaud much, so I was trying to keep an eye out for them to see their reactions to what Obama was saying. It's not a surprise the way that they acted, it just shows that we have to work harder for them to come our way and help pass immigration reform."
Limon was one of a handful of so-called Dreamers invited as guests to the State of the Union for 2014, a year advocates hope will see the passage of immigration reform. Limon, who came to the U.S. from Mexico at three months old, was invited as a guest of Rep. Joe Garcia (D-Fla.). First lady Michelle Obama invited Dreamer Cristian Avila, a 23-year-old and activist with Mi Familia Vota who recently completed a 22-day fast for immigration reform. Twenty-five-year-old Dreamer Maria Torres attended as a guest of Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.), and Rep. Brad Schneider (D-Ill.) invited 22-year-old Dreamer Estefania Garcia.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) invited Lorella Praeli, the director of advocacy and policy for Dreamer-led group United We Dream. Praeli, who is now 25, came to the U.S. from Peru when she was 11 years old for medical treatment and was undocumented until about a year and a half ago, when she received a green card through a family petition. Her mother and sister are still undocumented, however, and she said the self-designation of "Dreamer" doesn't really go away.
Praeli said she was disappointed that Obama devoted so few words to immigration reform, and that he has said he'll go around Congress on other issues but not this one. She acknowledged that some say Obama is trying to give House Republicans space to work, but said Dreamers can't do the same.
"We've given Republicans room since last June -- since before June of 2013. We've given Obama room," Praeli said. "In 2014 there's no time to give either one of them any room."
Obama's message on immigration was brief. While talking about economic growth, he devoted five sentences to the need for immigration reform, noting the Senate had already passed a bill and urging the House to act as well.
"Republicans and Democrats in the Senate have acted," he said. "I know that members of both parties in the House want to do the same. ... So let’s get immigration reform done this year."
Avila, the first lady's guest, said he was too excited when Obama began discussing immigration to look down at the Republicans' reactions. It was his second time watching proceedings on the House floor from the gallery. But his previous time had been much different: he was nearing the end of his participation in the "Fast for Families," and sat with his fellow fasters, hungry and tired, in the House gallery where they would be recognized by members. On Tuesday, less than two months later and near the same spot, Avila watched the president vowing to push for immigration reform.
He said afterward that he thought it was a good speech, but he also wants more. Like Praeli, Avila argued that Obama could do more to stop deportations while he's pushing for immigration reform.
"We were looking for those words of hope from the president to keep on moving forward," he said of the State of the Union. "And we're really hoping not only to hear those words of hope but see those actions come to life and give some kind of relief to our families."
In general, Dreamers applauded the speech. Garcia, Schneider's guest, said the address made her "very hopeful and optimistic" about the future of immigration reform. The congressman echoed her statements.
"Knowing that there were Dreamers in the audience, knowing the president was speaking to the Congress, and the clear, definitive statement 'pass immigration reform this year,' I am hopeful that message will come through and this will be the year that we'll finally move forward," Schneider said after the speech.
Torres, the Dreamer who attended as Foster's guest, said she would have liked to hear more from Obama about immigration, but that she didn't necessarily expect more, given the constraints of the speech. Instead, she hoped that the presence of Dreamers and activists in attendance could send a message.
"That's why we're here," she said. "That's the reason advocates and Dreamers came today, why we were invited today: so we can remind Congress of the importance of immigration reform."