Immigration likely to be a theme of State of the Union address

After a failed bipartisan national security bill and amid reports that the White House is considering executive action that could restrict asylum, the nation’s immigration crisis will be a topic of interest for many attending President Biden’s State of the Union address Thursday.

Biden is expected to tout his first-term successes, including increased infrastructure and manufacturing spending, and talk about how he would improve the economy further during a second term.

But how much of his address will he devote to discussing immigration? Listeners may be disappointed.

“Do you want to remind people that ‘I’ve been in office for three years and we’ve had more people come across the border than [ever]’? It’s somewhat of a failure,” said Alison Howard, a political science professor at Dominican University of California who researches State of the Union speeches.

“You can’t ignore it,” Howard said. “But do you want that to be the takeaway from your State of the Union address? I would think not.”

Attendees will tell a different story. Several members of Congress have announced invited guests who symbolize various aspects of the debate.

Among them are a Border Patrol agent from New York; an immigrant rights activist from Chicago; Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program recipients; and the wife of a man killed by a neighbor in Texas who said Latinos weren’t welcome in his community.

Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank) is bringing United Farm Workers President Teresa Romero to draw attention to his support for a pathway to citizenship for farmworkers. On Tuesday, Schiff won his primary bid to vie for the U.S. Senate in November, buoyed in part by support from labor unions like the UFW.

Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) is bringing Brandon Budlong, a Border Patrol agent and president of Local 2724 of the National Border Patrol Council, the union that represents agents in the Buffalo sector along the northern border. Stefanik voted for the Republican-led Secure the Border Act and voted to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas.

“Biden’s radical policies have incentivized an unprecedented amount of illegal crossings into the Swanton and Buffalo sectors putting tens of thousands of lives, including that of our Border Patrol agents, at risk,” Stefanik wrote in a statement announcing her guest.

The Homeland Security Department has said that the increase is due to a global migration challenge that isn’t unique to the U.S.

Officer Zunxu Tian and Lt. Ben Kurian of the New York Police Department are attending as guests of House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) and GOP New York Reps. Anthony D’Esposito and Nicole Malliotakis. A viral video showed the officers being assaulted in Times Square in January by a group of people who police said included migrants — though at least one was later cleared of wrongdoing. Johnson also invited a woman whose daughter was allegedly killed by a Salvadoran MS-13 gang member.

California’s Sen. Alex Padilla is bringing Dr. Denisse Rojas Marquez, a recipient of DACA, the Obama-era program for immigrants known as “Dreamers” who were brought to the U.S. as minors. Rojas Marquez is an emergency room resident physician at Boston Medical Center and a co-founder of Pre-Health Dreamers, an organization that helps immigrants access healthcare and pursue careers in the field.

“I fully expect the president to address border security,” said Padilla, who who opposed the bipartisan bill because it didn’t include a legalization component for Dreamers and other immigrants.

“If he’s going to lead on this, he needs to remember what he said when he was running for president a few years ago — that it’s a comprehensive approach that’s necessary. It’s not just appropriate but important that he holds Republicans accountable,” the senator said.

A White House official, who discussed Biden’s address on condition of anonymity, said the president planned to say that the Republican-controlled House should pass the bipartisan national security bill and address the need for more resources and policy reforms.

Rep. Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana) is also bringing along a DACA recipient — Valeria Delgado, a Chapman University student and aspiring physician assistant.

Correa, the top Democrat on the House border and enforcement subcommittee, said he has brought a so-called Dreamer to the event every year since he was elected in 2017. Given the heightened rhetoric around immigration, he said, the tradition is especially important this year.

Correa said that immigration was one of the biggest issues that brought him to Congress, and that it has been oversimplified into a single political talking point. But there are three distinct issues, he said: longtime immigrants who have spent decades working and paying taxes but remain undocumented; the crisis of newly arriving migrants driven by global economic instability exacerbated by COVID-19; and the threat of real terrorism.

He expressed frustration that despite longtime bipartisan support for Dreamers, congressional gridlock has prevented passage of reforms, even those that both major parties agree on.

“I need to continue to remind people we need to get back to the basics,” Correa said. “Our economy needs workers — we need good, solid, hardworking people — and we need to continue to work for commonsense immigration reform.”

But he said the current political environment is so toxic for immigrants that he doesn’t expect reform to happen anytime soon. Too many of his colleagues, he said, “would probably be putting their careers on the line.”

In the weeks leading up to Biden’s State of the Union address, the White House has been hammering Republicans to help pass the border security bill. The president has taken an increasingly tough tone on the topic, saying he would shut down the border if given the ability.

Former President Trump baselessly claimed while campaigning in North Carolina on Saturday for Super Tuesday’s primaries that “Biden’s conduct on our border is by any definition a conspiracy to overthrow the United States of America.”

In response, Biden campaign spokesman Ammar Moussa pointed to the failed bill. “Once again Trump is projecting in an attempt to distract the American people from the fact he killed the fairest and toughest border security bill in decades because he believed [inaction by Congress] would help his campaign,” Moussa said in a statement.

Howard, the Dominican University professor, said the tradition of inviting guests to the State of the Union is used to put human faces on policy issues.

This year, First Lady Jill Biden has invited Kate Cox, the Texas woman who was denied an emergency abortion by the state’s Supreme Court.

Guests are also invited to be recognized as heroes, as happened last year when the president invited Brandon Tsay, who had disarmed the mass shooter in Monterey Park.

“Members of Congress are paying attention to what they think will help support the party or embarrass the other party with their choice of guest,” Howard said.

On immigration, Biden is unlikely to convince Congress to enact immediate reforms with his speech, she said. But he could talk about the Trump-era executive orders he reversed when he first took office and discuss what to expect in a second term on the issue.

Times staff writer Noah Bierman contributed to this report.