The audience will include more than 30 Americans touched by gun violence and several undocumented immigrants – a human face on two of the most significant legislative challenges Mr. Obama will face in the coming year.
It’s typical that lawmakers extend their single guest ticket to a representative of one of their cherished causes or a constituent with special relevance to the night’s proceedings.
For instance, House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio – who gets extra tickets for his high rank – has a guest list featuring two students and one principal from a Catholic school – an institution dear to him – and a former batboy from the Cincinnati Reds with an inspirational story, among others.
More than two dozen Democratic lawmakers, however, banded together to give their coveted tickets to a bloc of gun-violence victims – a counterweight to the widely discussed choice of Rep. Steve Stockman (R), of Texas, to invite rock star and gun rights advocate Ted Nugent. The Democratic effort was spearheaded by Rep. James Langevin (D) of Rhode Island, who was paralyzed from the neck down in a firearms accident as a young police recruit.
Mr. Langevin invited Jim Tyrell of Warwick, R.I., whose sister Debbie was murdered during a robbery of her convenience store in 2004. Mr. Tyrell made his first-ever trip to the nation’s capital to “be a small part of gun control on behalf of my sister,” he said.
When Obama speaks to those who have been touched by gun violence, Tyrell said he hopes the president “looks at all these people’s lives and says, ‘That doesn’t have to happen to another person. Let’s do something about gun control now. The violence out there is outrageous.' ”
Tyrell was part of an emotional news conference inside the Capitol on Tuesday, where he joined a dozen lawmakers and some three dozen other individuals affected by gun violence who will be in the audience Tuesday night, including the parents of a girl killed in Newtown, Conn., the family of a girl killed in Chicago only days after performing in Obama’s inaugural parade, and the mother of a student killed in the Virginia Tech shooting.
For Julieta Garibay, an advocate and undocumented immigrant, being able to sit before the president reminded her of just how far those without legal status have come.
Ms. Garibay, who will be the guest of Rep. Marc Veasey (D) of Texas, was talking to a friend hours before the speech and recalled joining the movement in support of the DREAM Act – which would allow the children of undocumented immigrants a special path to legal status – eight years ago, “when it was very scary to even share my story because it wasn’t normal to say ‘I’m undocumented and unafraid,’ ” Garibay says. “And [now] I’m thinking, ‘I’m going to be sitting next to the very people who vote and who make immigration reform possible.’”
Garibay is too old to qualify for the deferred action program announced by Obama last summer, which offers a two-year stay of deportation and the ability to obtain a work permit, and so remains in immigration limbo.
But as someone who came to America 20 years ago as a youth, she can hardly believe she’s carrying the DREAMer banner all the way into Congress.
“It feels like such a huge responsibility,” she says. “It’s going to be an unforgettable.”
Binding the two groups together is the hopeful feeling that Obama will help usher through Congress legislation in support of their respective causes.
“Please,” said Ms. Nottingham, addressing both the president and members of Congress, “don’t let us down.”