Victorina Morales, an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala seeking asylum in the United States, has risked deportation by immigration authorities for the past 19 years. Now, Morales plans to enter the United States Capitol to show President Donald Trump that she intends to stay—no matter what he pledges in his address to Congress.
On Tuesday night, Morales, who spent more than five of those years working at Trump’s New Jersey golf club, will join other undocumented immigrants at the State of the Union address as guests of members of Congress. In light of recent sting operations by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) as part of Trump’s sustained crackdown on immigration, the senators and representatives who invited undocumented immigrants to the Capitol are not taking any chances with the security of their charges.
Attorneys and translators will be at arm’s-length for the duration of Morales’ time in the nation’s capital, Anibal Romero, Morales’ attorney, told The Daily Beast, although he is skeptical that even Trump would push for the apprehension of immigrants seeking asylum during one of the most watched live events of the year.
“I’m just there to make sure that everything is covered, that nothing happens to her,” Romero said. “This is a high-profile case—this is a case that everyone’s watching, [and] I have not ever in my career seen any asylum applicant get arrested, unless they have a criminal record.”
The office of Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ), who represents Morales’ home district and invited her to attend the State of the Union, said that the right to invite guests to the State of the Union address is part of Congress’ constitutionally enshrined duties to constituents, including undocumented constituents—and that ICE would be on dangerous constitutional ground interfering with those duties.
“Our office raised serious concerns about potential law enforcement action, as well as any kind of retribution [from the White House] for what she’s done, but Ms. Morales has indicated over and over again that she is excited to be here,” said Courtney Cochran, Watson Coleman’s communications director. “She is incredibly brave and willing to take whatever is thrown at her because she is not interested in being silent anymore.”
Romero told The Daily Beast that his client first came to the United States in hopes of fleeing violence in her native Guatemala, where she witnessed her father’s murder at age 7. Since Morales arrived in the United States in 1999, Romero said, she has lived a quiet, law-abiding life, eventually settling in New Jersey, where she worked as a housekeeper at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, making the president’s bed and cleaning his toilet.
After the New York Times began reporting on the number of undocumented immigrants working at the club, however, Morales—who is currently seeking asylum—stopped showing up for work at the club, due in part to fears that her employer might ask ICE to deport her.
“We filed for asylum before The New York Times published the story, and I think that her asylum case is even more compelling because she has become a public figure, and she becomes more of a target in Guatemala,” Romero said, noting that Morales’ first steps into the asylum process should assuage any worries on the part of law enforcement that her presence might pose a security risk.
“She has been fingerprinted—the asylum office has her fingerprints,” said Romero, who will be with Morales throughout the day to “make sure that nothing happens to her.”
“I see absolutely no reason why her arrest is necessary,” Romero said. “It would send a chilling message that now, even after you’ve applied for asylum, ICE has decided to arrest people.”
ICE declined to comment on the record whether it had protocols in place for undocumented immigrants attending the State of the Union address.
At least four members of Congress have invited undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers like Morales as their guests to the State of the Union address in which Trump is expected to mount a spirited case for his long-promised border wall. Although undocumented immigrants have been invited to attend the State of the Union address—designated a National Special Security Event by the Department of Homeland Security—since at least 2013, their presence is expected to carry particular meaning this year.
Watson Coleman said in a statement that her presence is meant to demonstrate that “immigrants by and large are hardworking, trustworthy and skilled people who simply want to work and build better lives here.”
The biographies of the immigrants slated to attend the State of the Union read like point by point refutations of Trump’s deeply held convictions that undocumented immigrants are dangerous criminals who leech off of U.S. citizens.
One attendee, Sandra Diaz, another former Trump National Golf Club employee, immigrated from Costa Rica, and has since become a legal resident. Diaz will be attending at the behest of Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-CA), who called her “living proof that President Trump couldn’t be more wrong—both morally and factually—when he demonizes those who come to America seeking a better life.”
Another, Jin Park, is a DREAMer from South Korea and a senior at Harvard University set to graduate in the spring with a degree in molecular and cellular biology. Park was recently awarded the Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford University, making him the first recipient of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals to win the most prestigious scholarship in academia—although he worries that by leaving to study in the U.K. he may not be able to legally re-enter the United States.
“It is shameful that Jin may have to abandon this coveted opportunity for a Rhodes Scholarship, an opportunity that he worked tirelessly to achieve,” said Rep. Grace Meng (D-NY), who represents the Queens district that Park has called home since he was 7, in a statement. “I’m proud to stand in solidarity with him and I will continue to fight against the divisive policies that have been hallmark of the President’s administration.”
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) has invited two guests, Albertina Contreras Teletor and Yakelin Garcia Contreras, a mother and her 12-year-old daughter who were separated at the U.S. border under Trump’s family separation policy.
“I’m bringing Albertina and Yakelin as my guests to the State of the Union because we need to bear witness to the suffering that this cruel policy inflicted,” Merkley said, as well as his “resolve to make sure that nothing like this ever happens in the United States of America again.”
Albertina and Yakelin’s experiences of being separated “are a powerful illustration of the cruelty and lasting impact of the policies that the Trump administration put in place to deter families fleeing persecution abroad,” said Martina McLennan, Merkley’s deputy communications director. “Sen. Merkley is using this moment to shine a light on the reality of what has been happening at the border” under Trump’s policies.
Those policies are expected to be central to Trump’s address, due in no small part to the record federal shutdown that led Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to postpone the State of the Union address. The shutdown, which lasted for 35 days and caused chaos in America’s airports, immigration courts, and national parks, was ignited after Trump refused to sign an appropriations bill that did not include $5.7 billion for his proposed border wall.
The White House did not return requests for comment regarding the undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers who will be attending Tuesday’s address, although Trump himself has used such invitations to make his own political point in the past.
Last year, Trump invited two sets of parents whose daughters, Kayla Cuevas and Nisa Mickens, were allegedly murdered in 2016 by six members of the MS-13 gang. In his address, Trump called on Congress to “close the deadly loopholes that have allowed MS-13, and other criminals, to break into our country.”