President Donald Trump spoke to the American people in his first State of the Union address on Tuesday evening, Jan. 30. There are many constants that go along with this institution, and one of them includes members of Congress bringing invited guests to listen to the speech in person. Democratic Senator Kamala Harris had a DACA recipient (aka a Dreamer) by her side Tuesday night, and Denea Joseph's response to the State of the Union reveals her belief that President Trump's proposed immigration plan lacks "humanity."
The tradition of members of Congress inviting individuals who represent larger issues at hand sends a powerful message when it comes to the State of the Union. Given that the recent government shutdown on Jan. 19 came about in part due to an inability to reach an agreement on how to handle the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, it was no surprise that Senator Harris invited Joseph — who came to California from Belize in 2000 at age 7 — to join her at the State of the Union.
It's something that is monumental in that we're using our individual stories and experiences to represent the identities and communities in which we come from.
I spoke with Joseph in an interview for Elite Daily immediately following the State of the Union on Tuesday night, and her reaction to the president's speech was, in a word, "unimpressed." She tells Elite Daily, "I don't feel as though he said anything that was new, anything that was progressive, or in the direction of truly wanting to impact change."
Trump's speech outlined the four pillars of his immigration plan, which include a path to citizenship for Dreamers along with a $25 billion trust for a border wall along the Mexican border. Joseph sees that idea as divisive. "It seemed as though he tried to pit the undocumented youth population — 800,000 of us and potentially the 1.8 million people who would receive a pathway to citizenship under his proposed legislative approach — against the remainder the immigrant community. In that sense, it can be hazardous moving forward if that is the sole bill he is willing to sign," Joseph says.
The change Joseph would like to see in the president's approach to immigration policy is a willingness to "compromise beyond a border wall." After explaining that undocumented immigrants who pay taxes would contribute to the border wall while still risking detention and deportation, she urges for understanding, saying there should be "a little bit more practicality and humanity" in addressing the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act.
"It's time that we add a human lens to the issue of immigration — being able to highlight the stories and experiences and the real people who are being impacted, not only for their current experiences, but for their future viability as well," Joseph says.
With humanity in mind, I ask Joseph about her thoughts on Representative Paul Gosar's (R-AZ) push for law enforcement to arrest invited guests of Congress should they be undocumented on Tuesday night. Her reaction was immediate disgust. She explains, "How incredibly inhumane of him to even recommend something like that. ... We are people who contribute to the social, political, and economic fabric of this nation."
Undocumented immigrants have every right as invited guests to participate in the conversation surrounding the State of the Union and immigration policy (which she points out directly affects DACA recipients), Joseph says. But that right is harmed by threats like Gosar's, which are taken seriously when you are an undocumented immigrant, as "the question of safety is always" on your mind. "It's only one more thing to add to the notions of xenophobic sentiments that have been pushed forward throughout this administration," Joseph says.
While President Trump's speech left much to be desired for Joseph, the honor of attending the State of the Union with Senator Harris was not lost on the recent UCLA graduate. She expands on her appreciation, saying, "I believe it was still a powerful and profound experience, because representation does matter. This is the largest delegation of undocumented youth, Dreamers, to be present at the State of the Union address."
She goes on to say, "It's something that is monumental in that we're using our individual stories and experiences to represent the identities and communities in which we come from."
After Tuesday night's speech, Joseph's positive outlook on the possibility of a clean DACA bill is dependent largely on the Democratic party, "who stood in solidarity as Trump was having these conversations about what a pathway to citizenship would look like." Seeing many Democrats sitting and refraining from applause during Trump's speech gave Joseph a feeling a solidarity showing that they believe "a clean DREAM Act shouldn't come to the detriment of the remainder of the immigrant community."
Finally, the Democratic support allowed Joseph to leave Washington D.C. with some hope. "It strengthened my resolve to know that there are people who continue to advocate on behalf of the liberation of the undocumented people here in this nation," she says.
Joseph herself is one of those advocates, as she works with the UndocuBlack Network, which, Joseph explains, aims to highlight the "undocumented and black voices within the mainstream immigrant narrative." Even with a focus on the often overlooked black voices in the undocumented immigrant conversation, Joseph is quick to clarify, "It's about the collective liberation of all immigrant people ... because we have a lot more that puts us together than we do that divides us."
Given that Joseph is such strong advocate for immigrant voices and rights, she clearly took issue with much of President Trump's rhetoric surrounding immigration on Tuesday night. Her disappointment is largely a result of the proposed plan's failure to consider the humanity behind the numbers. By voicing her personal experiences and hope for a clean DACA bill, Joseph is doing her part to help Congress view the issue of immigration through a more human lens.