By Heather Caygle
House Democrats are seizing on President Donald Trump’s first major speech to Congress Tuesday as an opportunity to troll the new president in prime time.
Many of the same Democrats who boycotted Trump’s inauguration are choosing not to skip his first address to Congress as president, instead opting to bring guests directly affected by the administration’s controversial policies on immigration and refugees and Republican attempts to repeal Obamacare.
“It’s my hope that gallery is going to look like America,” said Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.), who is leading an effort to have his colleagues bring diverse guests Tuesday and will be joined by Rhode Island Dr. Ehsun Mirza, a Muslim-American born in Pakistan. “It’s another reminder to the president that he’s not the arbiter of patriotism.”
The effort is designed to put a human face on Trump’s immigration and refugee policies — and perhaps steal a bit of the spotlight from the president’s big speech. Though it’s unlikely to resonate much beyond Tuesday night, members said doing something is better than nothing.
Langevin started urging fellow Democrats to invite guests affected by Trump’s policies when the administration unexpectedly rolled out a travel ban for seven Muslim countries. Trump has since said he’ll issue a similar executive order that can withstand legal challenges soon.
Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.) invited Hameed Darweesh, an Iraqi interpreter who worked with the U.S. army for a decade overseas and was detained before the travel ban was struck down by federal courts.
Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) will be accompanied by Banah Alhanfy, a young Iraqi woman who was temporarily separated from her family, including her Iraqi-interpreter father, because of the executive order.
Langevin expects 10 to 15 of his colleagues and their guests to participate in a press conference railing against Trump’s policies Tuesday.
Several other lawmakers are focusing on the administration’s recent moves to beef up immigration enforcement, which Democrats warn is just the beginning stages of mass deportations.
“We’re trying to not just tell the president, but we’re trying to tell the country, apparently tolerance and justice issues require ongoing lessons,” Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) said.
Quigley is one of a handful of members inviting a so-called “Dreamer,” an undocumented immigrant brought here as a minor, to Trump’s speech. Reps. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), Jared Polis (D-Colo.) and Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) are also bringing Dreamers as guests.
Trump has said Dreamers are safe from deportation, despite the administration’s efforts to expand immigration enforcement elsewhere, but many Democrats have said they don’t trust the president to not change his mind later.
Arizona Democratic Reps. Raul Grijalva and Ruben Gallego are bringing the children of an undocumented immigrant who was recently deported during a routine check-in with enforcement officials.
Other lawmakers have invited Muslim guests who have been victims of hate crimes.
Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal’s guest is Aneelah Afzali, a Muslim-American and longtime local community activist. Afzali’s local mosque was vandalized after the election.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joe Crowley (N.Y.) has invited Sarker Haque, a Queens business owner who was attacked in his store in 2015, allegedly by a man claiming he wanted to “kill Muslims.”
More than a dozen Energy and Commerce Committee Democrats are bringing constituents who would be affected by Republican efforts to repeal Obamacare.
And Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) is leading a separate effort encouraging members to invite law enforcement officials and first responders to call attention to Republican efforts to roll back gun restrictions in the post-Obama era.
“There’s been some pretty troubling action coming out of Congress in regard to [guns],” Thompson said in an interview.
Congress recently sent a bill to the president’s desk that would roll back restrictions on mentally ill senior citizens buying guns. Thompson said other GOP efforts to push legislation that would circumvent state laws on concealed carry permits and allow the purchase of gun silencers over the counter are just as troubling.
Rep. Elizabeth Esty, whose Connecticut district includes Newtown, along with Reps. Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.) and Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.), are participating in Thompson’s effort and will join him at a Tuesday press conference.
“We’re trying to be proactive here and let folks know what the Trump administration and what the Republican Congress is pushing,” said Thompson, who chairs the caucus’ gun violence task force. “I’m a glass is half full kind of guy but this is something that I’ve never experienced before.”