An undocumented Loyola medical student traveled with Illinois Senator Dick Durbin to Washington, D.C. Tuesday for President Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address.
Cesar Montelongo, a third-year student at Loyola’s Stritch School of Medicine, is the first student in the MD-PhD program protected by Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), according to a Monday announcement from Durbin’s office. He traveled as Durbin’s guest to the State of the Union to highlight the need for a permanent DACA solution.
Montelongo’s family left Juarez, Mexico due to growing violence in the city when he was 10 years old. They joined his grandmother in Las Cruces, New Mexico, just 50 miles away. He grew up in Las Cruces and excelled academically, going to New Mexico State University and, eventually, he was accepted into Loyola’s medical school.
Though this wasn’t Montelongo’s first meeting with Durbin, he said he had mixed feelings about it this time around.
“I’m very honored that I was asked to attend as Senator Durbin’s guest,” Montelongo said. “It’s been a huge jump going from where I was a few years ago to now. But also, in a way, it’s unfortunate to be in this position where we’re essentially advocating for protections so that we can keep living in this country.”
DACA was an Obama-era policy that protected people brought to the United States as children from deportation. Ended by Trump on Sept. 5, DACA protections remain in place for now but will end six months later on March 5. Durbin introduced the DREAM Act, a bipartisan bill to give undocumented children often called “Dreamers” permanent legal status.
On Jan. 20, Durbin brought another undocumented Loyola medical student, Alejandra Duran Arreola, to the Capitol to advocate for a solution for the Dreamers. Stritch has almost half of the almost 70 DACA recipients enrolled in medical school around the country.
“I am honored to host this extremely gifted medical student as my guest,” Durbin said in a press release. “I hope Cesar’s presence reminds President Trump what’s at stake in the debate over DACA: the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent young people who want to contribute to our country’s future.”
Three Illinois legislators, Bobby Rush, Danny Davis and Jan Schakowsky, boycotted the speech. Two of those lawmakers, Davis and Schakowsky, have districts that cover both Loyola’s Lake Shore and Water Tower campuses.
Durbin wasn’t alone in inviting a Dreamer to accompany him to Trump’s first State of the Union address. More than 30 senators and members of Congress — all Democrats — brought with them undocumented immigrants and DACA recipients.
Senator Bernie Sanders was accompanied by DACA recipient Luis Alcauter, who came to the United States from Mexico at the age of 13.
Democratic Senator Kamala Harris attended the speech with Denea Joseph, a black undocumented DACA recipient who emigrated from Belize and grew up in Los Angeles.
Senator Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey, invited Elizabeth Vilchis, a DACA recipient and founder of LatinoTech, a summit for latinos working in technology.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, among the more than two dozen lawmakers who invited DACA recipients and immigration activists, addressed what she called the largest group of Dreamers to ever attend the State of the Union before the speech began.
“[Dreamers] come expressing beautifully their dignity and their courage and respect for our institutions,” Pelosi said. “We, yes, call upon the Speaker and the Leader in the Senate to bring forward legislation that protects Dreamers. Instead, we hear rhetoric that brings tears to the eyes of the Statue of Liberty, fear to hearts across the country.”
Trump outlined the terms of his four-part immigration proposal during his remarks lasting about 80 minutes.
The first element of his proposal would provide a pathway to citizenship for the approximately 1.8 million undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children — far more than the about 800,000 protected by DACA.
In exchange for granting the Dreamers permanent legal status, Trump’s plan asks for $25 billion in funding for a wall between the United States and Mexico that Trump said “fully secures the border.” He also promised to end “catch and release” protocols that see undocumented immigrants caught crossing the border illegally released while they await trial.
Catch and release officially ended in 2006 under then-President George W. Bush, but the Obama administration later enacted a similar policy that identified undocumented immigrants who could be released.
Trump also called for an end to the visa lottery program, which he said “randomly hands out green cards without any regard for skill, merit or the safety of our people.” The 50,000 visas awarded each year through the program would be “repurposed” based on an immigrant’s job training or other merit-based considerations, according to the official White House plan.
Finally, Trump promised to end so-called “chain migration,” also known as “family reunification,” which allows some legal immigrants to bring family members to the United States with them. Trump said this change “protects the nuclear family” by ending the policy in which he alleged — to audible groans from Democrats — “a single immigrant can bring in virtually unlimited numbers of distant relatives.”
“These four pillars represent a down-the-middle compromise, and one that will create a safe, modern and lawful immigration system,” Trump said during his remarks. “For over 30 years, Washington has tried and failed to solve this problem. This Congress can be the one that finally makes it happen.”