President Barack Obama sat in a chair at the White House on Tuesday and, as two participants recalled, made eye contact with immigrants as they discussed the reasons their families moved to the United States.
Obama encouraged Diana Colin and Justino Mora, members of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA), as well as all participants, to tell their stories about how families want better lives.
After years of asking for a face-to-face meeting, immigrants affiliated with the Fair Immigration Reform Movement (FIRM) met Obama and Vice President Joe Biden for an Oval Office discussion about what immigration means to them and the country, according to CHIRLA, which is a member of that group.
The meeting involved a small group of people and occurred as the Senate Judiciary Committee considered a comprehensive immigration reform bill that later passed and, among many issues, could provide a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented people in the country. The U.S. House of Representatives is working on its immigration plan. The United States has not not seen comprehensive immigration reform since 1986.
For Colin, nervousness about the meeting quickly washed away as the California State University, Fullerton graduate talked about her parents, who are undocumented and own a small dry cleaning business.
“I kept thinking, ‘How is it that a 2-year-old who came from Mexico would now be at the White House?’” she said in a statement.
“What we did today is open doors and I hope many more will come after us,” she added. “Through our stories, we talked policy, a halt to deportations, keep(ing) families together and an inclusive and direct path to citizenship.”
Mora, a student at UCLA, arrived in the United States as a child.
“They seemed to listen and care about what we had to say,” he said, referring to Obama and Biden.
“…I told them about my family and my mother, who is undocumented. Every time I mentioned my mother’s struggle to give me and my siblings a better life, the President looked into my eyes.”
After the meeting, the White House released a statement, saying that Obama was moved by the stories from the participants. Some have received deferred action.
“He made clear that while the current bill is not perfect, it does represent an important step towards the broad principles that need to be part of any immigration reform package,” the White House said.
Among those who attended was Melissa McGuire-Maniau, a U.S. Air Force veteran and board member with theFlorida Immigrant Coalition. Outside the White House, McGuire-Maniau told reporters about how her family feared immigration agents arriving at their Florida house to deport her husband.
“One simple knock on the door can tear our family apart. This feeling of powerlessness is common to all of us,” she said in a statement released by FIRM. “By joining this movement to keep families together, we have been able to turn that fear into real power.”
Angie Kim of New York City was another meeting participant. She moved from South Korea when she was 9-years-old to help her disabled grandparents, according to FIRM. Her family tried filing immigration papers for citizenship but their efforts became lost in a government bureaucracy.
She has been undocumented for nearly 20 years.
Her father waited for 13 years for a citizenship interview. Days after he received a letter for a citizenship interview, his sponsor – Angie Kim’s grandmother – died.
In a YouTube video, Kim talked about how a group of people coming together can bring about positive change. “If people get together and if we speak up and we fight for our rights, change will happen very soon,” she said.
Colin appreciated the fact that Obama listened to their stories and didn’t talk policy with them. He told them that stories are powerful — and that they need to be shared.
“As soon as the President himself opened the doors to let us in, I knew I was here to represent thousands of immigrant families and the nervousness withered away,” she recalled.