Once fearing deportation, immigrant among first lady's guests

Cristian Avila, 23, here with director of the White House Domestic Policy Council Cecilia Muñoz, was invited to sit in Michelle Obama's viewing box for the State of the Union as part of the President's message to "get immigration reform done this year."

Story highlights

  • Sitting in the first lady's box was DREAMer Cristian Avila
  • "If it wasn't for receiving my DACA last summer I wouldn't be here," activist said
  • Avila caught the attention of Obama administration during his 22-day immigration fast
  • He's optimistic about immigration reform despite fearing his parents being deported

Sitting in the first lady's box listening to the President Barack Obama push for movement on immigration reform, Cristian Avila no longer had to keep his head down and live in fear of being deported.

While the President dedicated only a brief part of his State of the Union address to immigration, his message went beyond his speech, and the evidence was sitting among the guests invited to join the first lady in the viewing box.

"I feel honored and excited to be here. If it wasn't for receiving my DACA last summer I wouldn't have been able to attend the State of the Union," Avila told CNN.

The 23-year-old and his siblings are just one of the many thousands of recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Avila was illegally brought into the United States with his younger brother and sister when he was 9 years old

DACA is a government program enacted in 2012 that stopped deporting some undocumented young people and instead granted them temporary work authorization and a two-year reprieve from deportation.

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The recipients have become one of the most visible groups advocating for immigration reform.

Avila caught the attention of the Obama administration during his 22-day fast on the National Mall in support of immigration reform last November. And, for the last two years, Avila's been working as a voter engagement coordinator for Mi Familia Vota, a non-profit Latino civic engagement program.

"At the time, immigration reform seemed like it was dead. We won the hearts of the American people. We revived the conversation," Avila said.

Obama pleaded for cooperation and pointed out how getting immigration reform done this year was important for the country's recovering economy.

"If we are serious about economic growth, it is time to heed the call of business leaders, labor leaders, faith leaders, and law enforcement -- and fix our broken immigration system," Obama said.

Without attacking House Republicans, the President described how both parties in the Senate passed a comprehensive bill last summer and said both parties in the House want to do the same. He said immigration reform would not only help the economy but shrink the deficit by almost $1 trillion in the next two decades.

"When people come here to fulfill their dreams -- to study, invent, contribute to our culture -- they make our country a more attractive place for businesses to locate and create jobs for everybody. So let's get immigration reform done this year," he said.

Obama spoke of immigration reform in broad strokes but that might have something to do with the plans of House Republican leaders to outline their principles for immigration reform at a party meeting this week.

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"We're going to outline our standards, principles of immigration reform and have a conversation with members," House Speaker John Boehner said during a news conference after a party meeting.

Obama steered clear of specific immigration reform policies. There was no mention of stopping the deportations of undocumented immigrants without criminal records, despite countless pleas from activists all over the country.

Avila and his siblings no longer live in fear of being deported but his parents face that threat every time they leave their homes for work.

"I grew up with the fear of being deported. My mom would always tell me to put my head down," Avila said.

"I still have the constant fear of my parents being deported. They are fearful and targeted even though they earn their living in an honest way," said Avila, "One of the reasons that I keep strong is for them."

Still, Avila remains optimistic that immigration reform will happen in 2014.

"We are closer than ever before. It shouldn't take any longer," Avila said.