Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon announced Friday that he will bring a mother and daughter who were separated at the US-Mexico border last year as guests for President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address next week.
The decision is intended to “highlight the human suffering caused by President Trump’s child separation policy,” a news release from the senator’s office stated.
The mother-daughter pair – Albertina Contreras Teletor and Yakelin Garcia Contreras, who will be 12 years old on Tuesday, the day of the address – were separated from one another at the southern border for a period of roughly two months and were reunited in July 2018, according to a statement from the senator’s office.
Inviting guests to the State of the Union offers congressional lawmakers a chance to send a pointed message during the speech that takes place annually in the House chamber before a joint session of Congress.
Trump’s speech this year takes place as a contentious debate plays out between congressional Democrats and the White House over immigration and border security.
A standoff over funding for the President’s long-promised border wall triggered a partial government shutdown that began in December and stretched into January. Trump has demanded $5.7 billion for a border wall and congressional Democrats have so far remained firm in insisting that number is a non-starter.
The fight has yet to be resolved. The government reopened late last month after the President signed a stop-gap funding measure that will keep agencies open until February 15, while lawmakers negotiate over border security in an attempt to find common ground in the border wall fight.
But the President has already indicated he is not optimistic that congressional negotiators will meet his demands for border wall funding, calling the talks “a waste of time” in an interview with The New York Times on Thursday and suggesting he will take executive action to circumvent Congress in an effort to fund the wall.
As a result, Washington may be careening toward yet another shutdown.
Merkley’s invited guests will bring attention to the administration’s highly controversial practice of family separation at the border that ended last year.
The President reversed course in June 2018 and signed an executive order to end family separations after facing widespread backlash over the practice, including from members of his own party. In the same month, a federal judge ordered that the US government reunify separated families.
“I’m bringing Albertina and Yakelin as my guests to the State of the Union because we need to bear witness to the suffering that this cruel policy inflicted, and resolve to make sure that nothing like this ever happens in the United States of America again,” Merkley said in a statement.
“No child should be torn away from her mom or dad,” Albertina Contreras Telator said in a statement released by the senator’s office. “We believe in an America that is better than the treatment we received, and we invite all Americans to join us in making that America a reality.”
“It was really terrible when they took me away from my mother, because I had no idea that we were going to be separated,” Yakelin Garcia Contreras said in a separate statement outlined in the same release. “If I could say anything to the President, I would tell him to stop separating kids from their parents because it is just too hard for us kids to lose our parents like that.”
Merkley isn’t the only Democratic lawmaker who invited guests with the apparent aim of sending a critical message about the President and his administration’s immigration policies.
An undocumented worker fired from Trump’s New Jersey golf club will be in attendance at the State of the Union address after being invited by Democratic Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman of New Jersey.
Victorina Morales, a Guatemalan native, worked for years at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey before describing herself as an undocumented worker to The New York Times in December. She was ultimately terminated from her job and currently faces deportation.
CNN’s Kate Sullivan and Veronica Stracqualursi contributed to this report.