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On the SOTU guest list: immigration, IVF and abortion  

Members of Congress send a message with their annual invites

President Joe Biden delivers his State of the Union in 2023. This year, the list of guests invited by lawmakers and the White House spotlights immigration, reproductive rights, the Israel-Hamas war, and more.
President Joe Biden delivers his State of the Union in 2023. This year, the list of guests invited by lawmakers and the White House spotlights immigration, reproductive rights, the Israel-Hamas war, and more. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Congressional Republicans last year resorted to heckling Joe Biden during his State of the Union address. This year, the stage is set for another night of spectacle as they look to hit the president once again on immigration.

Some are urging him to say the name of Laken Riley, a nursing student whose murder last month became a flashpoint, while others don’t want him to give the speech at all. Freedom Caucus member Scott Perry of Pennsylvania suggested he should be disinvited because of his policies at the southern border.

And lawmakers are making the most of the guest list to get their point across.

Among the guests invited by Speaker Mike Johnson is a mother who blames the Biden administration’s border stance for her daughter’s killing, allegedly by a member of MS-13. Meanwhile, Democrats are drawing attention to conservative attacks on reproductive rights, with Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine inviting the first American born through in vitro fertilization.

Members of Congress can bring a guest to watch the speech, while congressional leaders and the White House can invite multiple attendees. Once a staid affair, the State of the Union is a chance to see and be seen in the age of social media and the 24-hour cable news cycle. Guests have become a key part of the messaging, as lawmakers issue press releases about their choices and the president pauses to shout out the invitees seated in the first lady’s viewing box.

Here are some of the guests expected to attend on Thursday night.

Immigration and the border

Republicans in recent months have hammered Biden over crossings at the U.S.-Mexico border, and in February the House narrowly advanced two articles of impeachment against Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas for failing to enforce U.S. immigration laws. 

House leaders are highlighting the issue on Thursday night, after earlier this year rebuffing a border security and foreign aid deal negotiated by senators. Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik of New York invited Brandon Budlong, a Border Patrol agent. And on Johnson’s list is Tammy Nobles, who in January testified at a House Homeland Security Committee hearing about her daughter’s killing.

On the other side of the aisle, California Rep. Lou Correa will bring a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipient. And Texas Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro invited Priscilla Martinez, the widow of slain rancher Aaron Martinez. Castro last year called for hate crime charges in the case, saying Martinez was “murdered in cold blood by a man who wanted to drive Hispanics out” of his community.

“Aaron’s death was the result of years of irresponsible rhetoric by Governor [Greg] Abbott, Donald Trump, and other politicians who have used their elevated platforms to demonize immigrants, push racist conspiracy theories about Latinos, and incite right-wing violence,” Castro said in a statement last week.

Reproductive rights

Nearly two years after the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn federal abortion protections, Democrats are betting the issue will continue to shape the upcoming election, especially after the controversial Alabama Supreme Court ruling that frozen embryos created during fertility treatments should be considered children.

Kaine’s guest is Elizabeth Carr, who was born via IVF in 1981. “As IVF comes under threat from GOP extremists, Elizabeth’s story stands as a beacon of hope,” he posted on X.

New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker asked Roshni Kamta, a Jersey City native who froze her eggs in her early 20s after receiving a breast cancer diagnosis. Kamta has advocated wide access to fertility treatments for cancer patients and women of color.

Several leaders affiliated with Planned Parenthood will also be in attendance. Jodi Hicks, head of the California advocacy wing of the reproductive health care nonprofit, will join Democratic Caucus Chair Pete Aguilar. Tanya Atkinson, president of Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin, will be the guest of Rep. Gwen Moore.

And women who struggled to find reproductive health care in states that banned abortion in the wake of the Dobbs decision will also be in the House chamber Thursday.

Rep. Joyce Beatty invited Brittany Watts, an Ohio woman charged with a felony after a miscarriage, and Rep. Shontel Brown invited Watts’ mother, Annette Watts.

House Minority Whip Katherine M. Clark will attend with Amanda Zurawski, whose water broke 18 weeks into her pregnancy. Because of Texas’ restrictive abortion laws, Zurawski was told she had to wait until her life was in danger before receiving treatment. 

“Amanda Zurawski knows firsthand the pain and cruelty inflicted by the MAGA assault on reproductive freedom,” Clark said in a statement.

Rep. Colin Allred invited Austin Dennard, a Texas OB-GYN who fled the state to get an abortion, while Sen. Patty Murray is bringing Kayla Smith, a former Idaho resident who spent thousands of dollars to travel to Washington state after learning of fatal fetal anomalies.

Among the guests invited by first lady Jill Biden is Kate Cox, a Texas woman who sued the state for the right to terminate a nonviable pregnancy. 

Israel-Hamas war

Another of Johnson’s guests is Mia Schem, who was kidnapped by Hamas at the Nova music festival in Israel on Oct. 7 and spent 54 days in captivity. 

Family members of hostages will also be in the chamber. North Carolina Republican Sens. Ted Budd and Thom Tillis jointly invited relatives of Keith Siegel, who is one of six Americans still thought to be held by Hamas in Gaza.

Florida Republican Rep. Greg Steube invited Gillian Kaye, stepmother of Sagui Dekel-Chen, a dual American and Israeli citizen kidnapped on Oct. 7.

As calls for a cease-fire grow louder in progressive circles, Missouri Rep. Cori Bush announced she will attend with Intimaa Salama, a Palestinian dentist and master’s student at Saint Louis University who has lost dozens of family members in Gaza. 

“The ongoing violence in Gaza is an international crisis and it directly impacts people from St. Louis to the Middle East, and everywhere in between,” Bush said in a statement. “The United States is fueling this war, but we could just as easily stop it. … I am urging President Biden to immediately facilitate a lasting ceasefire and stop funding war crimes.” 

A message to Putin?

The Washington Post first reported Tuesday that the Bidens had intended for Yulia Navalnaya, the widow of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, to sit near Ukrainian first lady Olena Zelenska at the State of the Union. But both women declined to attend. 

Johnson also called attention to Putin’s repressive regime by inviting the parents of Evan Gershkovich, the Wall Street Journal reporter who the U.S. says is being wrongfully detained in Russia on espionage charges. March 29 is the one-year anniversary of Gershkovich’s arrest. 

The invitation was extended amid stalled attempts in Congress to provide Ukraine with increased aid in its fight against Russia — aid opposed by a group of Trump-aligned Republicans.

“By hosting Evan’s parents, Congress will shine a spotlight on the unjust detention of their son,” Johnson said in a statement. “The United States must always stand for freedom of the press around the world, especially in places like Russia, where it is under assault. The Administration must bring Evan home.”

Nuclear victims, local officials and Assange’s brother

Other guests will include radiation exposure victims, governors, local government officials, labor leaders and more.

Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley invited Dawn Chapman, a longtime advocate for people exposed to nuclear contamination. It comes as the Senate is expected to vote this week on legislation to expand and reauthorize the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act.

Another Republican senator, Michael D. Crapo of Idaho, invited Tona Henderson, who advocates for people who live downwind of nuclear sites. In the New Mexico delegation, Democratic Sen. Ben Ray Luján invited Tina Cordova of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium, while Democratic Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández invited Phil Harrison, a member of the Navajo nation and former uranium miner. 

Meanwhile, Kentucky Republican Rep. Thomas Massie, who wore a homemade debt clock on his lapel to last year’s address, said he is inviting a relative of Julian Assange to press the Biden administration to drop criminal charges against the WikiLeaks founder and stop seeking his extradition.

“President Biden will be looking at Julian Assange’s brother, Gabriel Shipton, in the House gallery Thursday night as Biden delivers the State of the Union,” Massie posted to X.

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