Published April 28, 2016
A Syrian refugee, a former illegal immigrant and a plaintiff in the Supreme Court case that legalized gay marriage are among the guests chosen to sit near first lady Michelle Obama during Tuesday’s State of the Union Address, the White House announced.
The White House sparked controversy last week with the announcement that one seat will be left open in memory of the victims of gun violence.
President Obama’s practice of referring to invited guests in the audience to make a political point or honor an act of heroism is a practice used by all modern presidents since Ronald Reagan, who began the practice in 1982.
Such guests are often referred to as “Skutniks” in reference to the first guest highlighted by Reagan – Lenny Skutnik, who dove into the icy Potomac River to save a drowning woman after an Air Florida Flight crashed into the water shortly after takeoff.
The White House announced Sunday that a Syrian refugee – scientist Refaai Hamo – will be among 20 guests who will sit near the first lady. Hamo landed in the U.S. in December with his son and three daughters, having fled Syria after a missile attack killed his wife and another daughter.
Others on the guest list were chosen to highlight Obama’s achievements in office, the White House said.
“The individuals who will be seated in the guest box tell the story of the progress we have made since the President delivered his first address seven years ago – from a terrible economic recession and two costly wars, to a revitalized and thriving economy and renewed American leadership abroad,” the White House said on its website.
Guests include Sue Ellen Allen, a former convict who now works for criminal justice reform, Lisa Jaster, who is the first female Army Reserve officer to graduate from the Army's elite Ranger School, and Jim Obergefell -- a plaintiff in the Supreme Court case that gave same-sex couples the right to marry.
Also invited is Staff Sgt. Spencer Stone, one of the passengers aboard a crowded Paris-bound train who stopped an Islamic terrorist from opening fire.
The presence of U.S. Army veteran Oscar Vazquez of Fort Worth Texas, who came to the U.S. illegally as a child from Mexico and now works as an advocate for Latino students, is an indicator that the question of immigration reform will be highlighted during Obama’s address.
Outside of the White House guest list, Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., announced Friday that one of the Black Lives Matter founders, Alicia Garza, will be her guest for Tuesday’s address.
Meanwhile, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., also announced his own guest list. Notably, his list includes representatives from the Little Sisters of the Poor, who have challenged the ObamaCare birth control mandate in the Supreme Court.
Sister Loraine Marie Maguire, the organization’s Mother Provincial, and Sister Constance Veit will represent the Little Sisters of the Poor in the Speaker’s box, the speaker’s office said in a statement.
Ryan has also invited Logan Barritt, a 4-year-old Wisconsin boy who started an effort to send care packages to U.S. soldiers abroad after a lesson at school.
Fox News’ Chad Pergram and The Associated Press contributed to this report.