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Final State of the Union’s Diversity Message Draws Praise from Asian-American Members of Congress

Image: U.S. President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress in Washington

U.S. President Barack Obama (at podium) delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress in Washington, January 12, 2016. JIM BOURG / Reuters

Following President Barack Obama's final State of the Union address Tuesday night, the chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC) didn't hold back with her assessment of the president's remarks.

“I thought it was a great speech, it was just what our country needed,” Rep. Judy Chu told NBC News. “Our country needed to hear reassurance about the terrorist threat. And yet it also needed to hear that we should not scapegoat one another, and appreciate the diversity of our country.”

Chu’s guest at the event was Adnan Khan, past president of the Council of Pakistan American Affairs (COPAA) and a business leader in the Chu’s district in the San Gabriel Valley of California. The invite, Chu said, was purposeful.

“I wanted to send a message that we should not scapegoat Muslim Americans and that the campaign rhetoric out there is unacceptable,” she said.

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That sentiment echoed a key theme in the president’s speech.

“When politicians insult Muslims — whether abroad or fellow citizens — when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid is called names, that doesn’t make us safer,” the president said Tuesday night. “It’s just wrong. It diminishes us in the eyes of the world. It makes it harder to achieve our goals. And it betrays who we are as a country.”

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The president's message of diversity and inclusion also resonated with Rep. Ted Lieu, the Democratic freshman class president, who told NBC News he was excited to be in the room for the address.

“The president showed why the American people elected him twice. He inspires the best angels in the American character. He talks about hope and optimism and lays out a vision for America. I thought it was a fabulous speech," Lieu said.

Lieu said he was especially pleased to hear the president discuss climate change, an issue that Lieu has been involved with in his own legislation. Last year, Lieu introduced a bill to replicate California’s renewable energy standard of 33 percent nationwide.

“Climate change is happening whether people like it or not,” Lieu said. “We just need to take steps to solve it. If we don’t, it’s the one issue that can kill humanity as a species.”

Lieu added that he did not mind that the president was low-key on the other accomplishments of his administration, such as cutting the deficit or reducing unemployment. “He was looking toward the future,” Lieu said. “And I think he wanted to make the American system better so our country is better not just this year, but five, 10, 20 years from now.”

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One of the the major issues absent from the majority of the president's address was immigration — something Rep. Mike Honda, the former chair of CAPAC, seized on.

"The need for immigration reform cannot be forgotten. Any serious proposal advanced by Congress to achieve this should be comprehensive,” Honda said in a statement Tuesday night.

Honda's guest at the State of the Union was Irene Bueno, a Filipino American whose family was kept separated for 20 years by a sluggish immigration system. “Our nation needs a families-first immigration policy,” said Honda, who plans to reintroduce a bill that will reunite families.

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But getting results on issues like immigration reform will require the political class to not give in to what the president called “the voices urging us to fall back into tribes, to scapegoat fellow citizens who don’t look like us, or pray like us, or vote like we do, or share the same background.”

“It was a vision for what must be done to make this a better place,” Chu said. “It was very important especially in his last State of the Union address to talk about the need for a unified country. I think that delivering that message was the most critical thing here. That touched me front and center.”

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