I think he's talking about me
From shy local student to national face of immigration reform, Astrid Silva’s journey hasn’t always been a DREAM
Hermandad Mexicana was buzzing. The parking lot of the nonprofit immigration legal-aid organization was jammed. There wasn’t enough space in the conference room for everyone to watch President Barack Obama’s speech, so some people stood outside, staring anxiously at their smartphones.
Inside, Astrid Silva stood against the wall next to her father, who has a deportation order against him, and strained to hear the details of the president’s new executive action on immigration. Her phone chimed every few seconds as other immigrants in Southern Nevada, accustomed to using the 26-year-old Silva as a point of contact, texted to ask if they qualified for temporary work permits. It was hard for her to focus on Obama’s words.
Then, everyone in the room turned and stared at her. A flood of text messages and incoming calls overwhelmed her outdated Blackberry, which shut down. A friend grabbed her arm, teary-eyed: “Astrid, he’s talking about you.”
Without any advance notice from the White House, the president was sharing Silva’s story with the nation, holding her up as an example of the need for comprehensive immigration reform. Silva’s father, beginning to cry, embraced his daughter as Obama described the family’s sorrow when his mother, Silva’s grandmother, died in Mexico and the family was unable to attend the funeral.
The next day, when Obama gave a speech from Del Sol High School in Las Vegas expanding on the reasons for his immigration program, Silva was asked to take the stage and introduce the president.
“My advocacy and organizing made me realize that I, like other DREAMers, deserved an opportunity to contribute fully to the only country we call home,” she told the crowd. Backstage, when she briefly met Obama for a photo, she thanked him and reminded the president that his action was only a temporary solution. Both agreed to keep fighting.
Silva followed up that turn in the national spotlight with a trip to Capitol Hill in December, where she testified at a Senate hearing on immigration reform, the lone person called to speak on behalf of the 11 million immigrants illegally residing in the country.
For years Silva had been afraid to tell her friends she was one of those immigrants. But her grandmother’s death changed that. It was the moment that transformed Silva from a shy, studious teenager ashamed of her status into an activist willing to put herself at risk for a greater cause. It was also the occasion for her first letter to Sen. Harry Reid, which would lead to dozens more and a unique relationship as the (now former) majority leader’s “partner” on immigration reform.
COMING TO AMERICA
Astrid Silva’s father came to work in the United States in 1989. An irrigation technician, he found a good job traveling the country on a crew that built golf courses. Silva and her mother lived in the Mexican state of Durango, and in 1992 he sent for them. He shipped them American-style T-shirts and blue jeans so they would fit in, and arranged for them to be smuggled across the border.
On June 22, 1992, Silva boarded a bus with her mother, carrying only a cross and her Ken doll. Her mother wore a mustard-yellow skirt and black blouse, and Silva wore a frilly white dress with purple flowers, the one made for her fourth birthday just two months earlier. Silva’s mother was not about to see her husband for the first time in three years while wearing a T-shirt and jeans.
They rode a bus to the U.S./Mexico border in Texas. Smugglers loaded them onto an inner tube with a wooden plank for a seat, then pulled them across the Rio Grande. Silva got mud on her shiny patent leather shoes, and worried about getting in trouble. On the other side, her father met them at a gas station, and they boarded a plane to Los Angeles, where they went to stay with family. Her aunt gave her hot chocolate and deposited her in front of the television to watch Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
“It was the first time I’d had chocolate milk,” Silva recalled, adding that she still drinks it whenever she’s nervous. “And, still to this day, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is the movie I watch when I’m scared of something. It’s weird. I love Gene Wilder.”
Now that his family was in the U.S., Silva’s father did not want to travel so much. He took a job at a Las Vegas golf course, and the family moved in the summer of 1993. They came well before Las Vegas’ Hispanic population boomed, and Silva felt ostracized as the only Spanish-speaking kid in her kindergarten class. Within three months she was speaking English.
In 1996 Silva’s father hired an immigration legal agency that advertised it could obtain work permits and legal residency for immigrants. Unbeknownst to him, the agency fraudulently submitted an application in his name for an asylum program exclusive to Nicaraguans. Following procedure, the government issued him a work permit and Social Security number, pending the review of his application. He took it is as a positive sign. The firm billed him more than $8,000 as they strung him along for more than a decade, referencing the notoriously long waits for visas. But once the government realized the application was invalid, all he had to show for it was an order of deportation.
Meanwhile, Astrid had developed into a stellar student. She won awards, joined clubs and dreamed of being an architect. It was also becoming more and more clear that not every door was open to her. Anything she wanted to do that involved filling out paperwork — candy-striping, Girl Scouts, cheerleading, theater, space camp, softball, National Honor Society — her parents rejected. It was too dangerous. If someone realized she did not have a Social Security number, they could be discovered. Silva’s little brother, on the other hand, born in Los Angeles and therefore a U.S. citizen, got to join and quit as many teams and clubs as he wanted.
When she was 16, Silva couldn’t get her driver's license, and with no identification she was shut out from even R-rated movies. When she turned 18, she couldn’t celebrate the way all her girlfriends did — by seeing Chippendales.
“I didn’t want to turn 18. I told my parents not to throw me a party, but they did anyway,” Silva says. “When you’re 18 in Vegas, everybody goes to Chippendales, that’s the big thing to do. I think my friends went to Chippendales 12 times that year. They bought me tickets to Chippendales and gave them to somebody else and went without me. I had to say it was because my mom didn’t want me to go.”
Being denied washboard abs and glee-inducing gyrations was one thing, but it was the academic roadblocks that stung the most. Silva could have gone to her zone high school, Bonanza, but instead she went behind her parents’ backs and applied to Advanced Technologies Academy, getting up at 4:30 every morning to make the 5:15 a.m. bus to the magnet school.
She loved A-Tech and excelled. Her senior year, her father drove her to UNLV campus and wrote her a $60 check to apply. At the counter a student worker noticed she left the Social Security number blank. Incorrectly, he told her she needed one to apply. Silva said she would have to go ask her dad, and ran back to the car crying. The Mexican consul in Las Vegas at the time advised Silva to apply to Mexican colleges, but when she did, they said her Spanish wasn’t strong enough.
Several teachers had taken an interest in Astrid, and eventually she was put in touch with a counselor who helped her enroll at College of Southern Nevada. Silva, though, didn’t see a promising future anymore. She was earning money as a babysitter, and she still couldn’t drive. She couldn’t go to a four-year college, and even if she did, what would she do when she graduated? It was 2006, illegal immigration had come to the forefront of public consciousness, and she felt more anxiety than ever about being caught, deported and separated from her family. She closed ranks, cutting off all but her closest friends.
One day while she was in class at CSN she was called to the main office over the public-address system. “I just start crying because I’m thinking: ‘Oh my God, they found me,’” she recalled. “I was terrified. Before I got to the front desk I went to the bathroom, got sick and started throwing up.” She arrived at the counter distraught, ready for the worst. But it wasn’t ICE waiting for her, just her wallet, which a student had turned in to lost-and-found.
THE IMMIGRANT AND THE SENATOR
Silva eventually joined the Hispanic Student Union at CSN and started to settle in. One day the adviser, who had figured out she was undocumented because of her meandering answers to simple questions about her future, recommended she attend a rally Sen. Harry Reid was having about the DREAM Act. The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act was proposed in 2001; it would grant legal residency to immigrants who entered the country illegally as children and meet certain educational and public safety criteria. It has come up a handful of times in both the House and Senate, but never passed. In 2012, the Obama administration said it would stop deporting youths who met certain DREAM Act criteria.
Silva showed up to Reid’s rally and, when a woman asked her to sign in at the rally, she fled, following ingrained instincts to put her name to as few pieces of paper as possible. But she called the Democratic Party worker who organized the rally, and she convinced Silva to come back. She stood in the back as Reid stumped for the DREAM Act, a row of kids lined up behind him. Silva turned to the party organizer. “I think he’s talking about me,” she said. “I think I’m a DREAMer.” Silva began volunteering regularly for the local Democratic Party in the summer of 2009 as Reid was gearing up for what would be a tough fight against Tea Party darling Sharron Angle.
In June, word came from family that Silva’s grandmother had suddenly fallen ill and died. Unable to leave the country without risking the lives they had built in the United States over 25 years, the family was devastated.
Silva kept a journal as a kid, and had always communicated with family in Mexico through letters. When her grandmother died she wrote a letter, a catharsis addressed to no one in particular. “I wrote an angry letter,” she says. “I said, I understand that I can’t have my license because I’m undocumented. I understand I can’t go to school because I’m undocumented. But I don’t understand why I can’t see my grandma. She died. That’s a real thing. It’s not a piece of plastic.”
That day she got a call asking her to volunteer at a Reid event on the date her grandmother was supposed to fly in for her annual visit. Silva took it as a “sign,” and decided she would give the letter to Reid. “Please read this,” she told him as he headed into a meeting to discuss immigration with community leaders. Reid read it immediately, and had a staffer call Silva into the conference room. “This isn’t political, this is personal,” Reid declared. “Astrid, tell them about your grandmother.”
After that Silva and the senator became close, and now, almost every time they see each other, Silva hands him a note, folded into a square with “Sen. Reid” scrawled on the front like “the notes high school kids pass.” Reid estimates he has at least 40 of them in his office. “People give me notes all the time, but Astrid became persistent,” Reid says. “Every time she’d see me it would be, ‘Here’s another letter.’ But she was always very discreet in how she went about it. She didn’t do it for show. … Her notes really opened my eyes to the lives of the DREAMers.”
Silva read Reid’s autobiography, and identified with the story of a kid from Searchlight whom no one expected would amount to much.
“He told me to never be ashamed of where you came from. It doesn’t matter where you came from, it’s where you’re going. And not necessarily where you end up, but how you get there,” Silva says. “After meeting him I had the courage to take advantage of all the opportunities I had been too scared to take. At that point I had nothing to lose.”
To be an immigration-reform activist is to be a yo-yo tied to the fickle finger of Congress. Depending on the politician speaking, immigrants who came to the country illegally are either part of the “backbone of America” or drug-smuggling criminals with “calves the size of cantaloupes,” intent on stealing jobs, government benefits or both. Bills pass the Senate only to fail in the House, or vice versa. For every step forward comes another bill trying to walk it back. Half-measures passed by executive fiat, while temporary placeholders, are challenged with vitriol and distract from the final goal of real, sweeping reform.
“The great thing about Astrid is she is very level-headed, and none of this attention has gotten to her,” says fellow DREAMer and activist Blanca Gamez. “She is very humble about it. She tries to help everyone, and so many people in the community turn to her for help or advice on their cases.”
It was on the Reid campaign that Silva met Gamez, who went to UNLV after receiving better advice. The two decided that they could do some good by sharing information and organizing DREAMers.
In September 2011, Silva’s father was arrested early in the morning as he was leaving his house for work. Fifteen years after he applied for residency and was duped by the unscrupulous legal agency, the government decided to execute its deportation order. Politicians like Reid and former state assemblywoman Lucy Flores, a lawyer, intervened, and he was granted prosecutorial discretion (a temporary stay of deportation) after a week spent in detention.
The incident shook Silva, who was reminded of everything at stake for her family and the immigrant community. She raised her profile, no longer afraid to put her name and face to news articles about illegal immigration. Silva was one of the first undocumented immigrants living in Southern Nevada to share her story publicly. From the beginning, she has encouraged others to come forward as well, to give the decision-makers faces to conjure when casting their votes.
“Astrid showed me I didn’t have to be afraid,” Gamez, 25, says. “I started reading her story in the papers, and she showed me that sharing my story released the fear I had and helped empower me.”
MS. SILVA GOES TO WASHINGTON
Gamez sat right behind Silva when she testified before the Senate judiciary committee hearing on immigration reform on Dec. 10. They were joined by their mothers, who now qualify for temporary work permits under Obama’s latest action. The other four members of the panel were three legal experts and a representative of the AFL-CIO, all there, ostensibly, to offer impartial, educated analysis. Silva alone had the duty of representing the personal side of the issue, and Reid met her beforehand to wish her luck.
“I think the world of Astrid,” he said later. “She has done a lot for her country, a lot for Hispanic people and a lot for her family.”
Silva, her thick black hair pulled back, wore a red blazer with a pin on the lapel honoring Tomasa Macias, a Las Vegas mother and undocumented immigrant who died this year after she delayed medical attention for a stroke because she was afraid of exposing her status.
“When people attack the president for this action or challenge his legal authority, they are attacking me,” she said, choking up throughout her testimony. “... They are not attacking a stranger, they are attacking the girl who sits next to your grandson in chemistry class; they are attacking the man who spends his days making sure your roses are beautiful every spring; and they are attacking everything that has made our country strong.”
Some senators exhibited the attention spans of toddlers. They came and went, shuffled papers and waited for their turn to talk. “It was frustrating,” Silva says. “They aren’t even looking at you when you’re telling them your story. I didn’t expect that at all. I thought generally as senators, whether they agree or disagree with the issue, they would give their full attention to it and hear out the different arguments.”
Still, Silva is undeterred. She finds joy in seeing how many immigrants without legal residency are coming forward to tell their stories; the watch-parties for immigration votes and announcements have gone from a handful of people to packed rooms.
“It could’ve been anybody, and still can be anybody,” she says about her sudden national notoriety. “You can only be in this position so long before you have to let people do for themselves. Right now it’s me, but it will be someone else.”
Silva, Gamez, their parents — all have been lucky enough to qualify for temporary deportation relief under Obama’s two executive orders, such as deferred action for childhood arrivals (DACA), but millions do not qualify. “To me, I’m still undocumented, even with DACA,” Silva says. “Someone could take that away. It’s not permanent. I don’t have a path to become a resident. I don’t have a path to be a citizen. So, until that happens, I’m still undocumented.”
Today, Silva works as an organizer for Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada and helps lead the local DREAMer organization, Dream Big Vegas. She’s enrolled at Nevada State College and working toward her bachelor’s degree, squeezing in finals as she prepped for her Senate testimony. She is considering law school, but whatever she does, it will involve immigration and activism.
“If you aren’t helping other people, then what are you doing?” she asks. “Just helping yourself?”