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Astrid Silva, Harry Reid, Robert List and the fight to fix a broken immigration law

<p>Immigration organizer Astrid Silva poses at the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada offices at 708 S. 6th St. in Las Vegas on Saturday, July 13, 2013.</p>

Immigration organizer Astrid Silva poses at the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada offices at 708 S. 6th St. in Las Vegas on Saturday, July 13, 2013.

Astrid Silva has not only been featured in the RJ and the Sun, Seven and the Weekly and of course in CityLife, she’s appeared in the pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post, in dispatches on Reuters and AP and Gannett and other wire services, and, yes, that was her on MSNBC a few weeks ago, celebrating passage of the immigration reform bill through the Senate.

Last week, the Los Angeles Times wrote a glowing profile of the Las Vegas woman and her pen-pal relationship with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

She denies it, but clearly the 21-year-old undocumented immigrant is a media star. Silva’s a good choice to be the face of immigration reform. She’s from a swing state, has some politically influential friends and, most of all, has an honest, exuberant enthusiasm that overwhelms many of those who hate everything to do with immigrants or immigration reform.

One of the points made by those who want to update the 50-year-old immigration laws is that millions of undocumented immigrants live “in the shadows” of American laws and the economy. That doesn’t apply to Silva, who isn’t hiding from anyone.

Reid and others credit Silva and similar “Dreamers” — undocumented immigrants seeking resident rights and, for many, citizenship — with effectively lobbying their congressional delegations nationwide. They have come out of the shadows to be “the face and voice of the need for common-sense immigration reform,” Reid says.

But even among those thousands of young immigrants, Silva, usually wearing her “DBV” T-shirt (“Dream Big Vegas”), is impossible to miss.

She recently met with Congressman Joe Heck, who’s being squeezed between anti-immigrant diehards in his own Republican Party and those (including many Republicans) who believe immigration reform is essential.

Heck and his Republican colleagues in the House are critical to passing immigration reform. He has publicly said that existing immigration law is “broken,” but he has said he would vote against the Senate bill that passed earlier this month, arguing that it needs stronger security at the Mexican border. Even admitting that immigration law needs to be reformed, however, provoked catcalls from anti-reform and anti-immigration voices at a recent town hall meeting.

Silva, however, believes the personal contact between her and her allies and Heck has helped pave the way for his ultimate support for reform.

She didn’t meet directly with Congressman Mark Amodei, but his staff did meet with her, and she had a chance to explain that, yes, rural Nevada does have many undocumented immigrants. (Silva and colleagues last week toured rural Nevada, including Elko, and found many immigrants working there.)


Silva came to the United States as a toddler with her mother, meeting her father, who was already here and working. Silva’s younger brother was born in the United States. There are millions of young men and women like Silva, born in another country but who really only know the United States.

They are sometimes called Dreamers, as in, they dream of being fully realized American citizens. The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act (DREAM Act) inspired the appellation; the legislation, first submitted as a bipartisan Senate bill in 2001, would provide a path to citizenship for hundreds of thousands of young people and other undocumented immigrants who have not been convicted of violent crimes and who have attended school or served in the U.S. military.

“I am very open about my situation,” says Silva, who works with the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada to advance immigration reform [disclosure: CityLife writer Launce Rake used to work with PLAN]. “I’ve just been more open about it [with the recent publicity]. I was getting older and I was getting tired of other people deciding my life for me.”

Reid says that without Silva and thousands of her allies, the reform effort could have died after a key vote in 2010, which the reformers lost.

“I am so proud of Astrid and all the Dreamers in Nevada and across the country,” Reid says. “After the 2010 vote, they could have given up, and they didn’t. They fought on and let their voices be heard in their communities and have been the most effective advocates with their members of Congress …

“Because of all of them, Congress is closer to passing reform than we have been in years,” he says from Washington, where Nevada’s senior senator is embroiled in yet another legislative logjam, this one over presidential appointments. “Astrid and her fellow Dreamers are a reminder of what is at stake in this debate.”

Out of fear of federal or local immigration enforcement, “many Dreamers are not necessarily open to sharing things with the world,” Silva says. “Older undocumented people, a lot of people, are very, very afraid of immigration being called on them. I’ve been threatened many times by people who say they’re going to call immigration on me.

“There are families that are very vulnerable,” she says. And she admits that her family is one of those potentially vulnerable to deportation. Her father was arrested several years ago, a result, Silva says, of paperwork improperly processed by the family’s then-lawyer. Today, his case is winding its way through the immigration courts.

“People say I’m too open, but I’m not being too open for myself,” she says. “There’s a lot of people who go on media and use it for really bad reasons. If this helps my neighbors not be deported, I’m willing to share.”

Last year, Silva and her fellow Dreamers got a measure of relief from the constant threat of deportation when President Obama instituted the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a stripped-down version of the legislation that failed to win congressional support. The DACA program suspended deportation threats against most Dreamers, but it is not a permanent program, and Silva knows that it could easily be undone, especially if immigration reform fails to pass the House of Representatives.

Silva isn’t just the face of immigration reform. She’s also, in many ways, the face of Nevada and a changing country. According to the Immigration Policy Center, citing U.S. Census numbers, more than 19 percent of Nevadans were foreign-born in 2011. More than 40 percent of all immigrants were naturalized citizens.

The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that there are 190,000 undocumented immigrants in Nevada alone, and estimates of the number nationwide are well over 10 million.

And the political clout of immigrants and their children is rising nationally. In 2009, 87 percent of children with immigrant parents were U.S. citizens.

In Nevada, 119,000 Latino voters voted in the 2008 elections, most of them for Barack Obama. Obama’s margin of victory in 2008 in Nevada? One hundred twenty thousand votes.


Although many Republicans oppose immigration reform and any move that they call “amnesty,” there are others in the GOP who believe that their party must embrace immigration reform or risk political irrelevance.

One of those is Republican leader and former Nevada governor Bob List. He says that while Nevada isn’t technically a border state with Mexico, it shares some of the same characteristics of those states — for example, a lot of immigrants from Latin America who are looking for stable family lives and economic opportunity.

Immigration reform is “extremely important for Nevada because we have a difficult-to-quantify, but a large number of persons, living in our state, in all regions of the state, who are not in the country legally,” List says. “That impacts our employers, our wages, our unemployment rate, and it means thousands and thousands of people here are living in the shadows, which is terribly difficult for the families. … There’s just this underground economic life that these folks live in, which undermines our overall economy.”

Providing a legal opportunity for undocumented immigrants to stay here would relieve employers of legal and financial liabilities and provide security to families with undocumented members, he says. It is no surprise, he adds, that some of the loudest and most effective voices for immigration reform are coming from Nevada.

“The Southwestern states have a huge voice because we’ve had more experience in trying to manage the issues that are out there,” List says. “Although we’re not a border state, we have the same impacts on our state as those on the border.”

Some estimates have pegged net migration from Latin America at zero, thanks in large part to the Great Recession that continues to limit economic opportunities. That could change as the United States struggles to recover, he says. “I think you’re going to see them migrating right back in as things are starting to pick back up. [The issue] has to be addressed for the long haul.”

But economics aside, List believes that there are fundamental issues of fairness and humanity that have to be addressed.

“Whether we are Republicans or Democrats, we have to put the human side of this out in front of the political side,” List says. “I happen to have a friend who is a Dreamer, a young man who was brought into this country as a tiny child.

“He’s stuck. He graduated from high school as a presidential scholar. He wants to become a doctor. But he can’t qualify for scholarships.”

Members of the young man’s family have suggested he marry to get citizenship, but his mother says marriage should be for love, not to stay here, List says. His friend’s father says he should give up, go into construction or something that pays the bills. But he wants to go to medical school.

“It’s just a sad story,” List says. “Those are the kinds of things that cause me to reach my position on immigration. It should not be a partisan issue.”

Like leadership from both parties, List agrees that border security needs to be improved. But he calls for a “high fence with wide gates, so we allow people to come in to fill the jobs that are needed, for farm workers, for skilled workers.”

“We’re shutting out some of the best and brightest, the most talented people, who can’t get in,” he says. “The whole country is damaged by that policy. For all kinds of reasons, I think this needs to be de-politicized and approached from the standpoint of what’s right.”

And Reid believes that Silva and the Dreamers have a critical role to play in the debate on immigration reform — and for standing up for “what’s right.” By being the real face of the debate, they continue to remind Congress that this is ultimately a debate about human beings.

Says Reid, “The honesty and hope in her letters are a reminder to us all that in the end, this is a debate about real people and their lives.”