By De’Liza Galimidi
The act of faith has always been the part and parcel that has perpetuated Astrid Silva’s life to be nothing short of awe-inspiring. The 25-year-old chuckles as she says “I’m too optimistic.” But these qualities of faith and optimism seem to be the driving forces through all of Silva’s great challenges as well as her even greater successes.
“Here’s a girl who came across the river. She had a little doll and her cross and that’s all she had — a Christian cross, nothing else. She was four years old,” a proud tone resonates through the phone as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid speaks about Silva, an undocumented immigrant, who as a child crossed the The Rio Grande to come to America. It was a move that separated her and her family from the land that they once knew to find a new oasis — one that came after making an arduous journey to Las Vegas. And it was in this place where Silva has found a place she has always called her home.
For many like Silva and her family coming to the “Land of the Free,” ironically, came with a hefty price, a shocking lack of freedom. In fear of deportation, Silva was “raised to keep quiet” about her status, a habit that a majority of undocumented immigrants have acquired in order to stay in this country. Silva is a DREAMer, a name that references the bipartisan DREAM Act and which refers to unauthorized youth who were brought to this country as children. Throughout her childhood Silva lived just as other children who did not share her status. She was a high-achieving student with interests in studying political science, an active member in volunteering all throughout middle school and high school, which even led her to a job at the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada (PLAN), an organization that advocates immigration reform.
As Silva grew older the defining line between being raised as an American and feeling fully American while being treated as an undocumented immigrant became more apparent. She began to find herself in a struggle. She was unable to partake in the same privileges that American citizens are awarded by birth.
“Not so much when I was little — it was more when I got older that I realized there were things I couldn’t do,” Silva says. “I really wanted to be a Girl Scout. But I didn’t end up joining in sports and all those things because a lot of them require you to fill out paperwork to get in. But now looking back at it, it was more of a fear than a limitation. I could only to go to [Community College of Southern Nevada] which is a great school but it wasn’t my ultimate goal. I always wanted to be a Rebel and go to UNLV.”
After graduating from high school, Silva found hardship because of her lack of citizenship documents. This meant she was unable to attend the university she dreamed of and was not able to even apply for college scholarships and financial aid. Even if Silva decided to attend a university in Mexico, she was told her “Spanish is not good enough.”
Silva was stuck in a limbo. She was an adult that could barely provide for her family let alone herself.
“I couldn’t get a job. I couldn’t drive,” she says. “There was just so many things that I couldn’t do that were natural to me being an American kid. I couldn’t even go to the movies. I was over 18 but I didn’t have an ID. What about my life when I’m 24? 30? It’s either I have to take control of my life or let those you don’t even know me choose for me”
Passionate about not settling anymore for this lifestyle, Silva began to create change the best way she knew how – through politics. In 2009 she began to attend rallies and marches that were in support of the DREAM Act and were sympathetic towards undocumented immigrants — that wholeheartedly wanted an easier path toward earned citizenship. Those who were on the same wavelength of this movement for immigrant justice were President Barack Obama and Sen. Reid. In 2010 Silva worked tirelessly on Reid’s re-election campaign, even finding herself backstage with Las Vegas’ own The Killers at a campaign event.
As “Home Means Nevada” played (video of event), Silva began to feel a sense of community. Politicians and DREAMers just like herself were all fighting for one cause. It was during these events that then-21-year-old Silva — perhaps on a whim of faith — became a bit of a “nuisance” by using every opportunity to slip the democratic senator raw, diary-like letters into his hands. Little did she know, Sen. Reid read them and those letters became a gateway not only for himself but for the world to see a different light shed on the millions of undocumented immigrants. Those penned notes presented an opportunity for others to realize that not all undocumented immigrants were the stereotypical feared drug smugglers, or some kind of foreign villains that came to our country for dishonest reasons. It was a chance for people like Reid to see that undocumented immigrants were human beings who came to this country as children, graduated from our high schools, and saw themselves as nothing short of American.
Since then the DREAM Act has failed to pass both houses of Congress, although it has passed about a dozen states. But it made way for comprehensive immigration reform to come into focus. And it’s a fight Sen. Reid is aiming to win as he talked about in a lengthy interview on KNPR last week. Indeed, Astrid’s story inspired an impassioned speech by Reid on the Senate floor in June, just before the Senate voted in favor of comprehensive immigration reform:
“She’s very inspiring to me,” Reid tells me of Silva, praising her as a “good woman” with “humility.”
“I hope she’s inspiring to other people,” he continues “She’s a program. She’s very persistent — aggressive — and she knows what she wants. I’ve been very impressed by her.”
In his June speech, Reid actually outed Silva as undocumented, something that she has always tried to keep a secret. She could now at any moment become a target for deportation, but her outing has turned prosperous. After Silva became open about her status, an influx of others who shared her situation began to do as Silva did and write letters to politicians in hopes to change their minds about immigration.
Republican legislators who have taken a stance against immigration reform have been a popular target.
[The Republicans] come from congressional districts where they have limited minorities and they just don’t care. The objections come from these congressional districts where there is a majority of white folks. They have no personal connection, they look upon the minority community as people who don’t deserve the same opportunities as them. ~ Sen. Harry Reid
Those who were once invisible are now sharing their stories hoping that their letters could solve this disconnect.
“She has helped guide us to where we are now,” says Blanca Gamez, Silva’s close friend. “She’s the only one that came out [as undocumented]. She’s been our backbone. She taught us that sharing our story made a difference.”
Today Silva has become a recipient of deferred action, a temporary fix that allows Silva and other DREAMers to have work and driving permits for two years after their applications are accepted.
But Reid is not settling. “Immigration is broken and it needs to be fixed and I’m not going to be nickeled and dimed on this.” Even as talks have stalled with House Republicans, the majority leader adds, confidently, “I’m not going to let anyone down.”
There is an air of hope in this most recent push for immigration reform. It feels as if everyone is finally recognized. All this while Silva is continuing to change the course of her own life and others who share her same situation. It is safe to say that Silva is not just a DREAMer but an awakening, a force that is reminding others that there is more to being an American than just having documents.