LAS VEGAS — When President Obama took to the podium in the East Room of the White House Thursday to announce sweeping immigration reform, a young advocate named Astrid Silva gathered with about 40 close friends around a projector. Children sat on the floor in silence while the president announced that as many as 5 million undocumented immigrants would soon be protected from deportation.
The room erupted in applause. But over the noise Silva, 26, began to hear details of a story that sounded all too familiar.
“Her only possessions were a cross, her doll, and the frilly dress she had on,” Obama said.
Silva, who arrived from Mexico at the age of 4, thought “that’s how I came here, and then … that’s me,” she told msnbc Thursday.
To her surprise, the president was telling her story to illustrate that there are hardworking undocumented immigrants who deserve a chance to live without fear.
Silva burst into tears and nearly collapsed into a friend’s arms as the president continued to describe her journey.
"When she started school, she didn't speak any English," Obama said. "She caught up to the other kids by reading newspapers and watching PBS, and became a good student. Her father worked in landscaping. Her mother cleaned other people's homes."
He explained that her parents wouldn't let her apply for a tech magnet school for fear that officials would discover her immigration status. Silva applied anyway and got in.
"Still, she mostly lived in the shadows — until her grandmother, who visited every year from Mexico, passed away, and she couldn't travel to the funeral without risk of being found out and deported," Obama said. "It was around that time she decided to begin advocating for herself and others like her, and today, Astrid Silva is a college student working on her third degree."
Silva has two associate degrees and is currently earning a bachelor’s degree at Nevada State University. She didn’t come dressed for attention. Instead, she wore the red t-shirt of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, a pro-immigration group that hosted Thursday’s watch party.
“Tomorrow, I'll travel to Las Vegas and meet with some of these students, including a young woman named Astrid Silva,” Obama said. Now she and her family "can come out of the shadows and get right with the law," the president added.
Silva’s father has faced the prospect of deportation since 2001. But as of Friday, that threat will be set aside for at least three years. Silva’s teen-aged brother was born in the United States and under the order Obama will sign Friday, parents of children who are citizens will be eligible for the new protections it affords.
"Our family’s going to be able to know that these won’t be our last holidays together. But ... I know so many families that did not benefit, and so we have to keep fighting until Congress does something," she told msnbc.
Silva is a beneficiary of an earlier presidential directive signed by Obama in 2012 that afforded some protections for undocumented young people who were brought to the United States at a young age. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, known as DACA, lifted an entire generation of undocumented immigrants out of the shadows.
Despite her inability to vote, Silva is a passionate activist for immigration reform and campaigned this fall for Lucy Flores, the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor in Nevada who was defeated on Nov. 4. Flores, who was in the same room as Silva on Thursday, is also the child of immigrants and when word spread that the president would announce the DACA actions in 2012, Silva heard about it from Flores.
At home in bed, she took a cell phone called from Flores, who told her to wake up, get dressed and turn on the TV. It was a life-altering moment for Silva.
That moment provided a catalyst for Silva to start an organization with friends like herself called Dream Big Vegas, which is designed to help DACA beneficiaries navigate the extensive paperwork necessary to qualify for the program. Her friend Blanca Gamev, 25, likened it to “a support group. We are more allies than activists.” But Silva has been a prolific campaigner, as Obama noted, writing letters to members of Congress and taking part in efforts to sway public opinion in support of immigration reform.
On Thursday, Silva could see that all those efforts paid off. Many people were listening to her voice — one of whom was the president of the United States.