After hearing so much talk about undocumented immigrants during the Republican National Convention, we finally heard one speak for herself during the opening night of the Democratic National Convention.
Astrid Silva, a 28-year-old undocumented immigrant from Mexico, came out of the shadows and stepped into the spotlight of the nation's biggest stage on Monday night, giving a primetime address and warming up the mic for keynote speakers Bernie Sanders and Michelle Obama.
Silva was 4 years old when she and her mother were pulled across the Rio Grande on a homemade tire raft.
"My family believed so deeply in the promise of this country that we risked everything for the American Dream," Silva told the delegates.
She also drew a sharp contrast between the two major presidential candidates: Donald Trump is "talking about ripping families apart," she said, while Hillary Clinton "understands that this is not who we are as a country. I know she will fight to keep our families together. Nuestras familias. I know she will."
Before the speech, when I asked Silva whether she had ever opened for Clinton on the campaign trail, she just laughed. “No, I haven’t. That sounds like I’m opening for a concert.”
In some ways she is. Her opening address set the tone for the DNC all week and helped the Democrats present themselves as the inclusive, big-tent party that's trying to shore up the Latinx vote. Silva's on-stage appearance will be the lead story tomorrow in Spanish-language media in the U.S. and around the world. And the message is loud and clear: Clinton is the safe candidate; she's not the one trying to deport 12 million undocumented immigrants.
“This invitation shows the stark contrast that exists with at the Republican National Convention, where undocumented people are being called horrible names,” Silva told me in a phone interview. Not only are undocumented immigrants welcome at the DNC, she said, they're being invited to play a major role.
The details of Silva's story are also meaningful during a year marked by immigration raids and the widespread fear of deportation. It's a fear Silva knows well; her father faces a pending deportation order.
Silva's father came to the United States in 1989 and worked as an irrigation technician on golf courses. Three years later, when he had established a life here, he sent for Silva and her mother. Smugglers put her and her mother on the tire raft and pulled them across.
Silva’s brother was born in the U.S. and is citizen by birthright, which makes Silva part of a mixed-status family—a situation many undocumented people in the U.S. can relate to. In the 1990s her father tried to get legal with the help of a public notary, but his paperwork was rejected and he received a deportation order instead of residency.
“My dad went to someone who was unscrupulous and instead of helping him, he took advantage of him,” Silva said.
Then came the torment of deportation—the constant fear of the early-morning visit from immigration officials driving white vans.
It finally happened to the Silva family around 5:30 a.m. on a September morning in 2011, when immigration officials detained her father in front of the house as he stepped outside to go to work. Silva says her father was held in a Las Vegas facility, but released a week later on a judge’s prosecutorial discretion.
“My dad still has an order of removal; he has a temporary stay that is extended a year at a time so he still lives with fear of being deported,” Silva told me. “Every time he goes back and checks in with immigration, my family knows that at any moment his stay may not be renewed and he could be deported.”
Silva first shared her story with Nevada Senator Harry Reid in a note she slipped him during his reelection campaign in 2009. In 2014, Silva also testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the need to pass comprehensive immigration reform.
Silva then shared her dad’s story with Hillary Clinton in May 2015, during an immigration forum in Las Vegas. More than a year later, the Clinton campaign contacted Silva and asked her to speak at the DNC.
Silva will be the second undocumented immigrant to take the stage at a DNC.
Benita Veliz, of Mexico, made history in 2012 when she became the first undocumented immigrant to address convention delegates in Charlotte, North Carolina. She told the DNC audience that she has lived in constant fear of being deported ever since.
“I’ve had to live almost my entire life knowing I could be deported just because of the way I came here,” said Veliz in her 2012 speech. A few years earlier, Veliz fought a deportation order after she was caught driving without a license.
Both Veliz and Silva were eligible for temporary deportation relief under DACA, President Obama’s executive action that allows qualifying immigrants to remain and work legally in the country for two years.
Clinton supports Obama’s immigration executive actions, but a recent Supreme Court split decision blocked President Obama’s executive order from expanding to include parents of U.S. citizens, an initiative known as DAPA. The Justice Department is petitioning the Supreme Court to rehear the case with a full bench next year.
Latinos across the country have overwhelmingly supported Clinton in both the 2008 and 2016 primaries, but she'll need to pad that lead to win the presidency, especially in swing states such as Silva's home state of Nevada.
Karla Ortiz, a young U.S. citizen child from Las Vegas, and her undocumented mother, Francisca, also spoke on the opening night of the convention. Karla Ortiz was featured in a Clinton campaign ad earlier this year.
Silva says she would feel the weight of the undocumented community upon her shoulders when she took the stage on Monday night.
“It’s really exciting, but at the same time it’s a really big responsibility to be representing our undocumented community,” Silva said. “Also my state, Nevada, has been a really important state in the most recent elections, so representing the state is a really big deal.”