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Las Vegas activist Astrid Silva returns to spotlight in Obama’s immigration speech

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Sam Morris

State Sen. Ruben Kihuen hugs Astrid Silva while they gather to listen to President Obama’s announcement of new immigration reforms Friday, June 15, 2012, at the offices of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada.

Astrid Silva

Astrid Silva stands in line, waiting for the commencement ceremony for the College of Southern Nevada at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas Monday, May 23, 2011. Launch slideshow »

For most of her life, Astrid Silva lived in the shadows as one of the millions of immigrants in the country illegally.

That began to change several years ago when Silva was unable to attend her grandmother's funeral in Mexico for fear of being caught by authorities. Silva, a Las Vegas resident, made the decision to step out into the open and become an advocate for immigration reform.

Tonight, the national spotlight shone brightly on Silva when President Barack Obama singled her out as he announced a new plan for executive action to reform the country's immigration system.

"Are we a nation that kicks out a striving, hopeful immigrant like Astrid?" Obama asked. "Or are we a nation that finds a way to welcome her in?"

Surrounded by her mother, father and other advocates at a Las Vegas watch party, the 26-year-old broke down in tears as the president spoke tonight.

She was totally unaware that her story would become a touchstone in a presidential address.

"I didn't hear him because everyone was applauding and so I clapped too. Someone said, 'He said your name' and then when he started talking about my doll and my dress, that's when it really hit me," Silva said. "It's very big, more than anything for all the families that worked together. He said my name but all of us have been fighting."

Obama's speech sketched a broad outline of Silva's life. She came to America with her family when she was 4 years old, carrying just her doll and a cross. She didn't speak English when she started school and learned the language by reading newspapers and watching television. She went on to become a top student.

Silva faced many of the same challenges undocumented immigrants struggle with regularly — she couldn't get a driver's license, travel freely or attend college out of state.

After graduating high school, she began taking classes at the College of Southern Nevada before moving on to UNLV.

At the same time, she became a leading voice for immigration reform in Las Vegas, especially for the group of young adults and teenagers, known as "dreamers," who were brought into the country illegally as minors.

Her activism led to a relationship with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who has cited her story frequently when pushing for immigration reform.

Earlier this year, Silva, now an organizer with the Progressive Alliance of Nevada, was recognized for her work with a national honor from the American Immigration Council.

After Obama's announcement, Silva said she felt relieved.

"Now we don't have to be afraid," she said. "Our stories are reaching people and it's proof that we've worked this hard and they have to listen to us."

Ana Ley contributed to this report.

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