One of the most uncomfortable stretches of Donald Trump’s hour-long joint address to Congress Tuesday evening was the section focused on the family members of victims of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants. Even for this particular gambit – a State of the Union staple, wherein one individual’s personal tragedy is exploited for political gain – it was grotesque.
Fully half of the guests Trump invited to join the first lady in his box fell into this category. The move was designed to personalize for Americans watching at home the menace Trump’s wide-ranging crackdown on undocumented immigrants seeks to eradicate.
“Jamiel’s 17-year-old son was viciously murdered by an illegal immigrant gang member, who had just been released from prison,” Trump told the nation while cameras dwelled on the father’s tear-streaked face. “Jamiel Shaw Jr. was an incredible young man, with unlimited potential who was getting ready to go to college where he would have excelled as a great quarterback. But he never got the chance.”
Astrid Silva, a 28-year-old DREAMer and immigration activist who was tapped to deliver the Democrats’ Spanish-language rebuttal to Trump’s speech, represents a side of the immigration debate Trump chose not to highlight. She was brought to the U.S. at age four, worked hard, graduated from college – and now worries that her immigration status could, at any moment, put her life in America in jeopardy.
“I’m human. I felt horrible for the families that lost their loved ones,” she says of watching Trump’s speech. But she’s also aware that the vast majority of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. aren’t committing the types of crimes Trump talked about.
“I know that, statistically, less crimes are committed by undocumented immigrants than the general population. But I think he knows that the people he’s talking to – who this was meant for – they’re not going to be the ones who go google the statistic on this,” Silva says.
That’s part of the reason Silva gave her rebuttal Tuesday night. As she told audiences who watched her address on networks like Univision and Telemundo, she was there to represent “the Democrats, the Latinos and the 11 million undocumented immigrants who are an integral part of this country and who constitute the values and the promise of the United States, and whom Trump is threatening with his mass deportation plan.”
That Trump would seek to highlight undocumented criminals didn’t come as a surprise to Silva – she had a line about it written into her speech before she even heard Trump’s remarks. What did surprise her was that the president would use his address to float his openness to immigration reform – and that Republicans would stand up to applaud him when he did.
“That bewildered me more than most of the things that were said. To watch them stand up and clap at him saying ‘immigration reform,’ when most of them have been there for years when immigration reform [efforts] have been brought up and they either voted not to move forward with it or voted against it. It was a very wild feeling,” she says.
Silva wants more details about Trump’s plan, though. “I think it’s important that we find out what he actually means,” she says. “Because we know even though we have DACA, some of the DREAMers caught up in the deportations right now had DACA, and one of them, [Daniel Ramirez Medina], is still sitting in jail. So I really want to see what [Trump] means by comprehensive immigration reform.
“I’d love for him to prove me wrong, but I think that we need to have a lot more conversations about what it actually means to him,” she says.
With federal policy still so inscrutable, Silva is considerably more heartened by political efforts she’s seen in her home state of Nevada. “We were a bright spot in this past election, where we turned our legislature [from majority Republican to majority Democrat] and we elected the first Latina senator. And Sen. Cortez Masto is doing a lot of great work. She proposed a bill to eliminate the [immigration] executive orders he issued, and I think that’s a great step.”
“We have to be able to start the conversation somewhere,” Silva says. “And I think that Democrats have done a fairly good job making sure, at least in some of the states where they have the ability to govern, that they’re opening doors for immigrants.”