Weekly Q&A

Weekly Q&A: DREAM Act activist Astrid Silva

The activist: Astrid Silva says she’s still afraid. But mostly she’s scared of looking back and thinking she could have done more.
Photo: Leila Navidi

Her name was never Jessica. We called her that in a Weekly cover story (“Citizen of Nowhere,” December 23, 2010) to protect her identity. Then, she was a 22-year-old who’d told only a handful of people her painful truth—that she is an undocumented immigrant, brought to this country by well-meaning parents when she was only 3 years old. American in spirit and soul, she spoke to us about her life in limbo, unable to pursue the dreams of success she’d been promised in school and waiting for politicians to find a solution to the controversial topic of immigration.

Now, she is a year older and battle-tested. She is ready to talk again, this time without a pseudonym.

Meet Astrid Silva.

Was there an exact moment when you realized you were going to come out about your status?

No, it was gradual. I started realizing how important it was. I’d always supported the DREAM Act but never said why you should. I would say, “You should support the DREAM Act because it’s the right thing to do,” but I would never say, “The DREAM Act is me.” Really, though, it was my dad’s case. That was the turning point.

What happened to your dad?

My dad came to the U.S. in the late ’80s. He tried to legalize, but used this unscrupulous person who was promising him citizenship and residency for a cost. They took his money and said he would get paperwork. When he got a deportation letter, they said it was part of the process. He had his work visa, and he didn’t know that the letter of deportation nullified the visa. Everyone knows immigration is backed up, so he thought it was taking a long time, until that day [this fall] when they arrested him on his way to work.

Did you get to talk to him after he was picked up?

He was there for exactly a week, Wednesday to Wednesday. I talked to him three times in that span. The first thing he did when he called from the detention center was tell me to call his boss and tell him he couldn’t come in to work that day. That’s what he cared about. The hardest part, though, was when he called to say they’d told him his departure is tomorrow.

But he was saved. What happened?

Thankfully, a lot of my friends and strangers stepped up to the plate. ... They started a petition; within 12 hours it got 500 signatures. They were printed and taken to ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement). People called in. I got help from our local elected officials and Harry Reid. My father and another gentleman were let go. My father was granted 180 days. March 19 is his next court date.

As an activist yourself, you must know many don’t get that.

Before, I always knew our immigration system wasn’t the best one, but I didn’t really know how bad it was until this happened. I appreciate all that the community and the legislators did. If they hadn’t, his stay wouldn’t have been granted. I see that other people don’t have this. We, as a community, try to help as many people as we can, but there are so many. It makes you realize we have to fix the immigration law. We can’t do this on a person-by-person basis.

How scared are you for March 19?

I’m terrified. [Editor’s note: Since this interview was conducted, Astrid’s father has been granted a temporary stay of deportation.]

Do you blame yourself?

I do. I blame myself for my dad. I felt like had I not [done interviews] nobody would know we were here and everything would have been the same. After my dad was released, he and I talked. My dad is my best friend, my role model, absolutely the greatest dad ever. He said, “This wasn’t because of you. It happened because it needed to happen, and now you’ve seen what’s going on.”

More people seem to be speaking up about their status.

It’s starting to become such a hot topic. It is becoming the Latino issue. People are looking for examples of students, and now we’re seeing students coming out and risking everything. ... A lot of the DREAMers use the quote, “undocumented and unafraid.” That’s the slogan, but no ... No. I’m still scared. Before, I was afraid people would judge me and say, “You’re a criminal,” and stop talking to me. And I did lose friends. I was afraid of all that, but now I am much more scared—terrified—of not doing anything, of looking back years from now and saying, “I could have said something.” That’s my biggest fear.

Your younger brother was born in the United States, so he’s a citizen. How has that played into all of this?

He’s wondering if he has the right to keep his family here. He’s just as dumbfounded as me. There’s nothing he can do. He’d have to wait to be 21. That’s three years. In three years, I don’t know if we’ll be here. There’s no guarantee, and there’s no guarantee he can petition for my parents. Last I checked, they were backlogged to 2003. If they did apply in three years, they might be eligible by 2019.

You must hear this a lot: Why don’t you just get married?

I love my cousin. We grew up together, but I get a text from her every week saying, “I found this really hot guy and he’s willing to do it.” I think it’s crazy. I’m not going to marry a complete stranger. ... I don’t want to break the law. That’s why I don’t drive. I respect people who do it. Everyone has to figure out their way. I just think it’s sad that people who want to be here have to resort to that. I don’t blame them. I blame the system.

So marriage isn’t a quick fix.

I volunteer at several organizations. I translate domestic abuse letters. In a lot of these cases, they got married for that reason. Some of the women say, “I wanted to get my papers and I have two kids in El Salvador, and I want to bring them here, but he never applied.” They are slaves essentially. Some guys will abuse them and say, “If you call the cops, they’ll deport you.” I know I’d never fall into that, but I don’t want to owe anything to anybody.

It also sounds like you don’t want to jeopardize yourself if the DREAM Act does get passed.

Yes. When Senator Reid mentioned me on the Senate floor, he said this act was for people who hadn’t broken any laws. I don’t want that on my conscience. A lot of kids have come to me saying, “My dad is up for deportation,” and I tell them, “This is what we can do ...” Then they say, “Oh, but they have a DUI.” Well, then nothing can be done. I feel terrible for these kids because it’s not their fault, but at that point, all you can do is help the kids cope with it.

Do you have a lot of hope that reform will come?

I think the DREAM Act is the strongest it’s ever been. I think it’s one of the strongest movements out there—that and Occupy. We have a whole network across the states doing things. I think, more than anything, there’s emotional support now. Our only battle is to be accepted by our country. That’s all there is. We just want to be a part of it.

Can you imagine yourself being anywhere else?

No. I want and am going to make this country better. Nobody says, “I want the Canadian Dream.” America is the country where people want to be. They came to escape religious persecution and better themselves. I don’t know when that became the wrong thing to do.


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