If you want to understand the opposing camps in President Trump's America, watch his speech to Congress tonight — and then watch the Spanish-language response. Even if you don't speak Spanish, the message that Astrid Silva and Democrats are sending will be unmistakable.
Trump is expected to characterize unauthorized immigrants as violent criminals — he’s invited relatives of people killed by unauthorized immigrants to the speech, and he’s likely to highlight their stories (just as he did on the campaign trail) to make a case for cracking down on “bad hombres.”
Silva’s response is a chance for unauthorized immigrants to talk back.
She’s an activist and student, a resident of the US since she was a child. She’s a DREAMer — currently protected from deportation under a program that Trump could end at any time — and her parents are under immediate threat from the stepped-up immigration enforcement Trump put into place his first week in office.
Silva’s story is much more representative of unauthorized immigrants than the stories Trump is likely to tell Tuesday night. Indeed, typically it’s stories like Silva’s — people triumphing in America under tough circumstances — that presidents trot out as anecdotes in State of the Union speeches. But instead of letting someone else tell her story, Democrats are giving Silva the platform to tell it herself.
Silva is an activist with close ties to the Democratic establishment
Astrid Silva came to the US from Mexico with her parents at the age of 4, carrying her Ken doll across the Rio Grande. She’s described a frustrating upbringing in Nevada in which her parents didn’t let her take opportunities that came her way — from joining the cheerleading squad to attending a magnet school — because “they were afraid they'd have to show papers and people would discover we were undocumented.”
In 2009, as a 21-year-old community college student who was babysitting to pay her tuition, Silva attended a campaign event for then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid — and handed him a letter explaining her situation. The two struck up a correspondence, and Silva became Reid’s go-to example on the Senate floor for the need to legalize young unauthorized immigrants.
When President Obama announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in 2012, Reid himself called Silva to tell her she qualified. And when the president attempted to expand deferred action in 2014 (in a move that was ultimately stalled by a court challenge), he brought up Silva’s family as an example in his speech announcing the proposed changes.
Silva has engaged in activism in Nevada: She founded a DREAMer group, Dream Big Vegas, and she’s worked with the progressive umbrella organization PLAN Nevada. With Democrats desperately trying to tap into the progressive anti-Trump energy that’s driven hundreds of thousands of people to protest across the country, tapping Silva to respond to President Trump Tuesday night is an obvious choice. It demonstrates a willingness to embrace the idea that activists are welcome in the Democratic Party.
It helps, too, that it’s a role Silva is used to playing. She endorsed Hillary Clinton before the Nevada caucuses in 2016; she spoke on the first night of the Democratic National Convention, at a time when many other activists felt cheated by the party. Silva is the insider’s outsider; she’s not a politician, but she’s the sort of activist more interested in cheering the party for its successes than confronting it over its failures.
President Trump could upend Silva’s life at any time
Silva isn’t just an activist, of course. She’s personally affected by the policies that President Trump has implemented in his first month in office — and her plans for her future could be upended by a decision Trump is making in the near future.
Silva is one of the 750,000 immigrants who’ve been protected from deportation and granted work permits under Obama’s DACA program. DACA is still in effect right now, but President Trump promised on the campaign trail to end it — and an executive order has been drafted within his White House to do just that. Trump hasn’t signed the order yet, and it’s not exactly clear what he plans to do with the program. But Silva could, theoretically, lose her ability to work in the US legally and become deportable any day now — or she could find out that she won’t be able to renew her protections, and that the clock is ticking on her ability to work and live without fear in the US.
For Silva’s parents, the situation is even more dire. They’re unprotected and deportable — and both of them almost certainly fit under the Trump administration’s new “priorities” for deportation, which cover essentially any unauthorized immigrant who’s gotten a job with a fake Social Security number or driven a car.
Silva is part of a generation of unauthorized immigrants who made a point of “coming out” in recent years, making it clear that they were not going to leave the US and that they were already just as integrated as many legal immigrants or US citizens. In the wake of Trump’s election — and the fear it’s engendered, both of increased deportations and of hate crimes — some of those immigrants have been less willing to speak publicly. In that context, Silva’s speech is an act of bravery and defiance.
As for the English-language response to President Trump, Democrats made the conventional choice: They picked former Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear. Beshear is well-positioned to criticize Trump and Republicans for trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act. He is likely to appeal to the angry constituents who flooded the town hall meetings of Republican members of Congress last week. He represents resistance to the legislative priorities not yet executed.
Silva embodies a very different critique of the Trump administration: the vulnerability in which it’s already placed millions of unauthorized and legal immigrants and people of color. It’s certainly a message likely to resonate with the Spanish-speaking audience her speech will reach. And simply by selecting Silva to deliver a response, Democrats may be angling to draw in a younger, more racially diverse generation of progressives and activists — whether or not they can understand the words coming out of her mouth in real time.