WASHINGTON - Being selected to sit in the White House box alongside the first lady while the president of the United States delivers a major speech to Congress and the nation confers an amount of celebrity.
To Alan Aleman of Las Vegas, it also confers a duty to make the most of the opportunity. In his case, it's to draw attention to millions of undocumented residents hoping the president's speech will spur lawmakers to action on immigration reform.
"I feel a huge responsibility now to represent not just the Hispanic community but also the immigrant community," Aleman said. "By them seeing me next to Michelle Obama, they will be encouraged to pursue their dreams."
Aleman, 20, is among 23 people the White House invited to sit with the first lady Tuesday night at the State of the Union speech.
Others include Apple chief executive Tim Cook; registered nurse Menchu de Luna Sanchez of New Jersey, who cared for infants during Hurricane Sandy; Marie Loez Rogers, the Latino mayor of Avondale, Ariz.; the parents of Chicago shooting victim Hadiya Pendleton; and Haile Thomas, 12, champion of the first lady's Let's Move! fitness initiative.
Eyes might turn to Aleman when President Barack Obama as expected renews his pitch for Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform, including offering a chance at eventual citizenship to 11 million undocumented residents.
Aleman is an illegal immigrant, although one of the first in Nevada to be granted a two-year work permit through the Obama administration's Deferred Action program made available last summer to undocumented young people.
"I hope he's going to tell us more details of what he wants to see in immigration reform," Aleman said Tuesday of the president's speech. "Hopefully he is going to push Congress more to see our reality here. This is the time for immigration reform. We can't wait another 10 years or 15 years."
It never occurred to Aleman that he would become a public face of the so-called DREAMers - young people brought into the United States illegally. American in all but name, now many are bumping into obstacles to remain here and pursue studies and careers.
Aleman's approved application for deferred action enables him to continue pursuing medical studies at the College of Southern Nevada, and he hopes a career in the Air Force. He also now has a driver's license and Social Security number and, he said, a sense of freedom from fear of being deported.
"I have been driving all over California and Nevada," Aleman told reporters in an interview arranged by Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev. "I called my friends and said, 'let's go to the border. I want to feel how it feels like next to the border.' So we went to San Ysidro for two days."
When he was 11, Aleman entered the United States illegally with his parents at a Texas crossing. The family settled with relatives in Las Vegas, where his mother and father found work.
"I always knew I was undocumented, but you realize what it means to be undocumented when you graduate from high school," Aleman said. "You cannot get FAFSA (student loans), you cannot get a driver's license and you cannot get a job."
"Even though my parents brought me here, I don't blame them," Aleman said. "I thank them. We came here for a better future, not to break the law. We have contributed to this country. I think we need an opportunity for us and my parents, for everybody to have a path to citizenship so there is no more fear and no more deportations."
Aleman's parents and sister watched Obama's State of the Union address from Las Vegas at a watch party at the offices of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada.
Like her brother, Yadira, 18, also attends the College of Southern Nevada and has a work permit.
Alan Aleman's father, Ismael, is a landscaper and his wife, Adriana, is a housekeeper. They're both living in the U.S. without legal documents but hope immigration reform laws will give them the opportunity to live and work here legally, their daughter said.
"I don't know if we want to become citizens," Yadira said. "We just want to live here legally and have a normal life."
After leaving Mexico the family has not been able to return to see relatives, including the younger Alemans' grandparents.
Alan's parents said they were proud of their son, especially because he is working to help other immigrants like them.
"I'm really proud of him and of all his accomplishments," his mother said as her daughter translated from Spanish.
Alan's father said he was happy to represent other Hispanic families who have long dreamed of living here openly.
He said he can't drive and must take a bus or get a ride from one of his two children who now both have their own cars and driver's licenses.
"I'm very happy for my son," Ismael said through his daughter.
Asked what he missed most while living in the U.S., Ismael said, "What I miss most is being able to live openly in this country."
His wife said she missed the ability to freely travel and drive.
Yadira said she and her brother grew up with more of a sense of responsibility with both working to earn their own money.
"One big difference is you have to fight for everything you want," Yadira said. "You have to earn everything you get."
Aleman came to Obama's attention during a visit to Las Vegas last month. The president gave the student a shout-out during a speech, and the White House followed up with its invitation to the State of the Union.
Horsford said Aleman "is very reflective and representative of the story of so many DREAMers who came here through no fault of their own."
Aleman "puts a face to the issue that's real," Horsford said. "So many other young kids have the same dreams but they're afraid to be able to live those dreams because of our broken immigration system."
Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-783-1760. Follow him on Twitter @STetreaultDC. Contact Review-Journal reporter Laura Myers at email@example.com or 702-387-2919. Follow her on Twitter @lmyerslvrj.