Speaking at a "Latino Summit" at UNLV Thursday morning, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told the stories of several Nevada Hispanics who had struggled with job loss, had been scammed by unscrupulous mortgage refinancing companies or had benefits denied by their health insurers.
But the senator only briefly touched on the issue of comprehensive immigration reform during his 15-minute speech. Reid said he supports legislation that would allow undocumented immigrants who came to the United States at a young age to move toward legal status so they can attend public colleges and universities.
Reid said he was approached by the valedictorian of a rural Nevada high school who told him she couldn't go to college because "her parents couldn't prove she was here legally."
"I was stunned," Reid said. "I don't know what she's doing now. I don't know where she is, but I do know where she should be. The smartest kid in any class" should go to college.
Immigration reform advocates have expressed frustration with politicians who have put the issue on the back burner in favor of such concerns as health care and the economy.
That frustration came to a head after President Barack Obama's State of the Union speech last month, during which he devoted a single sentence to immigration reform.
"It's disheartening," said Michael Flores, Southern Nevada director of Reform Immigration For America. "I know they're concerned about health care, jobs and the economy, but they've got to focus on immigration, too."
Many Hispanics have supported Democrats because of promises to push immigration reform, Flores said. Supporters feel it's time Democrats made good on those promises.
"We supported them, we came out and voted, but we have not gotten our part of the bargain," Flores said.
Reid did address the issue after being asked about it during a news conference after his speech. He blamed Republicans for the lack of progress on immigration reform.
Democrats "have done our job" working on the issue, he said. "We're just waiting for a little help from Republicans. Republicans have turned their back" on Hispanics.
But the recent loss of several seats to Republicans has "scared the bejesus out of Democrats," leaving them hesitant to aggressively pursue an issue as polarizing as immigration reform, said Fernando Romero, president of Hispanics in Politics.
"It takes a lot of courage to go up against that barrage of negativity on a daily basis," he said. "They're worried about keeping their jobs."
Romero and Flores credited Reid for his history of championing immigration reform.
Reid's appearance was part of "The Latino Summit: Improving the Lives of Nevadans," co-sponsored by UNLV and the Latin Chamber of Commerce. The summit included discussions on immigration, health, education and the economy.