The message was clear.
“What do we want?” Rosemary Flores shouted through a bullhorn.
“Immigration reform!” the crowd replied.
“When do we want it?”
More than 400 demonstrators marched through downtown Las Vegas Feb. 24 to promote comprehensive immigration reform. There were infants and old-timers, parents and children. They carried signs and American flags. Some are in the country legally; some are not.
Carlos Silva, co-organizer of the march, led the group from Main Street through the Fremont Street Experience, leading them in chants along the way.
“Obama, escucha, estamos en la lucha!” was one, which translates to “Obama, listen, we are in the fight!”
They also broke out chants of “USA!”
In an area on Las Vegas Boulevard across from the downtown federal courthouse, the crowd gathered to hear speeches from community members, including Democractic State Sen. Ruben Kihuen.
Silva said the purpose of the march was “to show support for President (Barack) Obama and the elected officials supporting comprehensive immigration reform.
“And also to show the other undecided officials we all are asking for the same thing,” Carlos Silva said. “It’s different cultures, not just hispanics. There are African Americans (and) Asians.”
Surrounding Carlos Silva were people, each with a different story of how they became involved in the movement.
Astrid Silva, who attended the rally, has come a long way as an activist.
She and other friends –– DREAMers and allies of DREAMers –– created the organization DREAM Big Vegas to start raising awareness about comprehensive immigration reform.
“It’s comforting to see the amount of people who care about immigration reform,” student Alan Aleman said.
Also in the crowd were James and Sharon Courtney.
James is a military veteran who served three tours in Iraq. His wife, Sharon, who is undocumented, came to America when she was 15.
They met and married in 2000 and have been fighting to get her citizenship for more than a decade.
While she waits, Sharon has raised three American-born children and cared for her husband each time he returned from serving.
“Each time he went away (on tour,) he would come back a little different,” she said.
James has post-traumatic stress disorder.
Without reform, she fears she could be deported and separated from her family, which she said needs her most now.
Though she wasn’t at the rally, Henderson resident Natividad Hernandez and her family are afraid of becoming separated, too. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials in six vehicles surrounded her home as she was leaving for work in May 2011. Hernandez is facing deportation unless she can get a visa approved soon.
She checks in with the ICE office each month and does not know if or when she will be deported to Mexico.
She is a single mother raising two daughters in middle school and high school, both American citizens. She moved to America from Mexico City in 1989 with her abusive ex-husband. She works as a caretaker and has applied for a special visa program for victims of domestic violence. She said she does not know how much time she has left before ICE follows through on its threats to deport her or if her visa will be approved.
The daughters said they would go with their mom to Mexico if she is deported, but Hernandez hopes the family can stay together in Las Vegas, the only home her daughters have ever known.
“When I came in 1989 … I saw the difference from here and Mexico,” she said. “I had the opportunity to work, to learn English. I can do something better for my family. The most important thing … (is) I can support my daughters over here. I can help them go to college.”
Before the 2012 election, Leo Murrieta, Nevada director for Mi Familia Vota, a nonprofit that raises awareness on policy issues within the Latino community, said the Republican Party had harsh rhetoric toward immigration reform.
“You had people voicing publicly to have birthright citizenship struck from the 14th Amendment,” he said. “You had talk about barbed wire fences and alligator-filled moats. I think the message of self-deportation single-handedly sunk (presidential candidate Mitt) Romney’s election.”
According to the Pew Research Center, Latinos voted for Obama over Romney by 71 percent to 27 percent in the 2012 presidential election. In Nevada, Obama won the Latino vote 70 percent to 25 percent.
“They always said we were a sleeping giant,” Kihuen said. “Now the giant is awake.”
Latinos made up 10 percent of the electorate, according to the center.
Aleman said it’s this realization that has opened the conversation.
“I hope reform will focus on a fair process with a pathway to citizenship,” he added. “It’s not just an economic issue but a humanitarian issue.”
According to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, more than 200,000 immigrants removed from the country have said they are parents of a U.S. citizen. The figure accounts for 23 percent of people deported.
Carlos Silva said immigration reform has the wrong image in many people’s minds.
“I think it’s very important that people understand it’s not just about citizenship and documents,” he said. “It’s actually families we’re looking at here. I think if people were to understand we’re dealing with human beings here and families that are being torn apart, they might have a different perspective about this whole thing.”
Murrieta said it also could have significant economic benefits.
“If legalization occurs, it could generate $249 million in tax revenue in Nevada,” he said.
According to a study by the North American Integration and Development Center at UCLA, mass deportations could result in a $1.3 billion decrease in tax revenue.
Murrieta hopes immigration reform will look at the current broken system and find a way to bring those who are undocumented out of the shadows.
The conversation has shifted, and the debate is between granting a permanent residence status or citizenship.
Murrieta said if there isn’t a pathway toward citizenship, he fears it could create a second class of people.
Even though the decision remains with Congress, it’s the voters who will have the last say, Murrieta said.
“(Latinos) will reward or punish both Republicans and Democrats based on their vote for comprehensive immigration reform,” he said.
While the U.S. Congress discusses comprehensive immigration reform, Nevada’s Legislature will also be discussing laws that could benefit immigrants.
Each year in the legislative session, Kihuen said there is a great amount of energy spent on killing bills that would harm immigrants.
“There have been bills similar to those of Arizona,” he said.
But with a greater call for immigration reform –– coupled with larger rallies being held with people demanding a change –– there has been a shift in the legislature and within lawmakers.
Kihuen said this year the session has been more proactive, with bills that would provide funding to English Language Learners programs and offer driver’s privilege cards to undocumented people.
He said a high percentage of Nevada’s dropouts could benefit from ELL funding.
Democratic State Sen. Mo Denis proposed a bill to offer driver’s privilege cards that would allow people who are undocumented to obtain a license. The bill is modeled after similar legislation in Utah.
Kihuen said there are an estimated 150,000 undocumented people in Nevada.
“That is 150,000 people possibly driving without a license,” he added. “It is a safety issue.”
He also views it as a great economic stimulus, having people pay to obtain these cards.
“However, these are all small solutions,” he said. “It is the Band-Aid to fix the broken leg.”
Kihuen said the real change needs to happen in Congress with comprehensive immigration reform.
“Every day that passes, hundreds of people are deported,” Kihuen said. “They deserve reform. If (Congress) fails to act this time, we won’t forget them in the next election.”
Contact Henderson/Anthem View reporter Michael Lyle at email@example.com or 702-387-5201 or View education reporter Jeff Mosier at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-224-5524.
A look at immigration
This is part two of a two-part series on the impacts of immigration reform in Southern Nevada. Part one ran in the March 26 edition of the View and can be found online at reviewjournal.com/view/american-dreamers-0.