Updated at 11:43 p.m. ET
President Trump took a hard-line stance on illegal immigration during his first address to a joint session of Congress Tuesday, restating his promise to build a wall along the Southern border and speaking of the government’s ongoing deportation efforts, saying that “as we speak, we are removing gang members, drug dealers, and criminals who threaten our communities.”
Notably absent from the president’s remarks was any indication that he would support a path to legalization for the millions of immigrants living in the U.S. illegally, despite reports that he had signaled an openness to a legalization plan during a meeting with reporters earlier Tuesday.
Instead, during his address, the president sought to cast illegal immigration as a threat to public safety. He highlighted the stories of two California police officers and a teenager said to have been killed by immigrants living in the U.S. illegally as the victims’ relatives — invited by the president — looked on from the audience. To a mix of cheers and jeers, Trump spoke of a new government office to help such families.
But immigrants also played a major role in the Democratic response to the president’s speech. Astrid Silva, a 28-year-old immigration activist from Nevada, delivered the Democrats’ Spanish-language response, seeking to cast the president’s policies and comments about immigrants in the U.S. illegally as divisive and destructive to millions of otherwise law-abiding families.
She spoke of the case of Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos, an Arizona mother thought to be among the first immigrants deported as a result of Trump’s executive order that widely expanded the category of immigrants whom the government considers deportation priorities.
“Today Guadalupe is far from her children who are U.S. citizens and who are an example of the great impact that Trump’s actions have over the American people in general, not just on the undocumented community,” Silva said in the remarks that aired on several Spanish-language networks, including Univision and Telemundo.
“In this country, there is no space for discrimination, racial profiling or persecution,” Silva said. “But sadly, this is what the Trump administration has brought forth for Latinos and immigrants.”
Their choice of an immigrant to give an official response to the president’s address signaled one way that Democrats are trying to sharply contrast their party with Trump’s recent orders on immigration and refugees, which many have denounced as discriminatory.
The choice of Silva suggests that she continues to be seen as a rising star within the party. Silva co-founded the advocacy group DREAM Big Vegas, which works on behalf of young people who, like her, were brought to the U.S. illegally as children.
In an interview with NPR, Silva said her remarks Tuesday night were targeted less at these young immigrants, many of whom are currently protected under an Obama-era program, and instead at their parents. Many of them fear imminent deportation after Trump’s recent executive orders.
“I’m talking to my mom and dad,” Silva said. “I’m talking to the people that have been here 20, 30 years and have been unable to find a pathway to citizenship. Those are the people at home right now and living in fear. Those are the people afraid to go to the grocery store.”
Silva said her speech had been planned as a direct rebuttal to the way she expected the president to characterize immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally — as dangerous.
“I understand the difficulty that the families are facing,” she said of the guests whose relatives were killed, but she said she believed they were invited to the speech “to continue that constant rhetoric that undocumented immigrants are criminals.”
Silva first came to national prominence when, in 2014, President Obama spoke about her as he announced an ultimately failed program to protect the parents of U.S.-citizen children. Last summer, she took the stage at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia and told the story of her family’s coming to the U.S. illegally when she was 4.
Silva’s rise within the Democratic Party started with a letter she wrote to her senator, then-Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, when Silva was 21. Reid wrote back, and the two continued corresponding.
Silva said it was New York Sen. Chuck Schumer’s office that extended the invitation to deliver Tuesday’s Spanish-language response. She said she was honored by the chance to represent the hundreds of thousands of so-called DREAMers who have fought for immigrant protections, including the Obama program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, which currently shields them from deportation. Last week, memos outlining how the Trump administration will implement new immigration actions explicitly exempted DACA.
“It’s a huge responsibility,” she said of Tuesday’s response. “Right now is a time when a lot of people are saying to go back into the shadows. It’s very difficult to go back to the way we were living when we’ve had something that we’ve fought for so hard, so when the opportunity presented itself, I took it.”