LAS VEGAS — When Astrid Silva wrote her first letters to Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, she never really expected that he, or anyone else, would read the folded notes she slipped to the Nevada senator as he campaigned in the state she called home.
But in a way, it didn't matter. The words, written in her girlish hand, spilled out in a cathartic flow, a release of all the sadness and disappointment — and lingering hope — that had piled up inside the 21-year-old as she came to understand the netherworld she was caught in.
Her life was defined by one crucial moment, when she stepped onto a tire raft, wearing a frilly white dress and patent leather shoes, to be pulled across the Rio Grande with her mother. She was 4, carrying her Ken doll.
Now, as an adult, she had no legal status. Unable to work legally, she baby-sat for a living. Once tops in her class, she feared that her family would be deported if she applied to a university. Without a driver's license, she relied on friends or the bus to avoid the scorching Las Vegas streets.
The senator did not know what to make of the earnest woman who handed him that first letter in summer 2009. He recalled stuffing the note in a pocket and thinking it was "just a nuisance or something."
"And then I read it," he said.
And so began one of the more unusual relationships in Washington, a correspondence between a young woman in the country illegally and the most powerful man in the Senate.
Four years later, Silva's story is a reminder that it's not always the loudest or wealthiest who win the attention of those in power; sometimes it's the one who writes heartfelt notes, as her third-grade teacher taught her to do, usually in looping handwriting — decorated with drawings and, now and then, a heart dotting an exclamation point.
"My future along with the rest of those in my situation relies on what you can do for us," she wrote in one letter.
In another, she referenced arranging dental care for her mother, much like what the senator has said he did for his mother decades ago: "P.S. I bought my mothers front tooth.... Now I can be like you and say my first check went to my mother."
She said in yet another, "Most people hardly understand my appreciation and admiration of you. Frankly, I can't understand sometimes. It might be that I didn't come to terms with who I was until I met you."
There is a similarity between Reid's Depression-era upbringing and Silva's life on the margins, two ambitious kids wanting to forget where they came from, hiding it from the world.
At 73, Reid remains that rarest of politicians, one who says little. He was raised in the Nevada desert, the son of an alcoholic miner and a mother who took in laundry from whorehouses. He too writes letters the old-fashioned way, sending handwritten notes to colleagues and others, usually on elegant card stock with the seal of the U.S. Senate.
At his Capitol office overlooking the National Mall, Reid sifted through some of Silva's letters. The Senate was hours away from passing landmark immigration legislation that would give families like hers a path to citizenship.
"See, this is why I did this," he said, reading her sentences aloud last month. "Because of some things she said."
Growing up in her family's two-bedroom apartment in the shadow of the Strip, where she shared a room with her younger brother, Silva became a standout student. She learned English on the kindergarten schoolyard, was named student of the year in middle school, and graduated at the top of her magnet high school class.
She hoped to be an architect. But as her friends headed to college, the girl who looks out from her class photos with poise became trapped in a way station between childhood and adulthood. Minors in the country illegally can generally attend school and receive basic services, but adults are essentially invisible without the nine digits of a Social Security card.
Every weekday morning for almost five years, her father would drop her off on his way to his landscaping job and she would baby-sit a working couple's child. She took classes at a community college, where she was not afraid her immigration status would be exposed, and earned two associate degrees, in arts and political science. As friends dressed up for a night on the town, she made excuses because she had no valid ID.
In summer 2009, she watched her father cry for the first time, when he could not return to Mexico before his mother died.
"That's it," she said to herself. "I can't do this my whole life."
It was around then that Silva poked her head inside a rally for Reid. As she walked in, he was talking about young people who were brought to this country as children. Dreamers, he called them, after the Dream Act, legislation to allow them an expedited route to citizenship if they attended college or joined the military.
She stood in the back and her eyes filled with tears. An aide asked her what was wrong.
"He's talking about me," she said.
She began volunteering for the state Democratic Party, helping out on Reid's hard-fought reelection. A lover of old movies and the way notes were passed during an earlier era, Silva thought the majority leader, being older, might feel the same way. She wrote her first letter. Then another. And another.
"I … have never even stolen a piece of gum from a 7-11, yet I feel as though my forehead says 'FELON.' I long for the day when that stigma will be gone and I can make my parents sacrifices worth it and be an asset to MY country."
As Silva became known around party headquarters, she was asked to introduce the senator at a public event. She was making her way off the stage when he told the audience she was one of his favorite Dreamers.
She stopped cold. Reid had just unintentionally outed her as being here illegally.
Her mother became worried that the family would face trouble with the authorities. Her dad took another view. "You have to face it at some point. Just go forward," he told her.
Silva gathered her friends and they formed a Dreamers group, Dream Big Vegas. Every chance she found to put a note into Reid's hand on his visits home, she did.
She realizes how odd she must have seemed to the senator she started calling "abuelito," grandpa.
"What am I doing?" she remembered thinking. "Sometimes I'm, like, I should probably stop, just because I'm sure he doesn't need all that junk. But then I can't help myself. Then I'll tell him stories of other people."
Reid was not always as sympathetic to the immigrants living illegally in Nevada, a population that has swelled with the state's phenomenal growth since Silva's family arrived in 1993.
But some years before he met Silva, he was moved by another student who he could tell wanted to talk to him when he visited a high school in the rural northern part of the state.
"She said, 'I'm the smartest kid in my class. I can't go to school. My parents are illegal. I'm illegal. So what am I supposed to do, senator?'"
He had no idea. "And you know what the answer was? Nothing. We could do nothing," he said. "I wonder what she's doing now — working in the onion, garlic farms there? A domestic someplace? A nanny? We as a country did not benefit from this beautiful young woman."
Reid did not lose track of Silva. She became "my pal," he said.
With Silva's baby-sitting pay, the family moved to a larger home that summer of the first letters, in a faded circa-1970s housing tract west of the Strip, where a towering replica of the Statue of Liberty stands in a mini-mall across the street. Silva has her own bedroom now, crowded with books, stuffed animals. A montage fills a white board with political quotes and her sketches of Reid.
One morning in 2011, Silva's mother watched from a window as immigration officials detained her husband on a deportation order.
The family called everyone they knew for help, including Reid's office. After several weeks, her father's deportation was deferred until 2014. Silva thanked the senator in a letter decorated with a sketch of mountains and cactus over which she wrote the title of the state song, "Home Means Nevada."
"My dad is everything to me. He is the rock of my family," she wrote, describing how she hoped he would see her graduate from college and escort her down the aisle at her wedding. "All of these 'normal' situations are impeded by our immigration status here, at my home, the only country I have ever known."
Last summer, President Obama was about to announce that, by executive order, Dreamers under 31 years old could obtain work permits and avoid deportation for two years, a temporary reprieve in the absence of legislation. Silva's cellphone rang.
"How old are you?"
"Sen. Reid! I'm 24."
"That's my girl. You're in."
With her paperwork in order earlier this year, she told her pen pal how she felt.
"I sit today holding my work permit and studying for my drivers permit," she wrote. "I turned 25 on March 11 and I can tell you that I feel like my life has finally begun. I have so many ideas and dreams to accomplish.... I feel like I am one step closer to being part of this, my country."
A letter arrived at her house about the same time, on Senate stationery.
"You are no longer a Dreamer (for you) but only now for others," Reid wrote. "I am proud of you!"
Silva now works at a nonprofit organization that focuses on social justice issues.
In June, Silva sat in the gallery watching the Senate debate the immigration reform bill, as Reid stood at his desk and made the last speech before the vote.
He told Silva's story: the girl who came on a raft with a Ken doll, trying to live her aspirations in the country she knew as home; the young woman who slipped him note after note.
"I appreciate every one of those letters she sent me," Reid said, "because each was a reminder of what is at stake in this debate."
Silva cried. After the bill was approved, she stood up, stepped out of the chamber — and called home.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times