Tears came to Cindy Nava's eyes when she heard Vice President Biden call hard-working undocumented immigrants "Americans" despite their legal status, during a speech he gave at a Cinco de Mayo breakfast last year.
To the 26-year-old New Mexican, it felt as though he were speaking directly to her. Nava was brought to the United States as a child without documents and knew her immigration status could not only hinder her college and career goals but could also send her packing back to Chihuahua, Mexico at any moment.
But on that day, Nava said, she felt her experience — scrounging for money for college because she was ineligible for scholarships, the never-ending fear of deportation and advocating for immigrant rights in the state legislature — had been validated. After the speech, she met Biden personally.
"He tells me, 'Oh, I saw it in your eyes, I knew it ... you're a Dreamer, right?' " Nava recalled Biden saying. "And I cried and he wiped my tears, he gave me a kiss on the forehead ... and I told him that I was very thankful to this country."
Despite not yet attaining legal status, Nava is working for the Democratic National Committee as one of a crop of fellows from around the country helping the party organize ahead of a presidential election that President Obama predicted would feature immigration as a major issue.
Candidates are already staking out their positions. Democratic hopeful Hillary Clinton aligned herself with the president on his executive action and has come out supporting driver's licenses for immigrants. Former Maryland governor Martin O'Malley's vowed to work on the issue in his first 100 days in office, if elected, during a Q&A with the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce last week.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) has also said he backs reform but was critical of guest worker amendments in a 2007 immigration reform bill that he said were "pushed by large corporations."
Nava's new position in the DNC's political shop comes after Clinton tapped another former undocumented immigrant and activist, Lorella Praeli, to join her campaign team.
On the Republican side, former Florida governor Jeb Bush has said that many undocumented families come to the country illegally out of an "act of love." The positions of other candidates are vaguer. Some of the Democratic candidates have advocated for a path to citizenship while others, including Republicans stop at legalization for the country's 11 million undocumented with some conditions — a position 72 percent of Americans support, according to a Pew Research Poll released last week.
The issue catapulted Nava into politics. Growing up in Albuquerque and later Santa Fe, she said insecurity dominated her childhood. Her family moved from place to place early on looking for good jobs and stability. She struggled to navigate the complications of her status up until Nava enrolled in a dual-credit program at her local community college in 2008.
"I live in a country that I believe is my home but others don't see it that way," she said.
Nava became more involved in Democratic politics and open about being undocumented as she transferred to the University of New Mexico. After visiting the state legislature for the first time, Nava came under the wing of longtime Las Cruces Democratic state Sen. Cynthia Nava and other legislators. Nava, the Dreamer, bridged her advocacy work on immigration to her growing passion for lawmaking.
She became active in Democratic women's groups and also campaigned for Obama in 2012, reaching out to New Mexico families of mixed immigration status. Nava said she tried to convince eligible voters in a family to advocate for their undocumented relatives.
"Even though you can't vote, that doesn't mean you don't have a voice," Nava recalled saying to immigrants in her community. It was a reality the Dreamer said she came to understand in becoming involved and watching the push for immigration reform grow stronger -- culminating with the president's 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood arrivals program. She sobbed when she heard the news.
Nava is still waiting to find out if her DACA application will confer the coveted legal status she has sought for so long. Meanwhile, she will be working with the party's political operatives to craft policy platforms, research and broaden her political skills on social media at the national level.
“We are extremely proud to have Cindy on our team at the DNC. Her story is an inspiration for all of us about what immigrant youth can achieve despite their undocumented status," said DNC Chair Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.).