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April 21, 2014

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Young Las Vegan reflects on his responsibility as face of immigration reform

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Leila Navidi

Las Vegas resident Alan Aleman, 20, watches as President Barack Obama mentions him during a speech about immigration reform at Del Sol High School in Las Vegas on Tuesday, January 29, 2013. Aleman, who was brought illegally to the United States by his parents when he was 11, was one of the first Las Vegas residents to get his Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) work permit.

Alan Aleman

Las Vegas resident Alan Aleman, 20, shows President Barack Obama his work permit card after a speech about immigration reform at Del Sol High School in Las Vegas on Tuesday, January 29, 2013. Aleman, who was brought illegally to the United States by his parents when he was 11, was one of the first Las Vegas residents to get his Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) work permit. Launch slideshow »

Just over three months ago, Alan Aleman was just excited to live life fully in the open.

So excited that, like the teenager he was, the previously undocumented immigrant quickly used his Social Security number to get his driver’s license, packed some friends into the car, and headed down toward the U.S.-Mexico border — because for the first time, he could.

“Having no fear,” Aleman said. “That’s the main thing that I think we get when we get the work permit.”

But being tapped by President Barack Obama to be the face of immigration reform has thrown the young biological scientist from the College of Southern Nevada into a limelight that is about more than just newfound freedom. Now, Aleman believes, he has a job to do.

“Now I have the responsibility to be the voice of other people, of the immigrants community,” Aleman, now 20, said Tuesday, standing on a sidewalk curb across the street from the Capitol.

It’s Aleman’s first time in Washington, D.C., but he’s not exactly having a normal tourist experience.

He’d spent the day running among appointments with a congressman, a senator and — oh yes — the leader of the free world’s entourage.

Just a few hours later, he’d be sitting four seats away from first lady Michelle Obama, the only immigrant guest of the First Family for Obama’s annual State of the Union, standing to applaud the president when he repeated his appeal to Congress to send him an immigration reform bill.

“Did I ever think that I was going to be here? No. Never,” Aleman said, laughing. “We came here illegally. You never thought that you were going to be named by the president, and never here at the State of the Union,” Aleman said. “This is like a dream for me. And for them.”

Aleman came to the U.S. when he was 11, traveling through Texas, New Mexico, and staying with relatives before he ended up in Las Vegas, the place he calls home.

Aleman is a college student with dreams of serving in the Air Force and becoming a doctor. He also works with the Las Vegas Latin Chamber of Commerce and Hermandad Mexicana, where he helps prepare applications for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which gives young, undocumented immigrants renewable, two-year work authorizations, provided they have clean records and are enrolled in college or the military.

That program is what put Aleman on this path to celebrity — he applied for the change of status the first day the program went online, and was in the first group of recipients.

But he kept a relatively low profile, until the president came calling.

Obama acknowledged Aleman during a policy speech on immigration he delivered in Las Vegas two weeks ago, as a voice of immigrant America.

He’s also being celebrated by members of the Nevada on both sides of the aisle — Aleman met with Democratic Rep. Steven Horsford and Republican Sen. Dean Heller the day of the State of the Union. Heller’s staff called their conversations “informative and productive.” Horsford personally implored him to remain engaged on the ground level and update his office, frequently, on the particulars of the immigration debate as it moves forward.

“He puts a face to an issue that’s real,” Horsford said. “Alan represents so much of the experience of other people.”

For Aleman, the connection between his community work in Las Vegas and Washington is clear. Immigrants like himself are hopeful, he explained, but still not 100 percent trusting of the federal government. And, he says, that has to change.

“If I meet Obama, I would like to share my story, I would like to share the story of different families,” Aleman said. “He’s already pushing for immigration reform, so the only thing we need is for him to push Congress so we can do something with immigration reform.”

“The solution would be immigration reform because that’s a permanent solution,” he said.

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