A joyful scream belted out from the bleachers of the Del Sol High School gymnasium as President Barack Obama neared the end of his speech Tuesday in Las Vegas outlining his broad vision for immigration reform.
"We've got to bring our legal immigration system into the 21st century, because it no longer reflects the realities of our time," Obama said. "For example, if you are a citizen, you shouldn't have to wait years before your family is able to join you in America."
Then came the shout from longtime East Bay resident and tech worker Dana Forrester, who has been fighting for four years to get her Jamaican husband to the United States.
"That touched me, and I called out, 'Thank you, yes, thank you,' and (Obama) looked right at me," Forrester said.
She was one of several Bay Area advocates, immigrants and religious leaders who traveled to Las Vegas on Tuesday to hear the president explain his plan for passing a comprehensive immigration reform bill this year.
All of them arrived with their own hopes for what the president might say. Some praised the president for name-checking Silicon Valley companies like Intel and Instagram, and promising in his written blueprint to push for permanent residency for startup entrepreneurs and students educated in the U.S. who earn advanced degrees in science and engineering.
Others raised concerns about the president's push for mandatory worker verification and worried about the length of
Forrester's quest was perhaps the most quixotic: Her husband's decadeold conviction in Jamaica for possessing marijuana bars him from ever migrating to the United States; and though Democratic and Republican leaders have made breakthrough agreements on immigration in recent days, neither party has shown a willingness to reconsider such criminal bars.
But Forrester, the president of American Families United, who recently left the Bay Area to care for her ailing father in Reno, tried to get her message across anyway, rushing to pass a letter to Obama moments before he left the gym.
"I said 'Mr. President, please read this.' I was crying," she said. "The Secret Service tried to grab it from me. I was able to shake his hand and hand him the information on my family and other families who are suffering."
San Jose resident Adrian Avila was just 15 feet away from Obama and said he was moved by the president's call to move past the "us vs. them" mentality that has long divided politicians and Americans on legal and illegal immigration.
"When he said that, almost in a flash of an instant, I thought about all the incidents I've had over the years with strangers, friends, colleagues, who had a problem with me for being undocumented," said the 28-year-old activist with Silicon Valley De-Bug whose family brought him to California from Mexico when he was six years old.
A victim of a racially charged assault when he was a teenager, Avila was able to get a rare crime victim visa last year that grants him permanent U.S. residency. Now, he is hoping legislation brewing in Congress will put many of the nation's illegal immigrants on a similar path to citizenship.
When Obama recounted the story Tuesday of a Nevada college student aiming for citizenship, it seemed to Avila "he was telling my story, word for word, in a really positive way."
Also at the speech were the pastors of two Catholic congregations in San Jose and Oakland. Both said they appreciated Obama's urgency, but expressed concern about how the details would affect their mostly Latino congregations.
"He said we've already had this debate, we've already had this debate for a long time, and now it's time to move," said the Rev. Jon Pedigo, pastor of San Jose's Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. "I walked away very optimistic. The crowd was absolutely electrified."
Added the Rev. Jesus Nieto Ruiz, pastor of St. Anthony's Catholic Church in Oakland: "This is really exciting, just to see, finally, the dream coming true. How long it's going to take we don't know, but we know, finally, that it's going to take place."