Senate candidate Catherine Cortez Masto met for lunch Wednesday with families who live in the shadow of deportation, drawing parallels between their stories and her own family's immigrant roots.
The Democratic former Nevada attorney general met at Lindo Michoacan Mexican restaurant in Las Vegas with immigration activists and families who would've been eligible for deportation relief under Deferred Action for Parents of Americans, a now-suspended program that President Barack Obama called for through an executive order.
"Your story is no different than mine. I just happen to be generations down from my grandfather, who came from Mexico," said Cortez Masto, who will be the first Latina in the U.S. Senate if she's elected.
Her grandfather crossed the Rio Grande to settle in the U.S. in the 1940s, a time when the emphasis was on assimilating and learning English, she said. She explained at the event, which alternated between two languages, that she doesn't speak Spanish fluently but can understand it.
Some of the children and teenagers who attended tearfully told about their fears that their families would be separated by deportation. She vowed to stand by them and work on immigration reform.
"I can't imagine a worse thing in the world as a child — the concern you have every day that your parents may be taken away from you," she said.
Cortez Masto is in a competitive race to replace retiring Democratic Sen. Harry Reid, and Hispanic voters could play a decisive role.
She took jabs at her Republican opponent Rep. Joe Heck, who said he opposes Obama's efforts to fix immigration problems through executive orders. Heck voted last year against expanding deportation relief, but supported keeping Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in place for young people who are already enrolled.
Heck answered questions about immigration in July at a meeting of the Hispanics in Politics group in Las Vegas. He said he's always supported a pathway to citizenship and spent 10 months working on a related bill in 2013, but said the effort fell apart because some activists who were collaborating with him were more concerned about keeping immigration a political issue.
Cortez Masto said Heck "talks a good game" but wasn't fighting hard enough on the issue.
"I don't think if people walk away from it, you give up," she told reporters. "If you're really passionate about it and having a positive impact, you continue to forge forward."
She said she supports comprehensive immigration reform and believes it can be done in a single bill, but left the door open to handling the issue in phases.
"You should be willing to make that first step no matter what. Again, it is about give and take," she said. "Do you get everything you always want? No, and that's what it's about. But you have to start somewhere."