"I just remember them saying 'La Migra' was in town, and I would say, 'Why are we afraid of that person? Who is this person?'" Peralta recalled. "I think they just said, it's people who are looking for us."
No longer, at least not for now.
Under President Barack Obama's new immigration policy announced June 8, at least 800,000 children of illegal immigrants won't face deportation — perhaps as many as 1.4 million, according to the Migration Policy Institute. In Nevada, that could affect up to 30,000 undocumented youth, according to the institute.
More importantly, for the first time, children brought illegally to this country can apply for two-year, renewable work permits if they have no felony or major misdemeanor record and they attend school, have graduated high school, have obtained a GED certificate or have been honorably discharged from the U.S. military or Coast Guard.
Those who qualify for the new program — which does not provide a path to U.S. citizenship — must have come to the United States when they were under the age of 16 and they cannot be older than 30.
Obama announced the new policy five months before the Nov. 6 election when he needs to handily win the Latino vote to win a second term. Hispanics could make the difference in states such as Nevada, where they made up 15 percent of the electorate in 2010 and four years ago backed Obama 3-to-1 over his GOP opponent.
Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney has revealed his own plan to reform the immigration system. He said he would offer permanent resident status to immigrants discharged honorably from the U.S. military and to those who complete advanced college degrees in math, science and engineering.
Romney also said he wants to streamline work visas and cut red tape so more families can get green cards. But he made no promises to young undocumented immigrants who have been pressing Congress to pass the DREAM Act. It would give them a path to U.S. citizenship if they join the military or attend college. Obama's order falls short, too, giving the so-called DREAMers temporary legal status but no track to become American citizens.
Temporary or not, the DREAMers are celebrating.
Here are their stories:
Silva arrived in the United States at the age of 4, amazed by the automatic doors at an airport in California.
At her aunt's house, she was offered a glass of chocolate milk, and her new life began.
"I don't remember Mexico," said Silva, now 24. "I remember the first day here."
The family moved to Las Vegas in August, 1993. Living in an Anglo neighborhood, Silva quickly assimilated and thrived, winning the top student "gladiator" award at Garside Middle School in seventh grade.
"I still have the award on my wall, a big star," Silva said. "With that award, they gave me a discount on a trip to D.C. and New York. I was excited beyond belief. I love American history."
When her parents told her she couldn't go, she thought it was because they couldn't afford it. Her parents kept saying no — to her being a cheerleader and to attending a magnet school — because they worried they'd have to show papers.
"So I went behind their backs and got accepted into the academy," Silva said.
When time came for Silva to get her driver's license at age 16, her parents told her, "Maybe next year." The teenager began to figure things out, and the next year didn't take SAT tests. She thought there was no use applying to colleges since she had no money and no Social Security number.
"I think my whole life until 16 or 18 or even 21 was a really big lie," Silva said. "I couldn't go on spring break, I couldn't drive. I'm terrified of getting caught. It was just lies. My whole life was a really big lie."
A week before Silva graduated from high school, she visited her favorite third-grade teacher.
"She said she was so proud of me and she gave me money for college," Silva recalled. "She asked me what school I was going to and at that point I had stopped applying. I felt I had broken her heart. She was so disappointed."
Silva softly cries at the memory, saying her teacher refused to take the money back. Now, Silva wants to find the retired teacher who inspired her to tell her she has earned an associate's degree in the arts from the College of Southern Nevada. And Silva plans to study political science and attend the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
"I want to tell her I didn't quit," Silva said. "I've got my life back on track."
In 2009, Silva heard U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., speak in Las Vegas. He was promoting the DREAM Act. The next year, she volunteered on his Senate re-election campaign and then came out as a "DREAMer," becoming the face of the issue in Nevada. Reid has repeatedly praised Silva's work in gathering handwritten letters from other undocumented youth to lobby Congress to pass the act. The Senate majority leader telephoned Silva the day Obama announced immigrant youth would not be deported and could apply for work permits. He praised her on the Senate floor as well.
"The main reason for coming out really was I wanted to help Senator Reid," Silva said. "There's a quote: 'You can't push anybody further than you're willing to go.'"
Some days, Silva still fears the worst. Her father was arrested last September. An irrigation technician, he had come to the U.S. and gotten a work permit several years before she and her mother arrived. His work permit had been revoked, apparently without his knowledge, Silva said. She blamed a fraudulent paralegal.
"He paid thousands, maybe $10,000, for this American dream, and in the end he was lied to," she said.
In February, his case will come up and the family is hoping he won't be deported since he has a clean record. Silva has a 19-year-old brother, born in Las Vegas, the only U.S. citizen in the family.
"When they arrested my dad, my whole world crumbled," Silva said. "He's always been my hero."
Most days, Silva stays positive and looks toward the future. She's planning a trip with a friend to Washington, D.C., next month. She wants to see everything, from the Vietnam Memorial Wall and the statue of President Abraham Lincoln to a Civil War re-enactment.
"I consider myself an American," Silva said. "Now I'm able to say who I am."
Lopez was a sickly baby in Mexico, suffering bronchitis and other ailments that repeatedly put him in the hospital.
"The little money my parents had went to pay my medical bills," said Lopez, 23.
To escape poverty, his mother got a three-month tourist visa and brought him to the United States when he was a 1-year-old. Mother and infant arrived on Aug. 16, 1990, and never left.
Lopez's father crossed the border from Mexico to join the family in Las Vegas. The head of the family picked up aluminum cans to make money, but after two weeks found a construction job.
For 17 years, the Lopez family did well as construction boomed in Southern Nevada. The couple bought a house, cars, and paid taxes by using Individual Tax Identification Numbers, Lopez said.
"For undocumented people living here a long time, we all share information with each other" to avoid deportation, Lopez said. "They pay their taxes. They keep out of trouble. But really, they try to stay off the government radar."
The economic collapse crippled the construction industry and cost Lopez's father his job several years ago.
And so his father began collecting cans again, this time with his wife and son helping him. When the price of scrap metal dropped from $200 to $35 a ton, the family began holding yard sales every weekend to survive.
By day, Rafael Lopez attended UNLV, working toward a psychology degree. By night and on weekends, he joined his parents to help pay his tuition, the mortgage and the food and power bills.
"I'd pick up scrap metal for eight hours," Lopez said. "I'd get home at four in the morning. I'd sleep for about five hours and then help pick through what we got and go to recycling. Then I'd go to class in the afternoon."
The family is buying and selling appliances, keeping them in storage sheds.
"We keep records of everything," he said. "That way we have been paying taxes. So if there's any immigration reform, we can show them our records."
Lopez can't get a driver's license, although he drives a car and has been stopped for traffic violations. He said he follows his parents' advice — just go to court and pay the ticket.
"I just tell the cops I can't get a driver's license," he said. "I just show them my Mexican ID. They pretty much know. If I had a criminal background, it would be different."
Lopez revealed his sexual orientation when he was 20, but he remained in the closet about his immigration status.
He "came out" as a DREAMer on the day Obama announced the new policy. He joined Hispanic activists to watch the president deliver the news during a Rose Garden press conference in Washington. He said the policy shift will change his life. He'll be able to get a job, a driver's license and pursue a master's degree in the open.
"It's like coming out all over again," Lopez said. "It's the same fear of just being judged and attacked. You don't know how people will react to you. After you come out as gay, you don't have to be afraid."
Lopez has an answer for critics who say he and his family didn't follow the rules.
"I may be Mexican, but I'm American by heart," he said. "I feel like I truly deserve to be a member of this country. If anybody would ever call me un-American, I would say, 'No, I worked very hard to be American.' "
It took two years for Peralta's father to send for his family from Mexico. Peralta, his older brother and his mother arrived together on three-month tourist visas when he was 10 years old in 1991.
Despite the initial language barrier and occasional worries about "La Migra" catching him, Peralta settled in and graduated high school with honors. He got a degree from the University of Nevada, Reno, in 2005, thanks to generous scholarships from local businessman in the well-off community where he grew up.
"A lot of people from the community just donated money," he said. "They have a lot of money."
In January, Peralta finally realized one of his dreams — earning a full-time position in his chosen profession, education.
But he cannot relax. He has a Social Security number that isn't supposed to be used to obtain work. And he has a secret that only a few of his closest friends and family know: He's undocumented and has been passing as legal for years.
"I am still worried every day," Peralta said. "I almost dropped out of college in my senior year just because I was so upset that I might not be able to get a job. If they found out I've been lying at work, I'll seriously get fired."
It is likely Peralta will qualify for Obama's new program, which would allow him — at the cut-off age of 30 — to apply for a work permit. He turns 31 in October. But he said he can't rest until he has the piece of paper in his hand. And even then he said he might not reveal his current illegitimate status.
"I'm hoping for the best, but I'm not holding my breath," said Peralta, who fears his employer might fire him for not being the person they thought he was.
"I'm still in the shadows, and it just sucks," he said.
On the day Obama made his announcement, Peralta's close friends called him, texted him and sent him notes on Facebook, excited that he might finally find a way out of his shadowy existence.
Peralta remains skeptical, unwilling to exhale until his undocumented life is settled. His older brother got married three years ago and has a 5-year-old boy. He just got his green card.
Meanwhile, Peralta and his parents have seen a lawyer about their situation. The attorney told them their best bet is for Peralta to marry an American.
"I have more morals than that," Peralta said, but conceded, "I really do think that if I do get married, that's the only way."