As valedictorian, she hardly needed a permission slip to skip class, but Daniela Pelaez may have had the best excuse ever: talking to U.S. senators, several House members and others this week about her own immigration battle.
"My principal definitely understood," said Pelaez, 18, the North Miami High School senior who got the news Tuesday that she’ll be able to stay in the United States for two more years without fear of deportation. And who nonetheless turned in her homework before leaving Miami for a two-day trip to Washington.
Pelaez and her sister, Dayana, learned Tuesday their case would be given a deferred action for two years, meaning federal immigration authorities will not carry out any deportation order during that time.
On Wednesday they met in Washington with Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami, whose district in Congress includes North Miami Senior High School. The young women also met with Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Rep. David Rivera, R-Fla., whose office took the lead working with federal immigration officials on her behalf. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, who wrote letters to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on their behalf, planned to meet with Pelaez and her sister on Thursday. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, asked the sisters to stop by his office, too.
"These are two very brave young ladies who have gone through a situation that has captured the imaginations of a lot of people," Nelson said Wednesday.
A rally at North Miami Senior High School helped propel their case to the national stage; it was the largest immigration demonstration in South Florida since President George W. Bush first proposed the legalization of millions of undocumented immigrants in 2004.
Pressure from Florida lawmakers in Washington also appears to have helped with Pelaez's case, which also benefited from the Obama administrations' announcement last summer that it would use prosecutorial discretion in cases such as Pelaez's, and focus instead on criminal immigration cases.
Nelson spoke to Napolitano on the phone Monday night, and the Homeland Security chief pledged to personally get involved. By Tuesday, the agency had issued a stay.
"Given that the chief missions of our immigration enforcement are national security, public safety and securing our borders, how is it we have the time and resources to target a high-school honor student like Daniela?" Nelson asked in his letter.
Pelaez came to the United States at age 4 with her family from Barranquilla, Colombia. Her brother serves in the U.S. Army and has become a U.S. citizen. Her mother is stuck in Colombia after returning in 2006 to get successful treatment for colon cancer. Her father, Antonio Pelaez, was able to receive residency through her brother.
Now, Pelaez is something of the new poster teen for the DREAM Act, which has languished in Congress, but would help people whose parents brought them to the country illegally when they were children. That legislation, backed by both Ros-Lehtinen and Nelson, would help law-abiding young people stay in the country if they join the military or go to college. It could help as many as 192,000 young people in Florida, according to some estimates.
The legislation is largely opposed by the leading GOP presidential candidates, and is often cited as an example of why Latino support lags for Republicans. Although Rubio has called on other Republicans to moderate their rhetoric on immigration, he has declined to back the DREAM Act itself. After he met with Pelaez, he said Wednesday in a statement that her case "reminds us that our nation faces a number of challenges created by illegal immigration and by a broken legal immigration system."
Rubio called the DREAM Act as currently written "the wrong way to do the right thing."
"Instead, my hope is to come up with a bi-partisan solution to this problem," he said. "One that does not reward or encourage illegal immigration by granting amnesty, but helps accommodate talented young people like Daniela, who find themselves undocumented through no fault of their own."
Pelaez said she'd "politely mention" the DREAM Act to just about everyone she met in Washington. She's fully versed in it — she gave an oral presentation on the legislation in Spanish earlier in the week as a final project in the International Baccalaureate program.
She says she and her family are the best examples she could cite as reasons for passing the legislation.
"We need to fix the problem," said her attorney, Nera Shefer. "We need to somehow get a green card for them and for thousands of young people that would like to stay here and give back to the community."