High school valedictorian faces deportation

18-year-old ordered to leave U.S.

NORTH MIAMI, Fla. – The valedictorian of a South Florida high school faces deportation at the end of the month, and her friends, and a U.S. Representative, are rallying around her in the hope of preventing her from being sent back to Colombia.

Daniela Pelaez, 18, is 12 weeks away from graduating from North Miami Senior High School. Her dreams of becoming a medical surgeon are all but shattered after an immigration judge decided to deport her by the end of March. 

"It would mean I'd leave a country and go back to a country that I don't remember, a country that I don't feel at home, and I don't even graduate high school," Pelaez said. "Everything I've worked for, it's, like, going down the drain in a matter of days." 

Pelaez was 4-years-old when her family brought her to South Florida. Her mother remarried in the U.S. and eventually moved back to Colombia, which canceled the tourist visa that allowed her children to legally remain in the country. 

"I consider myself an American, you know? I don't consider myself to be -- I mean, I have my Colombian heritage, of course. I'm proud to be that. But, this is my whole life. This school, this is all I know," Pelaez said. 

The fact that Pelaez's brother is in the U.S. Army with a prior stint in Afghanistan and the fact that she is the valedictorian of her class had no weight with the judge. 

"She is No. 1. She's got a 6.7 GPA, of 823 students, and we're very proud of her," said school administrator Martha Porro. 

"My vision for Daniela is this time next year she'll be finishing her freshman year in the premed program of an Ivy League college, and instead, we get this shock," said Larry Jurrist, another school administrator. 

Teachers, friends, other students and U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen are fighting to help Pelaez. Ros-Lehtinen's office told Local 10 Thursday that she is writing the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on the teen's behalf.

"They've given me hope that there's actually good, kind people out there," Pelaez said.

Pelaez's attorney, Jack Wallace, told Local 10 while he appreciates the concern her friends have, it could be years, if ever, before she will be deported back to Colombia.

Wallace said he will be filing an appeal to the Immigration Court in Washington this week that will delay the order for March 28th. Wallace says there are 280 immigration judges in the United States and this is an opinion of one judge in Miami. There are 50 Judges in Washington who could get this case. Wallace overall, said he is not concerned – and is pretty sure he will prevail at the appellate level.

Pelaez said she applied to a number of Ivy League schools, and she will learn April 1 which ones have accepted her.

About the Author:

Terrell Forney joined Local 10 News in October 2005 as a general assignment reporter. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, but a desire to escape the harsh winters of the north brought him to South Florida.