NORTH MIAMI, Fla. – An 18-year-old North Miami Senior High School student is getting the support of her classmates -- and several political figures -- in her fight to stay in the U.S.
Daniela Pelaez is the valedictorian of her class and is waiting to find out whether she has been accepted into an Ivy League university. But, her dreams of becoming a surgeon are threatened after an immigration judge ordered her deportation by the end of the month.
"I just thought my whole life was over from then. What am I going to do in Columbia?" said Peleaz.
On Friday morning, about 2,550 students walked in protest outside the school, holding signs in support of Pelaez.
"She is being denied that, 'You're not good enough. You have to go home.' That's very hard for the valedictorian and her class to hear," said North Miami senior Emily Sell.
"Daniela, I don't want you to worry. I got your back," said Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho.
Carvalho said he will stand and support Pelaez until the end.
"Over my dead body will this child be deported. I will put my job on the line. There are some things worth fighting for," said Carvalho.
Pelaez arrived in the U.S. from Colombia when she was 4 years old. 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.
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.
An ICE representative released the following statement Thursday:
"As Daniela and Dayana Pelaez have reserved the right to appeal an immigration judge's decisions ordering them to return to Colombia, ICE will not take any action against them while they pursue additional legal options. Upon conclusion of' their appeal, ICE will review this matter to determine whether an exercise of discretion is warranted.
"Overall, ICE is focused on smart, effective immigration enforcement that prioritizes the removal of criminal aliens, recent border crossers and egregious immigration law violators, such as those who have been previously removed from the United States."
In addition to those protesting on her behalf, Pelaez has received support from U.S. Reps. David Rivera and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. Rivera planned to write ICE officials on the teen's behalf, and Pelaez met with him Friday afternoon.
Ros-Lehtinen wrote a letter to ICE, asking it to intervene and requesting a deferred action and a stay of deportation for Pelaez.
"Congress needs to pass the Dream Act so that many young people can form part of our armed forces or attend college and contribute to our generous and great nation," Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement Friday. "There are many such desperate cases in our community and, instead of causing such anxiety we can allow these teenagers to realize their dreams in a legal manner."
U.S. Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio also added their voices to the chorus of support for Pelaez.
Nelson released a statement saying that he wrote a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano about the case.
"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 the letter.
Rubio said he planned to reach out to Pelaez's attorney to learn more about the case, and that he will "continue working to find a bipartisan solution for young students who find themselves in this predicament."
"I have always said that our country needs to figure out a way to accommodate high academic achievers brought here at a very young age by their parents but who now find themselves undocumented through no fault of their own. From what I've read in press accounts, the story of Daniela Pelaez is exactly the kind of case I have been talking about. It's the kind of real life example I've discussed with many of my colleagues who agree that we should find a way to help talented kids like this," Rubio said in a statement released Friday.
Pelaez's attorney, Jack Wallace, said it could be years before Pelaez is sent back to Colombia, if ever.
Wallace said he will be filing an appeal to the Immigration Court in Washington this week that will delay the order for March 28. Wallace said 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 said that overall, he is not concerned and is pretty sure he will prevail at the appellate level.
"Once I make the appeal for the court, I think I will be able to stay. With the ICE statement that was released, I think I should be fine as long as I continue my legal proceeding," said Pelaez.