A Miami high school valedictorian who gained national attention with her fight to avoid deportation back to Colombia has been granted a two-year reprieve by federal authorities who now say that their bigger goal is going after illegal immigrants who are criminals -- and not dutiful students.
Daniela Pelaez, and her sister, Dayana, were ordered to leave the country just last week by a federal immigration judge. But U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on Tuesday issued a statement saying the agency would defer carrying out the court order for at least two years.
The decision, which elated many in South Florida, followed growing local protests aimed at keeping the two teens in the United States, not to mention a steady din of news coverage about the family's plight. Several lawmakers also interceded on the girls' behalf, including Republican congresswoman Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
Thousands took to the streets just last week in North Miami to protest the court ruling. They held banners and chanted "Justice for Daniela." The Miami Herald said it was the single largest immigration demonstration in the area since then-President George W. Bush proposed legalizing millions of undocumented immigrants back in 2004.
The family has already been torn apart by illness and immigration woes, even as it struggles to achieve the American dream. The Pelaezes came to the United States illegally from Barranquilla, Colombia, when Daniela was just 4, according to the Miami Herald.
Daniela's mother is now in Colombia, to which she returned in 2006 for colon cancer treatment, and has been unable to return because of her immigration status. Her father has been granted U.S. residency. Daniela's brother serves in the U.S. Army and has become a U.S. citizen.
Daniela, meanwhile, is about to graduate as North Miami Senior High School's valedictorian with a stunning 6.7 grade-point average. She wants to attend an Ivy League college and become a surgeon, according to news accounts. Her fight to do just that has also helped protect younger sister Dayana, who will now be able to continue her studies.
An attorney for the girls, Nera Shefer, said she was pleased with the legal decision but that the goal remains permanent residency.
Meanwhile, ICE issued a statement saying it was using its "prosecutorial discretion" to allow the girls to stay. A spokesman, Nestor Yglesias, said the agency exercised that discretion so it can remain focused on “smart, effective immigration enforcement” aimed particularly at immigrants who pose a threat to the public.
That position in in keeping with the Obama administration's increasing willingness to freeze deportation for the elderly, children who have been in the country more than five years, students who came to the U.S. under the age of 16 and are enrolled in a college degree program, and victims of domestic violence.
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