By William March
A Miami honor student and aspiring surgeon who faces deportation because her parents brought her here illegally at age 4 has put immigration policy, and Florida's U.S. Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio, in the headlines.
The girl, Daniela Pelaez, is at the top of her class at North Miami High School, and she's already been admitted to the University of Florida but is hoping for Brown, Yale or Johns Hopkins.
A judge, however, told her last week she has to leave the country by March 28, even though she never has lived anywhere else since coming here with her parents from Colombia on a long-expired tourist visa.
Students, teachers and administrators at her school have rallied to get her publicity and political support, putting the spotlight on immigration policy in South Florida -- where it's as hotly debated as anywhere in the nation.
Nelson, a Democrat, and U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Miami Republican, have asked that the Department of Homeland Security and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, or ICE, back off the case.
Both also favor the DREAM Act, a proposed law that would allow college students or military service members whose parents brought them here illegally a path to citizenship.
Pelaez also has sought and received support from Republicans Rubio and U.S. Rep. David Rivera of Miami, who oppose the DREAM Act.
Recently, Rivera has favored a version applying only to service members, and Rubio, while maintaining his opposition, says the country "should find a way to help talented kids like this."
There's another potential political wrinkle in the case.
Pelaez and her older sister, Dayana, apparently are vulnerable to deportation in part because their mother, who was sponsoring them for legal residency status, didn't have health insurance, said Larry Jurrist, who heads the International Baccalaureate program at the school and teaches Daniela advanced Spanish.
When she got cancer, she had to return to Colombia for treatment and couldn't get back into the United States, leaving her daughters with no path to legal status.
An ICE spokesman didn't confirm that, citing privacy laws, but Nelson spokesman Dan McLaughlin said the mother's health and return to Colombia "are a contributing factor as we understand it."
The sisters aren't in danger of being deported soon.
The deportation order is on hold while they appeal, and ICE says there's no certainty they'll be deported even if the order to leave is upheld.
Last year, partly in response to Hispanic protests against record numbers of deportations early in the Obama administration, Nelson and other senators successfully sought a change in ICE policy that would give the agency discretion to focus on criminals and national security threats, ignoring cases such as Pelaez's.
"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 a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
He said the agency should exercise the discretion the new policy provides.
An ICE spokesman said that may be what happens.
ICE won't take any action while the sisters are appealing, and when that's done, "ICE will review this matter to determine whether an exercise of discretion is warranted," spokesman Nestor Yglesias said.
Nonetheless, "As far as planning her future, she's still in limbo," Jurrist said.
"She's a really exceptional girl, No. 1 out of 823 seniors," who excels in his class but concentrates on math and science and aims to be a surgeon, he said.
She's unlikely to go to UF because she would have to pay non-resident tuition and can't afford it, he said. But if she's admitted to an eight-year program combining undergraduate and medical school at Brown University, she would get the financial aid she needs to attend.
On Friday, students at the school organized a rally that is getting Pelaez national publicity. School administrators participated and sought political backing from the congressmen and senators, he said.
Jurrist said the suddenly prominent student was out of school Monday doing interviews with CNN and others.