Friday, March 2, 2012

North Miami students protest valedictorian’s order to leave country

The Miami Herald


Over twenty-five hundred students protest the possible deportation of student Daniela Pelaez 18, this Friday morning, March 2, 2012, at the North Miami Senior High School.
WALTER MICHOT / Miami Herald Staff
Over twenty-five hundred students protest the possible deportation of student Daniela Pelaez 18, this Friday morning, March 2, 2012, at the North Miami Senior High School.
Students at North Miami High School are protesting a judge’s order for their valedictorian to leave the country.Daniela Pelaez, 18, was given the order for voluntary departure by a federal immigration judge on Monday after her request for a green card was denied.
Pelaez came to the United States at age 4 with her family from Colombia on a tourist visa, which they overstayed. Her application for residency was denied in 2010.
“I consider myself an American, no matter what,” said Pelaez, who has applied to several Ivy League universities and hopes to become a heart surgeon. “I don’t agree with the judge.”
Her departure is not imminent, and her attorney is confident that an appeal will prevent her removal from the country. But her situation has mobilized her classmates, who plan to don red, white and blue Friday morning outside the school.
Her situation echoes the plight of Juan Gomez, a Killian High School grad who was picked up by immigration agents and threatened with deportation in 2007. Gomez and his brother Alex were spared deportation to Colombia.
But the climate has since changed. A new policy started under the Obama Administration last summer gives more leniency to immigration trial attorneys when it comes to undocumented immigrants like Gomez and Pelaez.
The policy lessened the focus on undocumented immigrants with no criminal record or who are caring for a sick child, who have been victims of domestic violence or crime, or who arrived in the country as children. Instead it turned the focus on the detention and deportation of dangerous foreign criminals and foreigners deemed threats to national security.
Those undocumented immigrants, like Pelaez, however, still must go through legal proceedings.
The ruling for voluntary departure only becomes final after 30 days, if an appeal is not filed, said her attorney, Jack Wallace. “If it’s filed within 30 days, she can’t be deported anywhere.” He plans to file the appeal next week, though he didn’t disclose on what grounds.
Wallace said he did not seek leniency under the new policy — called prosecutorial discretion — because he believes it’s best for those with no chance of winning approval to stay in the country. “Daniela has a good chance, if we win in court in Washington, to stay legally in the United States,” he said.
The deportation process can drag on for years, with all appeals from 59 immigration courts around the country going to Washington, D.C.
Pelaez’s family, who is originally from Barranquilla, Colombia, finds themselves on both sides of the immigration line. Her mother, Ana Gonzalez, returned to Colombia in 2006 to get successful treatment for colon cancer and now can’t return to the United States. Her older brother, Johan, is a U.S. citizen and serves in the U.S. Army, returning from a tour in Afghanistan last year. Her father, Antonio Pelaez, was able to receive residency through her brother. But Pelaez and her sister, Dayana, are struggling to find a way to stay in the country legally.
Meanwhile, Pelaez’s classmates and teachers have launched an aggressive online effort to gain support for her case — and keep her in the United States.
They have created a Facebook page and started an online petition, with more than 3,000 signatures as of Thursday afternoon, that they aim to send to the U.S. House of Representatives. They have made posters, banners and handed out fliers encouraging students to join Friday’s protest.
“We really are a family,” said Emily Sell, a 17-year-old senior. She and Pelaez attend the rigorous, college-prep International Baccalaureate program at North Miami Senior.
“I won’t allow that [deportation] to happen to her. For her to be deported means I’m losing one of my closest friends, our school is losing one of its brightest minds ... That means a lot of loss that’s felt not only by me but all of her friends and family,” Emily said.
The news of the judge’s order was “devastating,” said Larry Jurrist, who leads the school’s IB program and teaches Pelaez in advanced Spanish. “It’s shocking to think that someone you’ve known for four years is suddenly going to be shipped off somewhere.”
When students started the online petition, Jurrist signed it and posted it on his Facebook page. “Not only did a tremendous amount of my friends and families sign it, they shared it, and it’s spread around tremendously, not just through me, but everyone else who’s doing the same thing,” Jurrist said.
For a decade, immigrants’ rights groups have pushed the DREAM Act, a federal proposal that would allow undocumented children to obtain permanent residency, either by enrolling in college or serving in the military. The bill has been criticized for promoting illegal immigration — and has never been signed into law.
According to estimates by the Urban Institute, 192,000 students in Florida would benefit from the DREAM Act. That means they came to the United States when they were younger than 16, have lived in the country for more than five years and have graduated from a Florida high school.
Last month in the Florida Legislature, efforts to let undocumented students pay in-state tuition were shot down. Under current state law, undocumented students must pay out-of-state tuition, which is nearly three times higher than the rates for Florida residents.
Juan Rodriguez, the youth coordinator with the Florida Immigrant Coalition, said it’s important for students to reach out to their community.
“They need to create their network of trusted friends that they can share their story with or teachers they can trust,” he said. “We understand there’s a lot of fear. There’s more fear on the part of the parents ... The majority of cases of students that have been stopped, it’s been people whose community has been aware of their story and do advocacy for them.”
Pelaez said she’s grateful for the rally at her school.
“I am annoyed and humiliated by all of this; I don’t feel I deserve this,” she said. “Criminals have more rights right now than I do — that’s humiliating. I’m a good person, I know I am.”
El Nuevo staff writer Alfonso Chardy contributed to this report.

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