A Miami high school honors student who faced imminent deportation to Colombia has won a two-year reprieve after 2,000 fellow students took to the city's streets to protest her removal from the United States, federal authorities said on Wednesday.
The plight of Daniela Pelaez, 18, a North Miami High School senior and valedictorian, has put a spotlight on U.S. immigration policy like few other individual cases in recent history.
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency said it would defer action for two years in potential removal proceedings against Pelaez, who was born in Colombia and brought by her parents to the United States when she was 4.
The decision is in line with a move by the Obama administration last summer when it said it was easing U.S. deportation policies to keep low-priority cases from resulting in removal.
"This is so mindless," U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said of the threatened deportation of Pelaez, who had been ordered to leave the country by March 28. Instead, she now looks set to graduate at the top of her class of more than 820 seniors.
"Why in God's name would you want to take a kid with this talent and this capacity and deport her? It's against our national interest," Biden told CNN.
Pelaez, who has applied for entrance to several top-ranking U.S. universities, was brought to the Miami area from Barranquilla, Colombia, by her parents. She was denied a green card despite her brother obtaining citizenship and her father, with whom she lives, obtaining legal residency.
ICE cited "prosecutorial discretion" for its decision to defer the deportation of Pelaez after at least 2,000 students were joined by teachers and community activists last Friday in a street protest and outpouring of support for the young woman.
Many see Pelaez as a poster child for passage of the so-called DREAM Act and deep-rooted immigration reforms.
Several politicians including Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Cuban-born Florida congresswoman who chairs the House Foreign Relations Committee, also wrote letters to ICE on her behalf.
Pelaez visited some of those politicians in Washington on Wednesday to thank them for their support.
In a decision announced last August, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the government had created an interagency working group to conduct a review of all deportation cases "to ensure they constitute our highest priorities."
Democratic congressional leaders praised the move and said it would ease the way for individuals who came to the United States illegally as children and have spent years in the country to stay and work legally.
Under DREAM Act legislation, which is opposed by many Republican lawmakers on grounds it would amount to amnesty for illegal immigrants, most foreign-born students would be allowed to obtain legal status if they were 15 or younger when they came into the United States and had lived here at least five years.