Photo: Undocumented Student, Daniela Pelaez, Continues Fight for DREAM Act from Dartmouth College
Colombian-born Daniela Pelaez, who was on the point of being deported two months ago, is now studying at an Ivy League university and is the image of a foundation the helps other undocumented immigrants who, like her, are crying out for laws be passed that legalize their status in the United States.
Her case sparked boisterous protests from her classmates at a Miami high school that drew attention from the media, raising once more the issue of students without legal status and the need to provide them with the relief of the DREAM Act.
“Mi case and the protests it started were a wake-up call to politicians not to forget we’re here and we need a solution - it’s a serious national problem,” the 18-year-old told Efe.
Born in Barranquilla, Daniela came to Miami in 1999 with her parents, who left Colombia in search of a better future for their three children. Years later, however, the future was looking exceedingly dim for the girl and her older sister Dayana.
Pelaez, now studying biology at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, had no idea how harrowing it was to be undocumented in the United States.
But she found out when an immigration judge handed down a deportation order against her and Dayana, who is eight years older than Daniela.
“I never knew I was undocumented until 2003 when we began the immigration process with our stepfather, a Cuban American, and even then I didn’t understand it very much, not until 2006 when my mom had to go back to Colombia. That’s when I realized how serious it was,” she said.
When she received the deportation order in February, she was seized with even more fear and confusion.
“I felt pretty scared and didn’t know what was happening. There was no one to explain matters to us and at the time we had no lawyer. It was a really worrying time,” she recalled.
Pelaez thought it unjust to be forced to leave when it was never her decision to stay in the country without legal status and even more so because “I grew up here and the United States is the only home I know.”
Attorneys, pro-immigrant organizations and members of Congress came to her defense and immigration authorities gave Daniela and Dayana a deferred action: they suspended their deportation for two years.
Pelaez began to meet with lawmakers, tell her story and convince them of the importance of passing the DREAM Act so thousands of undocumented young people can be legalized.
She thus became the image of those young people and revived the debate over the DREAM Act, which was approved by the House of Representatives in 2007 but stalled in the Senate in 2010.
“With all that has happened we have a little bit more faith that things can be fixed, but what is most important is that the country needs something more - a permanent law that helps us all,” she said.
Months after her deferred action was granted, President Barack Obama changed the U.S. deportation policy, giving some 800,000 undocumented youths the chance to apply for deferred action.
“This is the first step in the direction we all need, but it’s not permanent. Right now two years is fabulous, wonderful and it’s helping many people,’ Pelaez said.
She is making the most of her reprieve: she created with her sister the We Are Here Foundation, which collects funds to help other young people pay for attorneys, give them some emotional and monetary backing while they are going through “this long, hard process.”
“I’m the image of the foundation and give interviews repeating my story so that nobody forgets it,” Pelaez said.