Published — March 5, 2012 Updated — January 26, 2018 at 12:40 pm ET

Florida student’s deportation threat a window into kids’ difficult lives

Sacramento students made a film about peers without papers


The valedictorian of a Florida high school faces a deportation order this month, and a prominent congresswoman has assumed a key role in imploring federal authorities to allow the young woman to stay.

This same congresswoman, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, has also endorsed Mitt Romney for the GOP presidential nomination. But Romney has vowed he would veto, should it ever be approved, the long stalled DREAM Act proposal to allow students like the Florida valedictorian to earn legal status by attending college or serving in the military.

That’s the way it goes in the contradictory world of immigration and politics, which is buffeting more kids as parents are deported or forced into shadows and children who’ve grown up here — undocumented — become adults in crisis.

It’s not unusual for one politician endorsing another to disagree on some matters. But Ros-Lehtinen, who is Cuban-American and counts immigrants among her base, has been an ardent champion of the DREAM Act for many years, as well as an aggressive backer of comprehensive immigration reform.

Last Friday, her office issued a statement pointing to student Daniela Pelaez’s case as proof of “an urgent need” for Congress to approve the DREAM Act, “so that many young people can form part of our armed forces or attend college and contribute to our generous and great nation.”

“There are many such desperate cases in our community,” Ros-Lehtinen said, “and, instead of causing such anxiety we can allow these teenagers to realize their dreams in a legal manner.”

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, also a Cuban-American Republican, has said he’s against the DREAM Act, which once had strong bipartisan support in Congress. At the same time, in response to Pelaez’s deportation order, Rubio is publicly calling for a “a bipartisan solution for young students who find themselves in this predicament.”

This weekend, Pelaez, 18, is quoted in the Miami Herald, saying “I’m just the voice for the thousands that can’t speak.”

A few years ago, students at Sacramento City College in California produced a short movie portraying what it’s like to be a student like Pelaez, who attends North Miami High School.

The film featured a mix of real undocumented and citizen kids, but the viewer doesn’t know which don’t have papers and which do. The students are enrolled in junior college. One of them is agonizing over her dream to transfer to a four-year school – which is costly – and her relationship with her mother. The film also touches on tough choices some have made, such as driving with an expired license, a fake one or none at all, for example.

The students called the movie “AB 540.” That’s the number of a state Assembly bill that allows qualified students who grew up in the state, but without legal status, to attend college at in-state tuition rates. It doesn’t allow them access to financial aid.

Data from California’s public colleges suggests that most kids who’ve grown up without papers probably don’t even attempt to go to college. The data showed that AB 540 students were actually a very slim percentage of California’s public university students, estimated at 1 percent or less, depending on the public system.

Florida news stories on Pelaez — a star student who is applying to Yale — suggest the complexity of many of these kids’ lives, whether they live in Florida, California or Iowa. Suffice it to say, it’s not easy to “get legal.”

Daniela arrived at age 4 on a tourist visa with her mother; her parents divorced and her mother remarried a Cuban who sought to legalize her, along with himself, under a special visa for Cubans.

But the mother went back to Colombia because of a difficult medical condition, and was no longer living with the Cuban husband. The legalization process was cut off, leaving Daniela out as well. Daniela’s father is a legal resident, a status he obtained through relative sponsorship. Her brother is a U.S. citizen who has served in the military in Afghanistan.

In one news piece, Daniela explained she is filing an appeal and was told she would probably be spared deportation for now as long as her “legal proceedings” drag on.

Read more in Inequality, Opportunity and Poverty

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