Allowed to stay, Miami student becomes face of Obama immigration policy

Obama administration gives Daniela Pelaez, a Miami high school valedictorian, a deportation reprieve. Her case affords the White House a political test of its new 'prosecutorial discretion' immigration policy.

The Obama administration has given a reprieve to a high-achieving Florida high school student, Daniela Pelaez, a Colombian national who faced deportation before graduating as valedictorian of North Miami High School.

Daniela's fight to stay in the United States, to which she emigrated from Colombia as a 4-year-old, will continue despite the deferral handed down by the US Department of Homeland Security, but she'll be able to graduate with her class in June and start preparing for college. She has a 6.7 grade point average and wants to attend an Ivy League school in the US.

The administration's decision Tuesday to defer a deportation order, which had been issued by a federal judge Feb. 27, is likely to make Daniela the poster child for Obama's tweaked immigration policy that pursues "criminal aliens" first and deemphasizes deportation for otherwise law-abiding illegal immigrants who are children or seniors, or who have strong family ties to the US.

Critics say Obama's “prosecutorial discretion” memo issued last year undermines the authority of federal immigration agents, many of whom criticize the new policy as unmanageable and preferential.

Lawyers who represent illegal immigrants, meanwhile, say the record on Obama's new immigration policy indicates it's not working as his administration said it would – despite high-profile cases such as Daniela's. The percentages of people being deported for criminal reasons have decreased, they note, while deportations for those with simple immigration violations have inched up in recent months.

The prosecutorial discretion memo “is being ignored, and I believe in the vast majority of cases, not a single favorable exercise of the memo has not involved a major news story,” says Matthew Kolken, an outspoken immigration attorney in Buffalo, N.Y.

While Obama has received flak from Hispanic groups for the record numbers of deportations he has overseen as president, he continues to enjoy support of Hispanic likely voters by a 69-to-20 percent margin over his Republican presidential challenges, according to a Fox News poll.

The administration's decision to defer Daniela's deportation had the support of some Republicans officials, including Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida. But such high-profile shows of bureaucratic compassion, political analysts say, are intended for the consumption of Hispanic voters, an increasingly important bloc in 2012 battleground states like Florida.

“If there's going to be any easing or relaxing of federal enforcement, this would be the time to do it,” ahead of the election, says Richard Fording, a political science professor at the University of Alabama, in Tuscaloosa.

The administration said this week it is rolling out its new deportation policy, which is aimed primarily at “criminal aliens,” and is starting to review other deportation cases involving individuals who were brought to the US as children, and thus were not accomplices to breaking immigration law.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said last fall that the administration was starting to review all US deportation cases "to ensure they constitute our highest priorities."

However, the percentages of illegal immigrants being deported on grounds of criminal behavior versus immigration violations have dropped in the past few months, according to researchers at Syracuse University in New York – from 16 percent in the fourth quarter of 2011 to 14 percent in the first two months of 2012. It should be noted, though, that the number of total new immigration prosecutions also dropped in the same span, by 10,000, compared with a year earlier.

“The Obama administration is saying that they are using smarter enforcement criteria to target and institute deportation proceeding, but guess what? They're not,” says Mr. Kolken. “This is political posturing by the Obama administration, which knows that the Hispanic electorate is turned off by Republican anti-immigrant rhetoric but which also is concerned that the Hispanic voting bloc is going to stay home on Election Day.”

Nevertheless, the decision to defer action on Daniela's deportation case drew widespread applause, especially in Miami, where more than 2,600 students and community leaders protested last week, chanting “Justice for Daniela!” Florida, which Obama won in 2008, looms as a key battleground state in the November presidential election.

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