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Miami Valedictorian Gets Support In Fight Against Deportation

A federal judge's decision to deport a high school valedictorian who has lived in the United States since she was 4 has sparked her Miami community to rally around her. And now student Daniela Pelaez, 18, also seems to have won a hint of support from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

On Monday, Pelaez and her sister, Dayana, were ordered by a federal immigration judge to leave the country by March 28. Their mother, with whom they'd been living since their parents' divorce, was refused entry back into the United States after visiting her native Colombia in 2008. Since then, the girls have been living with their father; their brother serves in the U.S. Army.

The Pelaez's lawyer has said they will appeal the judge's ruling. And in the meantime, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman says the agency will not rush to take action in her case.

"Daniela and Dayana Pelaez have reserved the right to appeal an immigration judge's decisions ordering them to return to Colombia. ICE will not take any action against them while they pursue additional legal options," says ICE spokesman Nestor Yglesias, in a statement released Friday afternoon.

A crowd of an estimated 2,600 people gathered Friday morning to support Pelaez, who's at the top of her class at North Miami Senior High. Her fellow students, her principal, a school superintendent, and two members of Congress have spoken on her behalf, urging officials to allow her to stay in America. Local station WSVN reported on that event:

"Over my dead body will this child be deported," said Superintendent of Miami-Dade Schools Alberto Carvalho, according to The Miami Herald. "Where is the shame of our nation, when we pick on somebody like her? This is a community that cares."

Pelaez has attracted both supporters and media attention, given her gaudy GPA of 6.7, her aspirations to attend an elite college and work in medicine, and the tight bonds she has formed with her teachers. At Friday's rally, the senior wore a blue T-shirt promoting UNICEF.

It now seems likely that Pelaez's case may benefit from the discretion the White House has allowed U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials to exercise when deciding whether to pursue deportation.

"Upon conclusion of their appeal, ICE will review this matter to determine whether an exercise of discretion is warranted," Yglesias said, according to the Associated Press.

In the meantime, Florida legislators have sent letters to the Department of Homeland Security and spoken on Pelaez's behalf. And an online petition to stop her deportation has been launched that, as of 8:30 p.m. ET, had attracted more than 7,000 signatures.

The AP spoke with teacher Larry Jurrist, who leads North Miami's International Baccalaureate program.

"She's the whole package," Jurrist said, noting that Pelaez tutors other students after school. "She has her whole future waiting for her."

Pelaez's case has brought to mind memories of Eric Balderas, who, like Pelaez, came to the U.S. when he was 4, and went on to become his high school's valedictorian. As NPR's Tovia Smith reported back in 2010, Balderas was a high-achieving — but undocumented — student at Harvard University when he was arrested and nearly deported.

As Tovia reported, "Advocates rallied for his release and within days authorities agreed to give Balderas a break. According to immigration advocate Kyle de Beausset, even immigration authorities balked at the idea of deporting a guy like Balderas."

"It really is like deporting [the] best and brightest. It really doesn't really make sense. I think that's why it caught on like this," de Beausset told Tovia back then.

As NPR's Ted Robbins reported in December, the U.S. deported a record 396,000 people in 2011, under an Obama administration policy that is meant to target criminals for deportation.

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