Daniela Pelaez is practically a poster child for the Dream Act: a high school valedictorian, dreams of becoming a doctor -- and an undocumented immigrant.
She’s also dredging up the depth of division over immigration issues within the Republican Party.
“It’s mind-boggling. It’s scary,” Pelaez told The Huffington Post. “Last week I was worried about turning in my mid-year reports for college and the next homework essay assignment, and now all of this is happening.”
Even Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the chairwoman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs who stepped in to rally crucial support for presidential candidate Mitt Romney in Pelaez’s home state of Florida, is publicly breaking with him over whether the children of unauthorized immigrants should be allowed to stay in the United States.
After an immigration judge denied Pelaez’s residency bid and issued an order of voluntary deportation last week, Ros-Lehtinen jumped in. She sent a letter directly to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s acting director of congressional relations, asking him to block the deportation.
“I respectfully request your intervention with the appropriate agencies to ensure deferred action and a stay of deportation for 18 year old Daniela Pelaez and her sister Dayana Pelaez,” the letter said.
It’s not a new position for Ros-Lehtinen. Even as she endorsed former Massachusetts Gov. Romney before the Florida primary, she said she didn’t agree with him on all fronts.
"Although I don't agree with Romney's position on the Dream Act, this election will hinge on the economy and Americans' abilities to find jobs," Ros-Lehtinen told The Huffington Post at the time.
But her very public intercession on Pelaez’s behalf underscores the rift in the Republican ranks, even among some of its most prominent members.
The sometimes harsh campaign rhetoric on immigration from the candidates seeking the GOP’s nomination has alienated Latinos across the country, including some of its faithful conservative rank-and-file.
All but former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) have stood firmly against a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country. Romney has repeatedly vowed to veto the Dream Act, which would open such a path to citizenship for those who are the children of undocumented immigrants, have been in the country for a number of years, and have served in the military or attended college for two years. Romney modified his position during a debate in Florida to say he would support the Act “if it focused on military service,” but he seemed to specifically exclude the education provision.
The shift in Romney's position came just after prominent Republican leaders, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), called on the candidates to tone down their language on illegal immigration, and to seek a humane solution that considers the impact on families -- and people like Daniela Pelaez.
"We must admit there are those among us that have used rhetoric that is harsh and intolerable and inexcusable. And we must admit, myself included, that sometimes we've been too slow to condemn that language for what it is," Rubio said in a speech in January.
"I challenge the Republican nominees, and all Republicans, to not just be the anti-illegal immigration party," Rubio continued. "That's not who we are and that's not who we should be. We should be the pro-legal immigration party."
But Wednesday, after meeting with Pelaez and her attorney, Rubio continued to stand against the Dream Act.
He issued a statement calling it “the wrong way to do the right thing.”
“Instead,” Rubio said, “my hope is to come up with a bi-partisan solution to this problem. One that does not reward or encourage illegal immigration by granting amnesty, but helps accommodate talented young people like Daniela, who find themselves undocumented through no fault of their own.” He didn't elaborate on his plan.
Pelaez’s case shot to prominence last week when an estimated 2,600 of her fellow North Miami Beach High students staged a demonstration in support of the senior in the school’s international baccalaureate program. Pelaez arrived in the U.S. from Colombia at the age of 4.
School administrators, including the Miami-Dade School District’s superintendent, Alberto Carvalho, joined in.
"Beyond the legality of an issue like this, there is a student, a child, who has no culpability over her life's journey and whose humanity must be respected," Carvalho said.
Tuesday, Pelaez’s attorney said an immigration judge granted her a temporary deferment, allowing her to stay for two more years without fear of deportation.
As relieved as she may be now, that leaves Pelaez in legal limbo while politicians continue to battle over the Dream Act and cases like hers.
“It’s just time to do the right thing,” Cheryl Little, executive director of Americans for Immigration Justice, told The Huffington Post. “This is a no-brainer. I don’t care what you think about these kids, and these kids are remarkable because they’ve done nothing wrong and everything right, but it benefits the country. It’s the smart thing to do.”
The division within the GOP goes beyond the Pelaez case. The conservative Latino group Somos Republicanos has lashed out at Romney for his immigration stances, and is locking horns with Colorado Hispanic Republicans over a fight in that state on whether to allow in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants.
Similarly, the national group Café Con Leche Republicans has battled with GOP politicians over strict Arizona-style illegal immigrant crackdown laws.
“There’s a small minority of Republican politicians who are extreme on the issue and they’re very vocal," Bob Quasius, the founder and head of Café Con Leche Republicans, told The Huffington Post. "And their voice is the one that most Latinos are likely to hear."
He may be right. Polls repeatedly show overwhelming support for the Dream Act from Latinos, and even from non-Hispanics. A Pew Hispanic Center poll released at the end of December put the number in favor of the Act at nine out of 10 Hispanics. A Fox News Latino/Latino Insights poll just this week found almost identical results.
The poll also found nearly as strong support among Latino voters for a path to citizenship, with 85.9 percent in favor. That may be more reflective of voters in general, including Republican Party members, than the candidates appear to be acknowledging.
A Fox News poll released in December found that 66 percent of registered voters support a path to citizenship for some undocumented immigrants, if they learn English, pay back taxes and successfully pass a background check. So did 57 percent of Republican voters -- under these same conditions.
But Pelaez’s case has given supporters of the Dream Act a new rallying point, and a new spokeswoman.
“There are millions of kids like me,” Pelaez told The Huffington Post. “I want to be the voice for all those kids who can’t speak for themselves -- to show people in Congress, to show Capitol Hill, there is something wrong with their system and we deserve to be here. Why should we be punished for what our parents did?”
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