Late this March, Daniela Pelaez, 19, traveled from her college in New Hampshire to Washington D.C. to sit down with senators and representatives and remind them of something she’s become known for: she’s in the country illegally, there are millions like her, and they want to ask for help.
Pelaez’s family brought her from Colombia to Florida when she was four, and she started school. When she was a senior in high school - and had been elected valedictorian - a judge ordered her to be deported. In response, more than 3,000 of her classmates held a protest, getting the attention from public officials and the media.
That was the beginning of a political education for Pelaez. After the rally, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a member of the “Gang of Eight” on immigration, invited her to meet in his Washington office. She has returned to Capitol Hill two times since.
In this interview with host Dick Gordon, Peleaz, now a freshman at Dartmouth College, talks about finding out she was in the country illegally, how she connected with her local congressman, and what she has asked during meetings with politicians. Highlights:
When did the students at your high school hold a rally for you?
It was literally the day after I came back from the last court hearing. The last court hearing was the first Monday of the last week of February, and the judge basically said, “I’m tired of having to re-schedule these hearings for you. So you have a 30-day notice. So March 27, you have to leave the country."
That night, I decided to go to school. I had an exam, and I wanted to take it. I told my friends about it, and they were shocked. They said this couldn’t happen to someone who was a good student, a good friend. They started planning the protest. That was on a Tuesday, and they had the protest on Friday.
You then met with your local congressman, David Rivera. How did you get in touch with his office?
There’s one of those forms on his website, a request form to meet with your congressman. I think my friends filled that out. We didn’t get a response until the day of the protest. They e-mailed us back and told us to meet with him. It was my sister, myself and my lawyer. I was very nervous. I didn’t know what was the proper thing to say or the proper way to address him. But he was very nice and very welcoming.
Kind of throughout the whole meeting, I was thinking, “What can he do to help me? This is a court-appointed order. It seems very official, and I don’t think he has the power.” I was listening. They were talking about the possibilities that we could explore.
When did you think, “Maybe I will get a chance to stay”?
I think a couple of days after that, we got a notice from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security saying that we’d been granted a two-year deferment.
When you met with people such as Sen. Marco Rubio, Sen. Bill Nelson and Rep. Ileana Ros Lehtinen, did you have the confidence to say, “I think you should do this instead of that,” or “I think this is wrong”?
I think I can sort of measure my levels of confidence with each D.C. trip. That first trip, I felt like I wasn’t in that position, so it was a very “meet and greet” or “here are my problems.” They sort said, “this is what we can do,” and they would have their immigration aide in the office with them when we spoke. It was very different meeting than the one I had this past spring break.
This past spring break, we did go with an agenda to meet at least with the aides of the “Gang of Eight” if not the senators themselves. We wanted to touch base with them, and show them, “this is what we should be doing, this is what you need to do,” and “remember that we are still here, and we still need a voice to be heard.” I think it went very well.