Daniela Pelaez never intended to be a celebrity. She had more important things to do. The North Miami High School senior — brought to the U.S. from Colombia as a four-year-old — was already class valedictorian with her sights set firmly on medical school when her recent brush with deportation refocused America on an issue that election year politics won't make go away.
Daniela and those like her who were brought illegally to the U.S. as children have been lost in this debate before. Should the same thing happen again — should division overtake our debates — then deserving foreign-born youths will once more be denied the opportunity to join their native-born peers as citizens in a nation that needs both as the inventory of our future.
There is a way forward — a rule-of-law way — that is both redemptive and responsible.
Immigration is securely anchored in our laws. Alexander Hamilton, a founding father and an immigrant himself, urged that the Constitution mandate a "uniform rule of naturalization." We know it today as the Immigration and Nationality Act and great numbers prove its value.
Since 1820, more than 76 million immigrants have legally arrived on our shores, fueled successive expansions and helped make us an economic giant. Five percent of America's Armed Forces come from other lands. Nearly one in 10 of those who've died in Iraq and Afghanistan started life outside the United States. Among the first servicemen to die in Iraq was Marine Lance Cpl. Jose Gutierrez. An orphan raised in Guatemala's slums, he fell at Umm Qasr on March 21, 2003.
There is a downside, too. Forty-five percent of the 12 million people illegally in the U.S. today — some 5.5 million — entered through visas and then refused to leave. With many came children too young to do anything but follow their parents. The rest slipped across our borders, some with newborns in their arms and teenagers at their sides. In either case, these children came here blamelessly.
And it is here the case of Daniela Pelaez becomes a cause — and it should be.
Daniela is in a group that numbers around 2.1 million people, immigration advocates say. Of this number, advocates believe some 825,000 would qualify for a program that opens a path to those who came to the U.S. before their 16th birthdays. Requiring high school graduation — followed by college, trade school or honorable service in our military — should be the starting block for this group.
Add English proficiency and that they do what is expected of anyone else — obey the laws, support their dependents and pay their taxes — as paving stones on the road to citizenship. These beginnings point a way toward discussion, if not consensus. It is here also that public support understandably wanes.
Some argue that legal status be extended to those who brought these young people here, though many broke federal law and are subject to deportation. Others call for a halt on removal efforts against anyone falling within Daniela's group, even convicted felons and gang members. Opponents counter that what started out as more than a good idea to reward the proven and the promising declines into an amnesty that opens the floodgates to fraud. Jumping ahead of those who have patiently — and legally — waited their turns in America's long immigration lines is just one abuse.
The tug of war that follows distorts efforts to advance a worthy group into the civic life of this nation into a wish list that sparks heated words and little else. As a nation, we can do better.
Our American genius for solutions that provide order at the same time they elevate should not be exhausted in this debate. The super-added value of redeeming those who are truly improving themselves and their communities should be a priority that isn't sidetracked by proposals that polarize. When generous and inclusive policies are matched with enforcement that assures accountability and security and prevents the gaming of our immigration system, broad agreement will result. So will public support. This kind of action is needed now.
The group for whom Daniela Pelaez is now a symbol merits the kind of relief only a president and Congress can provide. If our politics can be as accountable as many in this group have been responsible, then our democracy will once more have proven itself equal to the challenges of the day. When we take stock in these young people — when we redeem them, as many of them are redeeming their streets and neighborhoods — we take stock in America and a vast and optimistic future also.