School Climate & Safety

Common Bond for Miami Schools Chief, Student: Being Undocumented

By Corey Mitchell — April 11, 2017 3 min read
Daniela Pelaez, at her home in Miami in 2012.

Five years ago, Miami-Dade schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho and Daniela Pelaez walked out of North Miami High School hand-in-hand.

Pelaez, the valedictorian of her high school class, faced an imminent deportation order after a federal immigration judge denied her request for a green card.

Carvalho, the head of one of the nation’s largest, most immigrant-rich school systems, was there to lend support as her teachers and schoolmates—more than 2,000 of them—staged a walkout protest to rally support for the Dartmouth College-bound teenager.

As Carvalho and Pelaez stood in a classroom preparing to face thousands of supporters and public scrutiny, he looked her in the eye and said: “You will be deported over my dead body.”

Carvalho still uses the same feisty language in his spirited defense of undocumented children in Miami’s public schools.

Carvalho, who came to the United States from Portugal as a teenager and overstayed his visa, has served as a mentor to Pelaez, a relationship the superintendent has maintained as she moved through college and continued to cope with uncertainty about her long-term future in the United States.

The two have kept in touch since she moved to New Hampshire in the summer of 2012, setting aside time to chat every three to four months about classes, family, and work.

“He reaffirms that I’m worthy, not just as a student, but as a person,” Pelaez said. “I belong here.”

Hopeful to Harrowing

The tone of their conversations on the topic of immigration has shifted from hopeful to harrowing amid the aggressive enforcement policies ordered by the Trump administration.

As she prepares to graduate in June with a degree in anthropology and health studies, with plans to attend medical school in the future, Pelaez’ immigration status remains tenuous.

Miami-Dade schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho and Daniela Pelaez meet in March, 2012, before joining a walkout protest planned by fellow students at North Miami Senior High after a federal immigration judge denied Pelaez’ request for a green card and issued a deportation order.

She’s among hundreds of thousands of young people awaiting word on the fate of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, an Obama-administration policy that granted temporary deportation reprieves for people brought here illegally as children.

Without DACA protections, Pelaez could once again be a target for immediate deportation.

“We have to go through life every day not knowing what’s going to happen,” Pelaez said. “It’s terrifying.”

On the campaign trail, President Donald Trump promised to repeal the policy once he took office. Since taking office, Trump has not acted to reverse DACA, and at times, has used more sympathetic language toward young immigrants. But he’s not offered any specifics on the longer-term fate of DACA and undocumented immigrants such as Palaez.

“The federal government must have higher priorities to address rather than pick on somebody like Daniela or children who, through no fault of their own, find themselves in this country,” Carvalho said. “They’re Americans in every sense of the word other than the fact that they were not born here.”

Rearview Mirror

Pelaez came to the United States from Colombia as a 5-year-old with her family, who overstayed their visa.

After Pelaez’ mother returned to Colombia for medical reasons in 2006, she was denied re-entry to the United States. Palaez lived with her father, who eventually became a U.S. citizen.

Pelaez and her mother haven’t seen each other face-to-face in more than a decade, but Pelaez is working to secure a temporary visa that would allow her mom to attend Dartmouth’s graduation. She expects it to be a tearful reunion.

“It’s going to be a very emotional time,” Pelaez said. “This diploma isn’t just for me, it’s for family too.”

Carvalho plans to be there along with Pelaez’s family, cheering her on. As a former undocumented resident, he understands both the immigrant experience and the potential sway of people in positions of influence. He has been the superintendent of the 350,000-student Miami-Dade school system since 2008.

Carvalho said the late U.S. Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr., a Florida Republican who served more than a quarter century in Congress, helped him secure his first student visa and work permit.

“I was able to go to college. I was able to continue my studies,” said Carvalho, a former national superintendent of the year, who is now a U.S. citizen. His district is among a growing number nationwide that have publicly designated schools as safe zones in the face of ramped-up deportation raids and other immigration enforcement actions.

“I do see myself through the trials and tribulations of Daniela Pelaez and many others,” Carvalho said.

“I remember the harshness of ... becoming undocumented, overstaying your visa, and opportunities closing [up] around you, I would be a hypocrite if I did not look at them and [see a] rearview image of me.”

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