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Miami valedictorian who faced deportation gets to stay - for now

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A Florida high school valedictorian who was on the brink of deportation has received some good news: She won't be forced to leave the country - for two years, anyway.

 Daniela Pelaez, 18, came here when she was four, when her parents entered the U.S. illegally, according to local news reports. And on Monday of last week, a judge ordered her, and her older sister, out of the country.

Daniela "texted me that afternoon, 'Life sucks, I can't believe this. I have to get out by March 28th,'" Emily Sell, Pelaez's best friend, told msnbc.com over the phone on Wednesday. "And I said, 'That's not going to happen. I'm not going to let that happen.'"

Sell started a petition for Pelaez, which she said collected more than 15,000 signatures, and organized a protest at North Miami High School, where nearly all of Pelaez's 2,600 classmates joined in a walk-out last Friday in solidarity, according to The Miami Herald.

"Over my dead body will this child be deported," Miami-Dade Superintendent of Schools Alberto Carvalho, holding Pelaez's hand, said on Friday, reported NBCMiami.com.

High school students fight valedictorian's deportation order

But it wasn't until Tuesday of this week that Pelaez's attorney heard from Homeland Security thatdeportation order had been deferred.

"Two years is good, but it's not the goal," Pelaez's attorney, Nera Shefer, told the Miami Herald Wednesday, adding that Pelaez is "very happy she’s going to be able to finish high school and go into finals with a clear mind."

Superintendent Carvalho echoed those sentiments on Thursday.

"I'm elated over what I believe is a temporary win," he told msnbc.com. "I hope this incites a national dialogue that will address the sentiments of students and young people who find themselves in no man's land. It's time for the nation to take on this issue in a non-partisan way."

The Pelaez family -- both parents, as well as Daniela, her brother, Johan, and her sister, Dayana -- came to the U.S. in 1998. The Miami office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement would not tell msnbc.com why it chose to defer, and not dismiss or uphold, the deportation decision, saying it had “exercised prosecutorial discretion in Daniela and Dayana Pelaez’s case and will defer action for two years." 

  ICE uses "prosecutorial discretion," in which an agency decides what charges to bring and how to pursue legal action, on a case-by-case basis, the agency said.

"ICE is focused on smart, effective immigration enforcement that prioritizes the removal of criminal aliens, recent border crossers and egregious immigration law violators, such as those who have been previously removed from the United States and returned,” Nestor Yglesias, a public affairs officer, said in a statement.

Repeated calls to Shafer, Pelaez's lawyer, were not returned on Wednesday.

Not everyone agreed Pelaez should stay.

"She should be deported," Linda Simmons, who has a son in ninth grade at North Miami High, told NBCMiami.com last week. "Her parents broke the law."

Read Pelaez's story on NBCMiami.com

Sell, Pelaez's best friend, told msnbc.com she received a lot of hate mail while she was campaigning for Pelaez.

"But I've gotten more positive emails, and I deal with a lot of the hate emails. It's worth it in the end," she said. "She would do this for anyone."

Best friend: 'She helped me through the foreclosure'
Sell told msnbc.com that she met Pelaez two years ago when Sell transferred to North Miami High School.

"I actually transferred to the school sophomore year because our house got foreclosed," she said. "Daniela and I always clicked. We were always close academically. We became friends very quickly. She helped me through the foreclosure. That was a very hard time for me. I like repaying her for that."

The two girls are in an international baccalaureate program, which Sell says has just 80 students, at their large high school.

"In our senior class, there are 30 [students]. We're very close. For Daniela to get deported, it's like a family member to get deported," she said.

Pelaez was invited to meet Sen. Mark Rubio, R-Fla., on Wednesday.

Before boarding her flight to Washington on Wednesday to meet with Rubio, Pelaez told NBCMiami.com, "I'm excited because I've never been to Washington ... I'm very happy and relieved that there's gonna be some help."

Rubio, as well as several other Florida representatives, had publicly supported her staying in the U.S. Pelaez's school superintendent told msnbc.com he reached out to his state lawmakers as soon as he heard about her predicament.

"From the very first day that I learned about this, which is the day that the judge issued the deportation order, I called a number of politicians, and the result has been pretty obvious," Carvalho said. "I'm pleased that people of good minds and good intentions have been able to find common ground."

Pelaez told NBCMiami.com last Thursday that she has no memory of Colombia and loves her friends and this country.

"I've been asked the question before: 'Do I feel American?' or 'Do I believe I am?'" she said. "And I don't think it's a question. I'm American. I know the national anthem. I know the laws. I know what it is to be an American."

Her older sister, Dayana, is 26, and couldn't go to college because she's not a citizen, Sell told msnbc.com. She works to help support the family.

Pelaez's older brother is in the Army and is a citizen; her father obtained citizenship through her brother, NBCMiami.com reported. Their mother had divorced their father and returned to Colombia for health reasons shortly after moving to the U.S., said the station.

Pelaez has a near-perfect GPA and has applied to numerous Ivy League schools, and she dreams of being a cardiac surgeon, Sell told msnbc.com.

She's the best in bio," Sell said. "She did a medical program with the University of Miami, and she was literally salivating at it! She was like, 'I looked at cadavers today!' She wouldn't get to do that in Colombia."

Pelaez has been overwhelmed by all the attention her case has garnered, Sell said, but hopes it brings change for other kids like her --  whether they're class valedictorians or not.

"Immigration is extremely controversial," Sell said. "A lot of people have polar feelings on it. Immigrants can make it in society. Daniela is destined for so much greatness. There are so many other kids and adults that aren't exactly like Daniela, but they deserve to stay here just as much."

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