WASHINGTON — Daniela Pelaez nearly became another number in the Obama administration's contentious march toward 2 million deportations.
Two years ago, the Miami valedictorian got a last-minute break amid widespread attention to her story, and now she is a sophomore at Dartmouth College, pursuing a dream of becoming a doctor. But an old feeling is creeping back.
"If I don't focus on my studies, the worry will just consume me," said Pelaez, 20, who arrived in the United States from Colombia as a child with her parents. Her reprieve expired last month and she's having to seek renewal. The permanent legal status she and millions of other undocumented residents have fought for is deadlocked in Congress.
"We continue to live our lives in this limbo," Pelaez said in an interview after class on a recent afternoon.
The arc of her experience — going from a face of immigration reform, her case championed by Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, to another demoralized bystander — captures the struggle over a complex issue that is as politically vexing as it is personal.
Those forces are now clashing in Washington with immigrant activists increasingly projecting their anger on President Barack Obama. "Not one more. Not one more!" a group shouted outside the White House on Tuesday, the latest in a series of protests. Some carried signs depicting Obama with the words "Deporter in chief."
They clutched pictures of family members who have been deported or detained and said Obama had betrayed them by not accomplishing immigration reform, a campaign promise dating to the 2008 election.
"That's how he got the Latino vote," said Cynthia Diaz, 18, from Arizona, who held a sign that read, "I miss my Mom." Her mother was deported to Mexico in 2011 after getting swept up in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid — she was still in her pajamas, Diaz said — and then was detained with dozens of others who attempted to cross the border again in March.
Diaz, a U.S. citizen, was one of several activists who said Tuesday they would begin a hunger strike to raise pressure on Obama to release family members. They also want Obama to expand the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program he began in summer 2012 that allowed children of illegal immigrants to get temporary legal status.
More than 610,000 people have gotten the two-year reprieve, but many will have to reapply later this year. The hope had been that Congress would have passed a comprehensive immigration bill but the issue has sputtered since the Senate passed bipartisan legislation in June 2013.
House Republican leaders have rejected the comprehensive bill, saying they want a step-by-step approach with a focus on border security. While there is general support for providing legal status, if not citizenship, to immigrants brought to the United States as children, significant disagreement exists about the broader population. That has helped keep even a piecemeal approach from advancing.
In that vacuum, Obama's allies have become his antagonists. With pressure mounting, Obama two weeks ago asked Jeh Johnson, the secretary of Homeland Security, to review deportations out of concern for families.
Still, he has resisted ending deportations, on the advice it would be unlawful and could further stymie reform prospects on Capitol Hill. Obama is not open to expanding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
"I disagree with the president on this. There's a lot of things that can be done," Rep. Joe Garcia, D-Miami, said Tuesday. He had just finished meeting with Francisco Diaz, 41, an undocumented man from Homestead who rode his bicycle to Washington to deliver a letter to Obama asking him to stop the deportations.
Activists this week have new ammunition in the form of a New York Times analysis that found two-thirds of the nearly 2 million deportation cases under Obama involve people who had minor infractions, such as traffic violations, or had no criminal record.
The White House has said it focuses on serious criminals.
Pelaez's case highlights the disconnect. She arrived in the United States at age 4 with her parents, who overstayed a visa. About 40 percent of all people living here illegally arrived with a visa.
She faced deportation proceedings in 2008, and in early 2012 a judge ordered that she and her older sister be deported, leading to outcry. Her classmates at North Miami Senior High walked out one day in protest and politicians embraced her cause.
Then came the two-year reprieve. (Obama later effectively standardized the prosecutorial discretion with his program for young immigrants.) Pelaez, who is now applying under the Obama program, says she has mixed feelings about him.
"I don't like to cast the blame on one person. Deportations have been there before and will be there after him," she said. "I admire Obama for a lot of his policies and yeah, I would love for him to help immigrants more, but the responsibility does not fall on his shoulders alone. I get more frustrated with the House and their refusal to help us."
Alex Leary can be reached at [email protected]