An 18-year-old honors student who was set to be deported to Peru got a welcome surprise Thursday when immigration authorities granted her a months-long reprieve.
Just hours before a planned rally for Lowell High School graduate Elizabeth Lee, her 16-year-old brother, Felix, and their mother, all of whom were set to be deported Jan. 19, the family learned that their deportation was being put on hold.
Immigration authorities said they would delay the deportation date until July, leaving the family time to work with a lawyer on their case.
"We're all really relieved and really happy," Elizabeth Lee said.
The family came to the United States on tourist visas in 2001 and overstayed those visas. Immigration authorities arrested the mother, Melissa Lee, in late spring after she lost a claim for political asylum. Elizabeth Lee had been accepted to UC Berkeley for the fall semester and planned to attend, but her mother's arrest caused her to decline enrollment as her family tried to resolve their legal problems. She has been studying closer to home at City College of San Francisco. An electronic ankle bracelet monitors her whereabouts.
"We're losing a potential UC Berkeley future graduate -- who'd give back to the community and contribute to the economy -- for no good reason," said Eric Quezada, director of Dolores Street Community Services, which is representing the family in immigration court. "These cases get replicated on a daily basis throughout the country."
The Lee siblings are the latest young San Francisco residents from Peru to become embroiled in a deportation case that has attracted wide protest.
U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., last year intervened in the case of Steve Li, another City College student who was arrested at his home in September and jailed in an Arizona detention facility before the lawmaker filed a private relief bill on his behalf. Li was born in Peru to Chinese immigrant parents, and he was set to be deported to a country where he knew no one.
Advocates for Elizabeth and Felix Lee say they also have little connection to Peru, which they left a decade ago when they were elementary school students. Elizabeth Lee graduated in the spring with a 3.75 GPA from Lowell High, considered San Francisco's top public high school, and would have had a promising career in front of her in the United States, said her lawyer, Francisco Ugarte.
The principal of Lowell High School and other advocates rallied Thursday afternoon in front of Mission Dolores, the historic Catholic church in San Francisco that the Lees attended.
When Immigration and Customs Enforcement released Melissa Lee from custody over the summer, the federal agency allowed the mother and her children to stay in the country until Jan. 19 as the case was resolved, Ugarte said.
There are few opportunities to halt a deportation, but lawyers were looking into several options to keep the family in the country. They filed a request with immigration authorities this week to continue to delay the deportation, at least temporarily, on humanitarian grounds. Among the reasons, said Ugarte, is that deporting the family now would disrupt the education of Felix Lee, a student at Lowell High.
"This is just one example of so many we see of people who have very few opportunities for relief, and who are really amazing people who shouldn't be deported," Ugarte said.
Until last month, advocates had been hoping students such as Li and the Lees could find a remedy with the passage of the Dream Act, a bill that would offer a path to citizenship to illegal immigrants brought to the country before they were 16 years old who graduate from high school and pursue college or military service.
The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives passed the Dream Act on Dec. 8, but the bill was defeated after it came five votes short was of a filibuster-proof supermajority in the Senate. Republicans who oppose the bill took over the House majority and leadership this week, and most analysts consider it highly unlikely that they will allow the bill to be taken up again.
With the temporary reprieve, Elizabeth Lee said she plans to continue classes at City College, and if she can become a permanent resident someday she would like to transfer to UC Berkeley to study sociology. For now, however, the ankle bracelet she wakes up to every morning is a reminder that her future is in limbo.
"It's just like a reminder of your problems everyday. You see that ankle bracelet everyday," she said.