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How One Immigration Detention Shook a City

The detention of Wildin David Guillén Acosta, a Honduran refugee in North Carolina, highlights how the threat of a single deportation can tear a community apart.

By Julie Morse


Wildin David Guillén Acosta wading in a pond during biology class. (Photo: Julie Farkas)

Thursday, January 28, 2016, was a cold morning in Durham, North Carolina, and Wildin David Guillén Acosta was warming up his car as he got ready for school. He went inside for his backpack, and when he returned a group of plainclothes Immigration Custom Enforcement agents appeared at his driveway. His father watched from the window as theythrew the 19-year-old to the ground and arrested him.

Acosta was one of five students detained by ICE that week, and one of the hundreds detained that month. His absence didn’t go unremarked. When word about Acosta’s arrest reached his high school, the level of outrage reached feverishheights. Pacific Standard spoke with Acosta, his family, classmates, teachers, and Durham politicians in order to gain an understanding of how his detainment, as the detainment of thousands of other teenagers, can tear apart communities across the nation.

Acosta arrived in the United States in 2014 when he was 17; 17 was also the number of days it took him to travel, by car and foot,from Olancho, Honduras to Durham. One by one, the Acostas fled gang violence in their native country; Wildin was the last to leave. When he finally arrived in Durham, it had been so long his parents didn’t even recognize him at first.

“‘You’ve grown so much,’ my mother told me. It was so emotional to see them again. I was so happy,” Acosta told Pacific Standard, via phone and in Spanish, from Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia, where he remains indefinitely.

At Riverside High School, Acosta thrived. He fit the profile of a good-faith student working hard while also holding a job as a cook at a local restaurant. “I had everything ready to go to college. I had everything planned out for me and then they got me, and here I am. I thought I was going to get out before graduation, but that didn’t happen,” he says.

His classmates and teachers unanimously describe Acosta as smart and athletic, a natural leader. Even over the phone, it’s easy to understand why. There’s a sense of earnest warmth in his voice as he talks about his life in Durham. “I thought that this country didn’t want me at first, but then I got to high school,” he says. From his palpable sense of empathy, it’s easy to see why his detainment struck such a chord within the school community. Acosta even asked to be sent his homework assignments while detained, but the bureaucracy at Stewart denied his request.

“My students break down in tears as they are so fearful and worried for themselves, their friends, and their family members,” explains Ellen Holmes, a Spanish teacher at Riverside. “They’re very worried that they or someone else they know will be next.”

In January, ICE initiated a campaign to carry out raids targeting Central American families who migrated to the U.S. in 2014. In the first weekend of January alone, 121 people were arrested and detained, mainly in Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas. Since January 23, ICE has detained 336 migrants under the agency’s “Operation Border Guardian.” These detainments often result in deportations: Since October 1, ICE has deported 28,808 people to Central America and 128,000 to Mexico.

One undocumented student told Pacific Standard that his father suggested he stop going to school until the raids die down. “They need to stop this because so many families are suffering,” he says. “All they want is just to graduate.”

Acosta’s lawyers weren’t always much help, either. Earlier in 2015, Acosta had received misleading advice from an attorney, causing him to miss his asylum hearing in March 2015—an absence that then led to his removal order. The attorney had told Acosta that his chances of being granted asylum relief were nil, and that, whether he went to his hearing or not, he would still be deported.

“She told me I didn’t have a chance, nothing at all,” Acosta says. The lawyer, unfortunately, was unaware that Acosta had entered the country as an unaccompanied minor, a statue that actually would have allowed Acosta to file for asylum, according to Acosta’s present lawyer, Evelyn Smallwood.

In Georgia and North Carolina, the two states with the highest deportation rates in the country, this kind of faulty legal advice is all too characteristic. Just since January, 76 percent of immigrants living in North Carolina and 63 percent in Georgia have been deported. “Judges regularly deny viable asylum claims that would be approved in other jurisdictions,” Smallwood says. “There is a toxic environment for asylees in North Carolina, partially because there is a limited number of attorneys who are not only unaware of the applicable asylum laws, but who are willing to take on those cases, and even a smaller number who can handle those cases well.” In fact, 90 percent of immigrants issued removal orders in North Carolina did not have legal representation.

The policies of the Department of Homeland Securitydo not recognize that these Central American migrants are seeking asylum to escape downright deadly scenarios. Mirna Guzmán, the sister of Santos Geovany Padilla Guzmán, another teenager in North Carolina currently detained for missing an immigration court appointment, told the Spanish-language newspaper Qué Pasa that gangs in El Salvador had threatened to kill her brother for refusing to join them. “They leave here deported and [in El Salvador] they’re killed,” she said.

Guzmán and Acosta are a part of the group referred to by activists as the “NC6,” along with Bilmer Araeli Pujoy Juárez, Pedro Salmerón Salmerón, Josué Alexander Soriano Cortez, and Yefri Sorto-Hernandez (who currently awaits release pending a $30,000 bond) — a group of teenage males from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, all with clean records, most of whom were on their way to work or school when ICE arrested them, and all of whom are locked up together in Stewart. (The tally is far higher than six, but the term NC6 is an activist term—a way to indicate the increasing number of asylum seekers being held in detention centers.)

Out of all the teenagers currently detained, Acosta’s case has received the most attention. Acosta was set to be deported on March 20, but a group from Acosta’s school put a hold on his deportation order when a team of students led by Holmes traveled to Washington, D.C., where they petitioned the secretary of the Department of Education, John B. King Jr., to support Wildin’s release. On Friday, March 18, around 75 students and teachers from various high schools and organizations rallied outside U.S. Congressman G.K. Butterfield’s office in downtown Durham, holding signs that read “Deport Me Instead” and “Education Not Deportation.” Butterfield responded by collaborating with Zoe Lofgren, the highest-ranking Democrat of the Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security to petition Sarah Saldaña, director of ICE, to put a hold on Acosta’s deportation order.


Congressman G.K. Butterfield meets with Riverside High School students and teachers in support of Acosta. (Photo: Riverside High School)

It’s been Butterfield’s consistent petitions that have ultimately deterred Acosta’s deportation. On June 7, Acosta was placed in solitary confinement for helping a fellow detainee write a letter to his wife, which ICE officials consider a “low-moderate” offense. Acosta was originally ordered to 30 days in solitary confinement, but Butterfield’s letter to Saldaña reduced his sentence to nine days. “I am concerned that, due to the significant attention Wildin’s case has received by the media and members of Congress, his punishment could have been retaliatory in nature,” he writes in an email. “Wildin’s detainment and numerous raids carried out by ICE in recent months have not only impacted the individuals who have been detained, but they have also created a deep sense of fear and concern within the community. It is my understanding that, as a result of the raids, attendance dropped as much as 20 percent at many area schools because families fear their children will be picked up by ICE officials.”

One undocumented student at Riverside High School who asked to remain anonymous told Pacific Standard that his father suggested he stop going to school until the raids die down. “They need to stop this because so many families are suffering,” he says. “All they want is just to graduate, and I want to graduate too.”

At RHS, where the student body population hovers around 1,800, nearly every student wears a white-and-purple bracelet in support of Wildin. The hashtags #FreeWildin #RHSWantsWildinBack keep the protest going on social media feeds. According to Riverside journalism teacher Bryan Christopher, the students have worked passionately to free Acosta—they have taken control. “I’ve got four journalism students who work tirelessly to organize events, write columns for local media, and reach out to various organizations to push for Wildin’s release,” Christopher says. “I’ve taught for 10 years, and this has been the most surreal experience for me because they’re doing things that suggest they don’t need me anymore.”

One of these journalism students is Axel Herrera Ramos, who also migrated from Honduras yet is protected by Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals because he was under the age of 16 when he arrived. “We can’t neglect that there’s a student being detained when he could be released at Saldaña’s discretion,” Ramos says. “When we met with the Department of Education, we spoke with them about how this is an education issue, and that it’s affecting school attendance,” Ramos says.

Julie Farkas, who teaches English as a Second Language at RHS, agrees that Acosta’s detainment has significantly affected the school’s emotional climate as well as attendance levels. “It’s been really hard for us to do our job. Wildin hasn’t been able to learn the material for standardized tests because he’s been detained, and as educators we’re held accountable for that,” Farkas says. “These government agencies are standing in the way of us doing our job. It made it difficult to give exams last January because the kids were afraid to come to school.”

Acosta describes Stewart Detention Center as a constant nightmare. “It’s been so difficult. There’s no privacy. The water is so hot, extremely hot, when showering I feel like I’m sweating,” he says. Located in rural Georgia, about 150 miles from Atlanta, Stewart is the largest immigrant detention facility in the country, currently housing around 1,725 male prisoners. Inmates have described it as a “human zoo” and a “chicken coop.” Lawyers complain that the visitation room’s telephone cords are so short they can’t even see their clients’ faces when speaking with them. Acosta’s mother, Dilsia Acosta, says that her son’s health has been greatly compromised since being detained. “It has been very bad for him there,” she says. “His hair is falling out, there’s redness in his skin, and he’s not getting any medical attention.”

“Here problems just come at you. I don’t know what to do. I can’t move. I can’t do anything,” Acosta says, exasperated. “Every day I imagine when I can finally leave here. I always tell my friends that the day I can leave, I’m running out. One day I saw I saw a photo of me on television. Looking at it, I remembered where I was that day. I was at the gym. I looked at myself in here and then I looked at myself there. I was happy there.”