‘Why Couldn’t Wildin Graduate?’: The Legacy of a U.S. Immigration Program Targeting Teens

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Analysis Human Rights

‘Why Couldn’t Wildin Graduate?’: The Legacy of a U.S. Immigration Program Targeting Teens

Tina Vasquez

ICE has not stated publicly whether the arrests of teens under Operation Border Guardian will continue, but there is anecdotal evidence suggesting the operation has caused considerable damage in the communities of those placed into detention, noticeable by teachers and students alike.

This is the second article in Rewire’s two-part series about the effects of Operation Border Guardian. You can read the first piece in the series here.

On January 28, when Wildin David Guillen Acosta left his car to run into his home and grab his backpack before heading to school, he had no way of knowing he was a moment away from being detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

He would spend the next six months in detention constantly at risk of being deported to his native Honduras, where he feared being murdered by local gangs. His detainment also robbed him of his graduation: At the time ICE took Acosta into custody, the 19-year-old was months away from completing high school.

Acosta, along with five other North Carolina youth—Josue Alexander Soriano Cortez, Yefri Sorto-Hernandez, Santos Geovany Padilla-Guzman, Bilmer Araeli Pujoy-Juarez, and Pedro Arturo Salmeron—have become known as the NC6. ICE took the teens on their way to school as part of Operation Border Guardian, a Department of Homeland Security (DHS)-led immigration enforcement policy targeting Central American migrants over the age of 18 who came to the United States as unaccompanied children after January 2014.

As Rewire previously reported, while Acosta and two others of NC6 have been released, Operation Border Guardian has had a devastating effect on the 336 young migrants it’s detained. Those in detention have been unable to win asylum status in a system seemingly rigged against them, including NC6 member Pujoy-Juarez, who is facing the immediate threat of deportation.

Some question whether undocumented students like the NC6 members should be allowed at school in the first place. For others, however, that is a nonstarter.

On a school and education level, [Acosta] deserved to graduate and get a degree,” said Bryan Christopher, the journalism teacher at Riverside High School in Durham, North Carolina, which Acosta attended before he was taken into custody. “It started there for me, asking, ‘Why can’t he graduate?’ That was also a question my students kept asking …. No matter how big this issue is, the same question remains: Why couldn’t Wildin graduate?”

Acosta, who has been hesitant to communicate with the media in the days since his release from detention, will speak about his experience at a press conference in Durham on Monday, the first day of school for Riverside High School students.

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ICE has not stated publicly whether the arrests of teens under Operation Border Guardian will continue, but there is anecdotal evidence suggesting the operation has caused considerable damage in the communities of NC6 members, noticeable by teachers and students alike.

The Right to an Education

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 1982 ruling in Plyler v. Doe clarified that state legislators cannot keep undocumented students from accessing K-12 public education.

In that case, the State of Texas sought to defend its 1975 law that denied funding to public schools enrolling undocumented students tuition-free. As Mercedes Gonzalez explained in a commentary at the Century Foundation website, “Although the state of Texas argued the quality of education would be diluted and it would be too expensive to educate undocumented children, a 5-4 Supreme Court decision ruled against the state.”

“The Equal Protection Clause in the Fourteenth Amendment states, ‘Nor shall any state…deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.’ The Court stated that, even though students are undocumented, they still have the right to be protected under the law,” Gonzalez wrote.

Thirty years later, schools are still trying to deny undocumented children the right to an education.

This certainly is true in North Carolina.

In 2014, two undocumented children who, like Acosta, arrived in the United States as unaccompanied children, were denied enrollment by two separate North Carolina school districtsBuncombe County Schools and Union County Public Schools, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) noted. As ThinkProgress reported, “officials told them that at the age of 17, they were ‘too old’ even though students under the age of 21 are entitled to a public education in North Carolina.”

The SPLC filed a complaint on the students’ behalf, asserting these cases were symptomatic of a larger problem of discrimination in school districts across the state: “The discrimination encountered by these children is a violation of Title IV and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bar discrimination on the basis of national origin in federally funded public schools.”

The complaint also notes “that the U.S. Supreme Court held in Plyler v. Doe that it is unconstitutional to deny a child present in the United States a public education, regardless of their federal immigration status.”

SPLC told Rewire the organization never received a response to its 2014 Department of Justice complaint in North Carolina, but that it is continuing to pursue the issue in other jurisdictions. More recently, in May of this year, it filed a federal lawsuit in Florida because Collier County Public Schools “have effectively barred immigrant children.

Back in Durham, North Carolina, schools do not ask the citizenship status of their students and do not keep track of the number of undocumented students they may have, according to Matt Sears, a member of the Durham Public School Board of Education. In fact, upon hearing of Acosta’s detainment, the Durham school board passed a resolution opposing ICE’s actions and the deportation of Durham public school students. Taking such a stance is relatively rare, but Durham is a special place, Sears argued.

“In Durham, we have an incredibly collaborative community where teachers know their students and advocate for their students very well to all different levels of school administration and government,” he said. “We’re talking about children here, children who we have the responsibility and privilege of working with day in and day out for their education. I’m not surprised by the amount of support Wildin received. Because these are the people we support, these are our students.”

The Durham school board is now working with attorneys and administrators to develop a better understanding of immigration laws and policies that are affecting their students, according to Sears.

“This shook us, and it’s our job and our goal to protect all students, including undocumented students, so our practices are evolving,” Sears explained. “We have to constantly remind ourselves that this isn’t a well understood area for our community or our district and we have to continue to learn, talk, and help our professionals prepare.”

A Special Case

When Acosta first made national headlines, it was clear that his case encapsulated everything that was wrong with Operation Border Guardian, Julie Mao, the enforcement fellow at the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild, told Rewire.

“Sometimes a person becomes a flash point that represents all of these cases. Wildin is illustrating a horrible policy that is impacting young people like him across the country,” Mao said. “Wildin had really acclimated to Riverside High School. He was a very smart kid, a very involved kid, an outgoing teenager who was on the right path. Many teachers and individuals who knew him saw him as an immigrant success story who was about to graduate, but he was ripped away from that path in such a public way.”

A 2007 UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education hearing revealed that despite having a fraction of the resources accessible to U.S. citizens, undocumented students often thrive in school. This was certainly true of Acosta, whose high grades and participation in a Latino student group made him recognizable and well liked on the Riverside campus. But for every undocumented student who thrives despite their circumstances, there are dozens who don’t integrate as seamlessly into the school community for very legitimate reasons—and they matter too.

Every year, about 80,000 undocumented immigrants who have been in the country for at least five years turn 18, but nearly 20 percent of that population will not graduate high school.

A Riverside High School teacher told Rewire that a young female student who was deported a month before Acosta was detained wasn’t well known to her Riverside High School classmates and did not participate in school activities. She also experienced a language barrier.

Beyond language challenges, many undocumented students, like Acosta, also work full time to help support their families here and abroad. So when undocumented individuals are able to access public education, the local systems are not without hurdles, especially after high school.

There are many online resources for young undocumented people hoping to go to college. That is increasingly hard to do in North Carolina, however: Not only are undocumented students not eligible to receive any state or federal financial aid in the form of grants or loans, but they’re also charged out-of-state tuition by both community colleges and state universities. Also, undocumented students cannot enroll in any program that grants them a professional license, including a teaching license.

Advocates told Rewire the extra attention paid to Wildin Acosta’s case helped in his release from detention, and that was largely due to the community support around him. “Wildin became a rallying cry; his case spotlighted these bad government policies and exemplified how damaged and egregious they really are,” Mao said.

Acosta’s classmates, who devoted multiple issues of their school newspaper to him, refused to stop talking about his case, even going to Washington, D.C. and meeting with U.S. Secretary of Education John King, members of Congress, and representatives from DHS.

“Without that [type of support], it’s almost impossible to make progress,” Mao said.

Mika Hunter Twietmeyer was Acosta’s ESL biology teacher during the 2014-2015 school year. She attended bond hearings for members of the NC6, visited Acosta in detention, and wrote an open letter to President Obama on her former student’s behalf.

As mentioned previously, Acosta was also part of the school’s Latino student group, Destino Success, where he supported underclassmen and gave them advice for navigating high school. He was a student who gave his all, Twietmeyer explained, but he also came to school tired many days.

“He was working a lot, but both he and his sister were very dedicated to their studies,” the teacher said. “At an end-of-year barbecue for Destino Success, we talked and he told me he was excited for the summer, but he knew he’d have to work a lot. I think he understood that by coming to North Carolina, he was going to be given this great opportunity for his education, but he also had to work really hard to support his family. He was talking about going to Florida or another state to help a family member with construction work. He was always so animated and hopeful. He was one of those students who had a love for life, but someone you also knew he had an inner stress and was hoping everything would work out OK.”

The month after Acosta was detained, Durham passed a resolution in support of employee speech rights, but immigration remained a touchy subject. Acosta’s former biology teacher said teachers at Riverside who publicly showed support for the 19-year-old received some backlash from parents.

Educators are often told to be neutral or un-opinionated, Twietmeyer said, but with Acosta’s case, she knew she had to speak out.

“The more we talked about it, the more we heard stories from other teachers saying things like, ‘My student’s entire family was deported and he was left here by himself.’ It’s important that these stories come out,” Twietmeyer said. “I’ve been happy with the level of support at different schools with their administration and with our downtown administration. The school board has been supportive, but our personal experience at Riverside is that [other authority figures have] stayed very neutral and that has been a challenge for us. One thing that has made teachers more comfortable speaking up about this is that a lot of students took the lead on advocating for Wildin. When students take the lead and want to do something for their fellow students, it’s easy for teachers to support that.”

Detainment and Deportation Affect the Whole Community

When Bryan Christopher’s senior journalism students continued asking ICE, DHS, Stewart Detention Center (where Acosta and others were detained), and anyone else they could reach why Acosta wasn’t being allowed to finish the school year and graduate with his class, they didn’t receive satisfactory answers. He, too, began to wonder why ICE was being so aggressive with a kid that wasn’t seen as “part of the problem.”

“This has always been an education issue for me, not an immigration issue,” Christopher told Rewire. “This is one student at my school who was about four months away from graduating and our school cares very much about our students’ ability to graduate.”

Christopher takes a decidedly more pragmatic approach to explaining why—if for no other reason—undocumented students shouldn’t be targeted. All students in the district have to take high-stakes tests at the end of the semester. If they’re not in school, they’re not learning, and they can’t do well on the tests.

The journalism teacher said both the district’s and Riverside’s school funding rely on teaching the kids who are on teachers’ class rosters, and if those kids are afraid to come to school or aren’t coming to school, teachers can’t do their job and those students can’t pass their tests. “I have to look at this from a systemic level,” Christopher said. “Our school is going to suffer because of this operation.”

Mayra Arteaga, a member of the Charlotte chapter of Students for Education Reform (SFER), said that after Acosta’s arrest, students and teachers were hit particularly hard.

“Even if you’re not directly impacted, we’ve been seeing a lot of people who are having a lot of mental health issues,” the SFER organizer told Rewire. “A high school student we work with had a breakdown in the bathroom at school after finding out what was going on [with the raids].”

Elisa Benitez, co-founder of Alerta Migratoria NC, the immigrant rights organization that was largely behind the push to free the members of NC6, told Rewire that once Operation Border Guardian launched, the fear in the community was palpable. “The Latino community became afraid that just anyone could be picked up by immigration. Everyone was terrified. If they weren’t scared for themselves, they were scared for their parents or other [undocumented] family members.”

The organizer told Rewire that many undocumented community members have reported experiencing depression and anxiety and that teachers are struggling to help kids handle what they’re dealing with because there is no prior precedent.

Twietmeyer said that before Operation Border Guardian, it never occurred to her that “a federal agent could take a student away.”

In the coming school year, she would like to see more mental health services provided to students: those who fear deportation and those students who are struggling with losing a friend to detainment or deportation.

Back in April when Mao was in Georgia assisting with Acosta’s case, she told Rewire that students in Georgia and North Carolina were afraid to come to school and when they were, they were suffering from behavioral issues, issues she said were psychological markers of post-traumatic stress disorder.

“We’re also seeing the impact on young students who had classmates or family members who were the target of these raids,” Mao said. “To them, these raids are sending the message that they are lesser, that they are ‘public safety and security threats’ [according to ICE] because of their immigration status. We have to think of what that does to a kid’s sense of self-worth.”

Even now after the release of three members of NC6 from detention, Mao said she is getting calls from teachers and unaccompanied minors who are afraid they’re next.

Their concern is not without merit. ICE issued nearly 4,200 deportation orders in North Carolina in the fiscal year 2015, and more than 1,000 have already been issued in the fiscal year 2016, according to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.

Contacted for comment about the timeline of the operation, an ICE spokesperson told Rewire that for “security reasons, the agency does not discuss law enforcement operations in advance.”

With no clear indication that Operation Border Guardian is ending any time soon, there is reason to believe that more kids in Durham and other parts of the country will become ICE targets and be ordered deported.

“One part of the government is saying they deserve to be deported, and that leads to real significant barriers in feeling safe going to school or going to the hospital. It feels dangerous to lead a normal, public life, and these kids internalize that they don’t deserve to,” Mao said.

After the launch of Operation Border Guardian, attendance at Durham’s Riverside High School dropped by 20 percent, according to a February news report. To Mao, this is just one example of the long-term repercussions these raids will have.

“The regions suffering [from] these raids are going to see a lasting impact in education and more specifically, access to education by Latinos,” Mao told Rewire.

A local organization told Arteaga “that here in Charlotte, at one school that has a high unaccompanied minor population, 36 kids dropped out overnight,” she said.

“That’s a big number, and that’s just one school during one period of time. I hope someone begins collecting data on how these raids are impacting education in North Carolina.”

As Morgan Whithaus wrote in a March News & Observer article, if attendance continues to drop in Durham schools, it will damage the graduation rate and test scores the community has worked hard to improve.

Even individuals who have not specifically been targeted in the raids are refraining from going to school out of fear of being detained by ICE.

“In Charlotte, there’s a [high] school called Harding University that has a large Latino population,” Arteaga said. “I was talking to one of the teachers and he told me that some of his students were given orders of deportation and right after, even more of his students left the state because they were afraid of receiving orders.”

“The fear of being deported is so overwhelming …. [And other students], American citizens, are afraid their classmates, their friends, will be taken away,” she added.

Not only are kids leaving the state in high numbers because they’re afraid of being deported or afraid their family members will be, but Benitez told Rewire that in Durham Public Schools, there’s also been a large drop in enrollment by mixed-status families.

“People who work at public schools are telling us that parents new to the area want to enroll their kids in school, but don’t want to provide an address because they’re afraid of ICE showing up and taking their kids or separating their families, but you can’t enroll in public school without an address,” she said. “These parents are afraid their kids will be picked up at school or that immigration will coming knocking on their door because they worry the school system works with ICE and provides their [personal] information …. They heard about what happened to Wildin and they were terrified they’d be next.”

Keeping Students Safe

Sears told Rewire he wants the public to know that his school district is committed to “welcoming, protecting, and educating” all students that come through their doors. In particular, he wants to assure undocumented families that their registration information will not be shared with ICE agents, though no schools are under any obligation to share information with ICE.

While it is the school district’s goal to protect all students, Sears said there is talk of updating the Durham Public Schools handbook to include policies that specifically outline how undocumented students will be made to feel safe, including the assurance that ICE is not allowed on campus. Currently, ICE prohibits “enforcement actions”—which include arrests, interviews, searches, and immigration-related surveillancefrom taking place at locations such as schools, churches, and hospitals, but advocates have argued that ICE violated that policy when detaining individuals on their way to school.

Twietmeyer said she hopes the students at Riverside know they have a lot of teachers on their side willing to talk to them, advocate on their behalf, and fight for them. Providing students a sense of safety in her classroom and, more broadly, at the high school has become important to the ESL biology teacher. If ICE continues to put students in custody, advocates will need to build stronger networks, she said, to support students and provide mental health services.

Since the launch of Operation Border Guardian, ICE has picked up over 330 people. Mao said that for every Wildin Acosta, there are dozens of young, undocumented people who get deported, never to be heard from again. Acosta has been incredibly lucky, and though his specific circumstances have been exceptional, Mao believes that his story will continue to be a powerful reminder.

“I hope that we really start to think about if we want to have a system that conducts raids on young people trying to obtain an education,” she said. “More than anything, I believe that when immigration officials are in a room discussing the next raid as part of Operation Border Guardian, they will think about the spotlight that was on Wildin and how now more than ever, people have an understanding of how morally unjust it is to conduct these raids and detain these young people.”