In the moments before Monday’s press conference in Durham, North Carolina, a nervous Wildin Acosta sat silently with his mother, Dilcia, who rubbed the teenager’s back as he emotionally prepared to tell his story, the details of which were largely unknown until this week.
There have been many reports of how Acosta came to the United States fleeing violence in Honduras, but few knew that on his journey police officers in both Guatemala and Mexico robbed him, he said. Upon arriving in the states, he further explained during the press conference, he was held in various immigration processing facilities and shelters for unaccompanied children before finally being sent to his parents in Durham.
There were numerous times in his life when he didn’t know if he would “make it,” Wildin said during the press conference. But when he arrived in North Carolina in 2014, he was happy to be reunited with his family and he committed himself to his studies at Riverside High School. That is, until he was arrested on his way to school by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on January 28, 2016, just months before his graduation.
“It felt like the walls were closing in on me,” the teen told the 20 or so reporters and news stations who came to hear him speak about what he called “the biggest experience” he’s had in his life.
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Acosta is a member of the NC6, a group of six North Carolina teens who were detained on their way to school as part of Operation Border Guardian, an immigration enforcement policy targeting Central American migrants over the age of 18 who came to the United States as unaccompanied children after January 2014.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) reports that 336 undocumented youth were detained by ICE as part of the operation’s January raids. To his great bewilderment, Acosta became the face of Operation Border Guardian. Thanks to the efforts of organizations like Alerta Migratoria NC that fought for his release, he was able to leave Georgia’s Stewart Detention Center on August 13. DHS has reopened his asylum case.
In 2014, more than 70,000 children from the Northern Triangle—El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—made the long journey alone to the United States-Mexico border to escape violence in their country of origin and seek asylum in the United States. Acosta was one of those children.
After his father migrated to North Carolina in search of work when Acosta was 8 years old, followed by his mother when he was 14, he was left alone in Honduras with his 22-year-old brother.
At Monday’s press conference, the teen, wearing a red and white Alerta Migratoria t-shirt, explained that shortly after joining a religious youth group in Honduras at the age of 17, he began getting harassed by a gang member. He received late-night text messages threatening him with death and telling him not to leave the house at night because he was being watched. He eventually told his aunt, who relayed the information to his mother in Durham, who insisted he make the journey to North Carolina.
“Every experience is an adventure put in your path of life,” Acosta said of the journey to the United States.
The 19-year-old told Rewire he has consistently been surprised by how the country treats asylum seekers like him: whether it was arriving in the United States and then spending eight days without sunlight in one of Border Patrol’s so-called hieleras, frigidly cold immigration processing facilities not intended for overnight stays, or spending months in prison-like conditions at Stewart Detention Center, where he says he found worms in his food and was put in solitary confinement.
“I’m very surprised [by the treatment we receive],” Acosta said. “A lot of time, the United States [publicly] shows a good face when it comes to immigration; it does not show the bad face that it only shows to immigrants.”
Viridiana Martinez, Alerta Migratoria NC’s co-founder and a longtime undocumented organizer and activist from North Carolina, reminded the crowd at Monday’s press conference that Acosta was an immigrant refugee who had committed no crime. The activist, who once infiltrated a detention center to expose how the Obama administration was still detaining undocumented youth despite reports to the contrary, said Acosta simply had the bad luck of seeking asylum in the United States after January 2014.
“It’s a complex issue many really don’t understand, but the Obama administration has decided to come after kids like [Acosta] who’ve done nothing wrong,” Martinez explained.
ICE has asserted that Acosta was not unfairly targeted for deportation, but rather that a missed immigration hearing triggered his order for removal. This is something Acosta addressed at the press conference, saying he went to his first immigration hearing for his asylum case, but skipped the second because his attorney at the time told him that if he went, he would only be detained.
“After, I just kept going to school to pursue my dream and pursue my studies,” Acosta said.
But on January 28, he was apprehended in front of his home after running inside the house to grab his backpack before heading to school. At first, Acosta didn’t know what was happening. He said the men who arrested him were wearing regular clothes, but once Acosta was in handcuffs, one man took off his jacket and revealed his ICE uniform.
After multiple transfers to detention centers and county jails within North Carolina, Acosta was eventually transferred to the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia, where he was able to call his mother for the first time since his detainment two weeks prior.
In Stewart, Acosta said his case went through a series of ups and downs. One night, Acosta explained, ICE shackled him and told him he was being deported, only to bring him back inside the detention center hours later and let him return to bed.
“I cried so much,” Acosta said. His near-deportation was around the time of Riverside High School’s graduation. That made his time in Stewart even more challenging, he explained, because he wanted nothing more than to get out, be with his family, and finish school.
“I just thought: Only God knows why I’m not able to graduate,” Acosta said. “I asked God to help me. When you’re in [detention], you have many emotions in your heart. Sometimes in detention, you’re laughing with your friends and you forget where you are, but a few minutes later you can be sad and crying.”
In June, Acosta asked a new arrival to Stewart if ICE was still conducting raids. He was told that the raids stopped around the time Acosta was detained.
“It’s worth being here if others are not being catched [sic],” Acosta said. “In God’s time, I knew I would be released.”
The teen is now committed to ensuring the release of the remaining NC6 members, three young men who are still being held in Stewart. Acosta promised them he would help them get released. “And I never break a promise,” he said.
In total, the 19-year-old spent five months and 21 days in detention before he was released on bond that was raised by the community—a “miracle,” advocates have said, given the amount ($10,000) and the fact that only about 5 percent of those detained in Stewart are released on bond.
ICE claims the average stay of a migrant in Stewart Detention Center is 30 days, but the detention center is notorious for excessively long detainments. In fact, Stewart’s treatment of asylum seekers is the subject of a new complaint by Human Rights First and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which was filed August 25.
The complaint is based on reports from detainees and local advocates and “describes how judges at the facility in Lumpkin, Georgia, failed to inform the detainees of their rights and provide necessary legal forms—violations of their right to due process. The detainees have reported that in some cases, they were not permitted to bring paper and pen or pencil to their legal proceedings to take notes,” the SPLC reported.
The organizations also allege that immigration judges at Stewart discriminate against Central American immigrants who represent themselves, “making disparaging comments and suggesting that they have no valid claims to asylum or other immigration relief before hearing their cases,” according to the complaint.
The day Acosta was informed the community raised his bond and he’d be released, he said he excitedly ran around Stewart yelling, “No more time! No more time!” When the moment came to leave, Acosta said he walked out the same door he came in, telling the guard, “This is it, my man. I will never come back again.”
The teenager apologized to reporters for not conducting interviews after his release from Stewart. The first week was for family time, he said, and the second was for “self-care.”
It actually wasn’t until Acosta had some time away from Stewart that he said he realized he was detained all of those months “just for the sake of it.” But the only time he seemed visibly upset at Monday’s press conference was when discussing how his detainment interrupted his education, robbing him of his high school graduation. He was just three credits shy, he said, and couldn’t make up those credits in detention because ICE refused packages that contained his homework.
When asked where things stood with his education, Acosta shrugged. The press conference was held the same day that Riverside High School students were returning for the new academic year.
“In this moment, I’m not going to school,” Acosta said. The administrators “don’t want to let me in. I don’t know what to do.”
Moments later, in what came as a shock to Acosta and the Alerta Migratoria NC organizers behind the conference, Natalie Beyer, vice chair of Durham’s Board of Education, made an appearance at the press conference, sharing that the school district was allowing Acosta to return to Riverside on Tuesday.
Rewire reached out to Bert L’Homme, superintendent of Durham Public Schools, inquiring as to why Acosta was initially told he could not return to school and complete the credits needed to graduate. A spokesperson for the district only said that Wildin was eligible for the 22-credit diploma option for graduation, and that the school is working with his family “to decide the best way forward for him to complete his high school studies and pursue his post-graduate goals.”
ICE has not stated publicly whether it will continue targeting young asylum seekers; however, undocumented youth continue to receive deportation orders. At Monday’s press conference, a Durham high school teacher shared with Rewire that three of her students had received their deportation orders since school started. Their fate, she said, is unknown.
On Tuesday, Acosta was able to fulfill his dream of returning to Riverside High School to finish his senior year.