North Carolina Educators Fight Deportations of Central American Students

(Photo: Kaitlin McKeown/The Herald-Sun via AP)

Aaron Marin Lopez holds a sign with his family during a March 18 rally in Durham, North Carolina, in support of high school senior Wildin Acosta, who was arrested in January on his way to school.

Wildin David Guillen Acosta, a Durham, North Carolina, high school senior, was set to graduate from Riverside High School in June. Instead, he is being held at a federal detention center in Georgia. In late January, U.S. Immigration and Enforcement agents (ICE) apprehended the 19-year-old student as he was on his way to school. While languishing in the detention center, Acosta asked his teachers to send along his homework, so that if he gets released, he would still be on track for commencement. In late February, his teachers mailed him his assignments, but detention center officials refused to accept the package.

In January, the Obama administration authorized a series of raids to arrest, detain, and deport undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala over the past two years. About 15,500 Central American mothers and children have received deportation orders since July 2014, and ICE is now ramping up its enforcement of those orders. More than 330 young people have been arrested nationwide so far. Although students do not comprise all the youths being targeted, local educators have been galvanized by the arrests. Teachers say the raids have had a chilling effect on other students, too.

The ICE raids, which involve barging into homes and picking up individuals off the streets, are reminiscent of Bush administration–era immigration enforcement tactics. While immigration officials avoid making arrests in “sensitive locations” such as churches and schools, immigration advocates say this policy hasn’t stopped ICE agents from detaining undocumented students on their way to school.

ICE agents picked up Yefri Sorto, a 19-year-old Charlotte high school student on his way to a bus stop in late January. Sorto came to the United States from El Salvador in 2014 as an unaccompanied minor. He says he fled his country because he feared gang violence and was finally reunited with his parents, who had been living in the U.S. for more than a decade.

“These raids are impacting not just the individuals we know of who have been picked up; there is wide and deep fear across the community,” says Allison Swaim, a Durham high school teacher. “Kids are not coming to school because they're afraid, kids are dropping out because they don't want to be picked up, or maybe they still have a legal process pending, or they’re trying to file for asylum—everyone has their own story.”

The majority of Central Americans who crossed the U.S. border were apprehended, or turned themselves in, hoping to apply for some type of asylum. Immigration advocates say these individuals should be treated as refugees, not as criminals, given the extreme violence found in their home countries. A Guardian investigation found that since January 2014, 83 people who were deported to Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador were murdered, some just a few days after they returned.

Swaim has been working to organize teachers statewide around what she calls a humanitarian crisis across the South. In Atlanta, ICE agents pulled over 19-year-old Kimberly Pineda Chavez, while she was driving to school. Kimberly arrived in Georgia from Honduras in 2014 with her mother and sister after receiving a series of threats from local police.

Swaim hopes that teachers across the region will collect data and anecdotes about how students are being affected by raids in their communities. Durham teachers held a conference call with U.S. Department of Education officials to express their concerns. “We’re asking federal officials, including Education Secretary John King, to get involved because part of their mission is to provide an equal education for all students, and that includes immigrant students,” Swaim says. “These raids are directly in contradiction with the mission of the Department of Education.”

Rebecca Costa, a Charlotte ESL teacher, says that educators in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg district are also trying to duplicate the Durham organizing efforts in their community. Two of Costa’s students stopped coming to school after Yefri Sorto was arrested, and have since gone into hiding. “It all felt very isolating, but now we realize this is happening all over North Carolina and we have to reach out and unite,” she says.

Obama immigration officials stress that ICE is not targeting anyone under 18. But many high school upperclassmen who are completing their secondary education are 18 or older. “My two kids that have gone into hiding were 18 and 19, both juniors,” says Costa.

Mayra Arteaga, a 20-year-old living in Charlotte, has been involved in immigration advocacy since she was in middle school. Mayra has been raising awareness about the deportation raids by rallying students, testifying at school board meetings, and helping to organize protests, like a recent Charlotte march.

“I think once teachers started noticing what was going on, the ball really started rolling,” Arteaga says, noting that these raids have mobilized a much more diverse group of people than immigration advocates typically see at their events.

Advocates worry that the undocumented immigrants are not receiving fair legal treatment, and say that deportation orders have frightened many. Tin Than Nguyen, a Charlotte immigration lawyer, has been working to try and help undocumented families in the city understand their legal rights. “The recent rounds of raids have truly sent shockwaves through the community and everyone is shuddering in fear,” he says.

According to the U.S. Justice Department, of the roughly 10,000 deportation orders given to unaccompanied minors since July 2014, roughly 87 percent were issued in absentia; advocates say many immigrants never received sufficient notice of their scheduled court hearings.

Meanwhile, North Carolina activists have appealed to federal lawmakers to help stop the raids. Representative G.K. Butterfield, a North Carolina Democrat who represents Durham, has been pressuring ICE to delay Wildin’s deportation, so that he can apply for asylum.

“Wildin Acosta and other young people like him fled extreme violence and mayhem in Central America in search of refuge and a better life in the United States,” said Butterfield in a statement. “I believe that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) limited resources would be better utilized focusing on dangerous criminals who pose a threat to our communities rather than high school students and teenagers trying to make better lives for themselves.”

“[Wildin] is being labeled as some kind of internal threat to the security of the United States,” Bryan Proffitt, president of the Durham Association of Educators told WNCN, a CBS affiliate. “He’s a kid sitting in a detention cell hoping to get his homework, so that he can graduate on time.”

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