Students at Riverside High School in Durham, North Carolina, are gathering on Capitol Hill today to demand the release of their undocumented classmate, 19-year-old Wildin Acosta. Acosta was detained by immigration agents in January while he was on his way to class. He had no criminal record and was in his final semester of high school. Acosta’s family is from Olancho, Honduras, one of the most violent regions in a country with one of the highest murder rates in the world. Wildin was scheduled to be deported in March, but his teachers and peers gathered together, held vigils, lobbied their local representatives and took to social media. Wildin Acosta remains detained in Georgia’s notorious Stewart Detention Center. He is one of several teens in North Carolina sometimes referred to as the "NC6," who have been targeted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents as part of the Obama administration’s Operation Border Guardian. All this comes amid reports that ICE is launching a brand new month-long campaign of raids specifically aimed at rounding up and deporting undocumented Central American mothers and children. We’re joined from Washington, D.C., by Paromita Shah, the associate director of the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild, and Axel Herrera, a senior at Riverside High School in Durham, North Carolina, where Wildin Acosta was also a student.
AMY GOODMAN: Are immigration agents targeting undocumented students? That’s what students at Riverside High School in Durham, North Carolina, are asking as they gather on Capitol Hill today to demand the release of their undocumented classmate, 19-year-old Wildin Acosta. He was detained by immigration agents in January while he was on his way to class. He had no criminal record, was in his final semester of high school. His family is from Olancho, Honduras, one of the most violent regions in Honduras with one of the highest murder rates in the world. Wildin was scheduled to be deported in March, but his teachers and peers gathered together, held vigils, lobbied their local representatives and took to social media with hashtags like #FreeWildin and #EducationNotDeportation. This is one of his supporters, Riverside High School teacher Ellen Holmes.
ELLEN HOLMES: My name is Ellen Holmes, and I’m a teacher at Riverside High School. I have worked with Wildin David Acosta, who was detained by immigration on January 28th in a club I run, Destino Success. I just wanted to express how devastating it’s been to the staff and the families and the students here at Riverside High School to have Wildin detained. I also think that there is so much fear in our community, because, unfortunately, he is not the only child that they have detained. It’s creating absences and dropouts in our schools. It’s creating just a huge feeling of fear inside our school and in our community. And I’m asking that we stop taking children and we return them to their families.
AMY GOODMAN: Wildin Acosta remains detained in Georgia’s notorious Stewart Detention Center. His case is in the appeals process and has gained the attention of lawmakers like Democratic Congressmember G. K. Butterfield of North Carolina. But his supporters fear he could be deported any day. Wildin is one of several teens in North Carolina sometimes referred to as the "NC6," who has been targeted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, ICE agents, as part of the Obama administration’s so-called Operation Border Guardian.
For more, we go to D.C., where we’re joined by two guests. Axel Herrera is a senior at Riverside High School in Durham. Wildin Acosta was a student at the same school. And Paromita Shah, the associate director of the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Paromita Shah, let’s begin with you. We don’t have much time. But talk about what happened on the day that Wildin was picked up. Where was he? And then, what are the grounds for him being imprisoned from January right through now? We’re talking, what? Five months? For five months?
PAROMITA SHAH: Yes. The story begins a couple of years ago, when Wildin came into the country as a minor. He was fleeing persecution and state violence from Honduras, and he came into the United States. He was detained by Customs and Border Patrol, and eventually he finally made his way to his mother and his family in North Carolina, where he explored how he could apply for asylum. But, you know, in North Carolina and Georgia, these cases are extremely difficult to make. Judges have a terribly low grant rate, something beyond anything else in the country: 1 percent. And he just didn’t do that asylum case, and he took an order of deportation. After that, ICE agents—we’re going to go six months later—showed up in a predawn raid at his house while he was on his way to school. And they arrested him in front of his mother, threw him to the ground, and took him to Stewart immigration detention center, where he has been there for the last—over 90 days now.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Wildin Acosta’s mom, Dilcia Acosta. She spoke to WTVD-TV last month.
DILCIA ACOSTA: [translated] I love him. He’s my life, my heart. And I miss him. It’s like they’ve taken my heart away.
AMY GOODMAN: Axel Herrera, you’re a senior at Riverside High School, but we’re talking to you not in Durham, where you go to high school, but in D.C. Why are you in the nation’s capital?
AXEL HERRERA: Well, the importance of this issue has grown tremendously, not just in Riverside, but other schools in our community, in Durham. And we’ve talked to representatives. We’ve made calls. We’ve sent letters. We’ve gotten support from a few of our congressmen in North Carolina to ask for their release. But we haven’t had the response we’ve wanted, which is, you know, to have Wildin and have some of the other NC6 back at our schools. And this is what we’re bringing. We’re asking—coming here to talk to representatives, talk to congressmen, about this issue and have their release. That’s our ultimate goal to be here.
AMY GOODMAN: Is Wildin’s situation in any way similar to your own, Axel? Where were you born?
AXEL HERRERA: Somewhat. I was—I came here a lot younger. I was seven. I came in 2005. I am also from Honduras, and many of my family that’s in Honduras has experienced various similar situations that Wildin has. And the only difference I could say from maybe me being in the place of Wildin is that I was able to receive deferred action, DACA, and that status gives me a legal opportunity to stay here. But without that, I could potentially be in the same position as him, in a process of deportation.
AMY GOODMAN: Last month, ICE, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Director Sarah Saldaña defended Operation Border Guardian when testifying on Capitol Hill. This is Democratic Congressman Gerry Connolly of Virginia questioning Saldaña.
REP. GERRY CONNOLLY: So a student on the way to school—Supreme Court’s ruled that irrespective of status, if you’re a student, you show up, you’re entitled to a public education. Correct?
SARAH SALDAÑA: I’m not sure. I take your word for it. I don’t—
REP. GERRY CONNOLLY: Well, that’s a matter of case law.
SARAH SALDAÑA: Yes. Whatever it is, I—
REP. GERRY CONNOLLY: You were a U.S. attorney. I mean, that was a Supreme Court ruling.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that was a hearing for the ICE head, Saldaña. If you would respond to, Paromita Shah, to talk about this Operation [Border] Guardian. The New York Times has a very strong editorial talking about the story of deporting people to—recent migrants, to El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, saying, "Though their numbers are relatively small, the way they are being treated poses a critical moral test for the administration—a test it is failing." These three countries "among the most violent corners of our hemisphere."
PAROMITA SHAH: Yeah, I think the administration has ignored—has elected to pursue this policy of deterrence, where they think that engaging in brutal, aggressive tactics against communities, rounding people up for deportation, people who they call priorities, under this administration, is the way they think that we should be dealing with people fleeing persecution.
AMY GOODMAN: And Operation Border Guardian?
PAROMITA SHAH: And Operation Border Guardian is exactly that. Operation Border Guardian began on January 23rd, and it was—it was a targeted operation, supposedly—that’s what DHS says—that was levied against people who came from those countries as minors and then turned 18 years old or 19 years old in the United States. That was the focus of Operation Border Guardian. It didn’t take into account whether people had tried to apply for asylum. It doesn’t take into account where people had good, competent counsel. It doesn’t take into account what people were actually fleeing. It really is just simply a deportation program that is focused on these—on these kids.
AMY GOODMAN: Is there any hope of Wildin Acosta getting out—in this last 15 seconds that we have—getting out of jail, where he’s been held for a number of months now? Or is he—what is the chances that he won’t be deported?
PAROMITA SHAH: Yeah, you know, we have been asking for his release for a long time. He should be released. I mean, 90 days, by any standard, is an egregious period of time to be spending in detention. And we don’t know. And that’s why we’re here. We are pressuring groups, along—you know, the students, the teachers, the activists in North Carolina have been waging that.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us, Paromita Shah, associate director of the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild. And thank you so much to Axel Herrera, senior at Riverside High School in Durham, North Carolina, where Wildin Acosta went to school until he was taken by ICE authorities.
That does it for our show. I’ll be speaking at the Brooklyn Historical Society on Pierrepont Street tonight at 6:30.