The planned deportation of Wildin Guillen Acosta, a Riverside High School student, was put on hold Sunday to give attorneys a brief window to appeal an immigration judge’s decision from late Friday.
Acosta, a 19-year-old native of Honduras, was in a detention center in Georgia when the announcement was made. Though his friends and advocates in Durham were pleased with the news, they promised to keep rallying until Acosta is freed.
U.S. Congressman G.K. Butterfield, a Democrat from Wilson whose district includes Durham, said on Sunday that he and California congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security, worked through Saturday night to persuade Sarah Saldana, the director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, to intervene in the case.
Acosta’s arrest on Jan. 28 by ICE agents who picked him up on his way to school has highlighted the difficulties children have navigating the justice system after fleeing the violence that grips some Central American countries.
Acosta was stopped at the Texas border by federal agents in 2014 after fleeing his native Honduras. He attended a court hearing on Dec. 17, 2014, but failed to show up for one in March 2015. On March 30, 2015, a deportation order was issued, but Acosta’s case for asylum was never heard on its merits.
Evelyn Smallwood, a Durham attorney, hopes to change that.
In the weeks since Acosta’s detention, there have been protests and rallies in Durham. The Durham school board has condemned the ICE raids, and the county’s Human Relations Commission has asked immigration officials to stop deporting young people who feared for their lives if they were to return to countries they fled.
On Friday, before a federal judge rejected a last-minute request to stop the deportation of Acosta, students at Riverside High School set up tables outside the cafeteria urging others to call Butterfield.
They encouraged each other to take pictures of themselves holding signs supporting Acosta and to wear white strips of fabric around their wrists to show their solidarity.
They held a vigil at a church across the street from Butterfield’s Durham office Friday and hoisted signs that read “Education not Deportation,” “Deport ME Instead,” and “Free Wildin.”
“Children should be able to go to school without fear of being arrested and deported back to a country where their lives are in danger,” said Lorisa Seibel, an advocate with the People’s Alliance.
In a news release issued Sunday, Butterfield praised immigration officials for intervening in Acosta’s case.
“It will unquestionably result in the protection of Wildin Acosta from further violence in his native country of Honduras,” Butterfield said. “It is my hope that he will be eventually granted asylum in the United States.”
Elisa Benitez and Allison Swaim, who have helped organize community rallies, planned to continue with a late-afternoon Sunday rally that had been scheduled to coincide with Acosta’s deportation.
“We cannot call victory until Wildin is free from his jail cell in Georgia and returned to North Carolina and Riverside High School,” the release stated. “No child deserves to be jailed thousands of miles away from his family, friends, and school. Until Wildin is released, we have no guarantee that he will not be put on a deportation plane back to Honduras at the whim of ICE.”
Though many teens in this country illegally have qualified for an Obama administration program that offers a reprieve from deportation, they had to be in this country continuously since 2007 and younger than 16 when arriving in the United States.
Acosta’s father, an electrician, moved to Durham about 10 years ago, and his wife, Dilsia, who now works as a laundress, followed four years ago. Dilsia Acosta said the family left Olancho, the largest state in Honduras, to escape violence and “delinquency.”
Acosta was 17 when he came to the United States in 2014, an age that many immigration attorneys say is too young to navigate the complexities of the immigration courts.
About 10,000 unaccompanied children have been ordered out of the country since July 2014, but roughly 87 percent of those orders were issued in absentia, as Acosta’s was, federal Justice Department figures show.
In February, Tom Homan, the ICE chief of enforcement and removal operations, told lawmakers that he had 129 teams across the country chasing thousands of leads on children subject to final deportation orders issued by the courts.
Smallwood, the immigration attorney representing Acosta, said she talked Sunday with ICE officials, who told her they would take no further action against the teen through Monday. But without the aid of the courts, the reprieve might not extend beyond two days.
Smallwood plans to seek an emergency stay of the federal judge’s order on Monday to further block the deportation process until after the Board of Immigration Appeals considers a request to reopen his case.
Smallwood plans to push further for the release on Acosta while the appeal pends. She said she ultimately hopes for a full hearing on whether Acosta qualifies for asylum.
“We think his case should be heard on its merits,” Smallwood said.