Dear President Obama,
I prepared in the usual way for my first summer road trip of 2016. I packed snacks, a few CDs, my current knitting project and checked out the route. Then I re-read the dress code requirements and made sure I had the required government identification, because this was not a normal road trip.
I began my summer with an eight-hour drive to Lumpkin, Georgia, to visit Wildin Acosta, my former biology student who has been in Stewart Detention center, a privately run, medium-security detention center for “illegal” immigrants, for more than six months. I did not know for sure I would even get to see him during his weekly, one-hour visitation period. Nor did I know whether I would be allowed to sit in on the bond hearing for one of the other detained students.
I wasn’t really sure what to expect. But I knew I needed to go.
My car was one of four leaving from Durham, Charlotte and Atlanta. We planned on supporting Yefri Sorto-Hernandez (a student from Charlotte apprehended while waiting for his school bus) during his bond hearing and visiting other detained students from North Carolina, including Wildin.
Lumpkin is a tiny town of about 1,400 people. Stewart Detention Center is a giant building behind multiple layers of razor wire. We arrived at 7 a.m. right as the U.S. flag was rising up the flagpole. Inside was my student – our students. Some 1,400 individuals, all awaiting a determination about their immigration status.
By the time the courtroom opened, the visitors from afar, 30 of us at this point, were causing a problem. It was clear that the presence of supporters and family members was not a normal occurrence. We couldn’t all fit into the courtroom. There were 13 bond hearings that morning and only four detainees had legal representation. Students like Wildin, seeking refuge from dangerous conditions in their home countries, are treated as criminals.
After about 15 minutes Yefri’s family, all seven of them, filed out of the courtroom with tears streaming down their faces. His mother fell to the floor on her knees weeping. Yefri had been released on a $30,000 bond. Yefri’s lawyer said having supporters in the room had made a difference to the judge.
But I wasn’t at Stewart only for Yefri. I was there for Wildin.
Wildin’s mother, Dilsia; Julie, an ESL teacher at my school; and I filled out the paperwork and handed over our identification. This would only be Dilsia’s second visit to see her son. The visitation room was lined with plastic chairs. Cinder block partitions separated desks and phones. Thick glass windows separated the visitors from the inmates. I noted the time on my watch since there were no clocks and our hour had already started.
And then it happened. Wildin entered the room behind the glass. His face lit up when he saw his mother and two biology teachers, eight hours from Durham, ready to spend one hour with him.
His mother quickly went to the phone to talk to him, tears streaming down both faces.
Other detained students entered the room and looked around with an amazement that filled me with happiness, yet at the same time broke my heart. The visitors immediately took to the phones and started talking. Did they know the students? No. Did it matter? Not at all. Visitors translated for each other. One detained student let us know that he had received our letters and couldn’t believe that anyone had actually made the trip to visit him.
Julie and I watched Wildin’s mother recite prayers and sing hymns. When it was my turn I couldn’t help but cry. Wildin told me about his time in solitary confinement and how he feels unclean because he has to share a room with several men. He knew that his classmates had visited Washington, D.C., on his behalf and that he was a major news story. He told me he doesn’t want to speak to the news reporters when they call because he wants to save his phone time for conversations with his mother. We reminisced about our class trips to the Eno River and the end of year barbecue. He looked at me and said things were not good. And I knew he was sugar coating the truth.
I have purposely resisted researching Stewart Detention Center. But I admit that I slipped up and read articles. Inmate protests. Limited time outside of cells. Crowded sleeping conditions. Excessively long detainments. Unlikely chances of release on bond.
Inside this box sit teenagers whose only “crime” was to escape violence in their homelands. Immigration officials insist that they are only detaining immigrants that are threats to our nation. Immigration may be a complicated political issue, but it seems simple when I talk to Wildin, my student, a young person who has been waiting in a prison for more than six months and wants only to be back with his family, friends and classmates.
Why did I make this trip? Because Wildin is my student. Despite everything, he still hopes to finish his final semester of high school. It is my job as his teacher to provide him the education he deserves and has started. It is my job to give Wildin hope and to see him through to the end.
President Obama, you speak of the greatness of this nation and the hope that its opportunities provide for people from all over the world. Knowing Wildin’s story, and Yefri’s story, and all the other stories, it is hard to believe in your hope.
Wildin is not a criminal. Wildin is a young person that believed in the opportunities of which you spoke. You, Mr. President, have the power to return him to his home and school. All we ask is that you listen, and act.
Editor’s note: Wildin Acosta was a senior at Riverside when ICE officials arrested him on Jan. 28. The federal Board of Immigration Appeals agreed to reopen his case Tuesday, July 19.
Mika Hunter Twietmeyer has taught science at Riverside High School for eight years. She is National Board Certified, serves as a mentor for student teachers and new teachers, is a university instructor for pre-service teachers, and is a member of the Durham Association of Educators.