After a 19-year-old Honduran migrant at Riverside High School was captured by immigration agents, attendance reportedly dropped by one-third in several of the school's classes.
It was 6:30 AM when Wildin David Guillen-Acosta stepped outside his house in Durham, North Carolina, headed to school. The 19-year-old had just begun his second semester of senior year at Riverside High School, where teachers considered him an exemplary student and peers called him a leader. But that morning, Acosta never even made it down the street—two immigration agents waited in the driveway and commanded he get in their vehicle.
"The agents picked my son up in the driveway and asked him questions, and they didn't identify themselves until they got him in the car," Acosta's mother Dilsia Acosta told me in Spanish, recalling the incident on January 28. "He just wanted to go to school. He loved it there. He wanted to keep studying, to go to the university and become an engineer."
Acosta, a Honduran native who fled gang violence for the US at age 16, is among dozens of Central American youths around the nation who have recently been targeted for deportation on their way to class, to work, or to the store.
The arrests are part of the Department of Homeland Security's large-scale crackdown on Central American migrants, in reaction to a record number of women and children from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador crossing the border. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials conducted highly publicized raids on families in early January, and on Tuesday, Thomas Homan, the executive associate director of enforcement and removal operations for ICE, announced that the agency had created dozens of teams to continue apprehending and deporting Central Americans.
"Consistent with our laws and values, recent border crossers, including those apprehended as unaccompanied children, who are unable to establish they are eligible for relief and have exhausted appeals have been, and will continue to be, ICE removal priorities," Homan testified at a Senate Judiciary hearing on Tuesday.
But as ICE boasts about its strict enforcement tactics, it declines to acknowledge the jarring impact these raids have on US soil: Many students have simply stopped going to school.
Attendance dropped by one-third in several classes at Riverside High School the day after Acosta's arrest, according to Bryan Proffitt, the president of the Durham Educators Association. Since then, he told me attendance both at Riverside and neighboring schools has remained "inconsistent."
"Not only have they lost a student who is perceived by his peers to be a leader and who is really active in the school community, but also there's a ripple effect at their school and at schools around the county," Proffitt said. "There's truth to the argument that even kids who aren't victimized by these raids are pretty traumatized."
It's not just in Acosta's school district: In the Washington, DC area, school attendance has also dropped in fear of raids and school principals are grappling with how to protect their immigrant populations. Community groups in Maryland's Montgomery County and Prince George's County gathered in January, distraught over the raids.
"Kids have been afraid to come to school and parents have called saying, 'Is it safe for my kid to go to school?'" said Amy Fischer, the policy director for the non-profit RAICES (the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services), who attended the meeting. "School officials don't feel comfortable saying it's going to be OK. They have a lot of questions, like, 'Where will ICE pick someone up, and what is off-limits for ICE?'"
US immigration policy prevents the agency from arresting individuals in "sensitive locations," including schools and churches, but Fischer said "there are still a lot of questions about what ICE's actual boundaries are."
ICE agents' behavior when arresting the youths has also caused concern. In North Carolina, ICE has arrested at least seven other unaccompanied minors—youths who entered the country alone—since January for deportation, using rough and deceptive tactics, according to local activist Viridiana Martinez.
"If you hear each story of the way these kids were picked up, it's totally unnecessary, the tactics ICE used," said Martinez, who helped start the group Alerta Migratoria North Carolina, a forum for migrants rattled by the raids. "We started a hotline, so we got calls from eight or nine families of unaccompanied minors who had been targeted."
Martinez said ICE officials arrested El Salvadorian teen Jeffrey Sorto on his way to school while he waited at a bus stop in the morning. She also said an agent punched Guatemalan youth Bilmer Araeli Pujoy Juarez while handcuffing him.
"Bilmer was in the car with his dad, and they'd just left the driveway when they were intercepted by an ICE van. The agents were unidentified with no clothing showing they were ICE," Martinez said. "They got him out and handcuffed him and grabbed his neck and held it tight, and then a female agent punched him on the lip."
ICE agents also entered the home of Alexander Josue Soriano Cortez without a warrant and handcuffed everyone in his family, Martinez said.
All of the individuals apprehended in North Carolina are now being held in Stewart Detention Center in Georgia where they await their deportation, according to Martinez. But Riverside High School and the local community have formed a petition to stop their removal and to return them to their homes.
"We circulated a petition directed at the Department of Homeland Security that these students are not threats and should be released," Proffitt said. "We got our local school board to pass a resolution denouncing the detention and asking they not be deported and that these activities cease in the community."
ICE spokesman Bryan Cox did not immediately provide responses to the cases of Sorto, Juarez, or Cortez, nor would he provide details about Acosta's case. But he claimed that ICE has never "arrested anyone at a bus stop." Cox said Acosta was a top priority for enforcement since he had arrived in the country since 2014.
"Wildin David Guillen-Acosta, a 19-year-old Honduran national, was taken into US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody January 28 in the parking lot of his residence. Mr. Guillen-Acosta falls within an ICE priority category due to a final order of removal issued by an immigration judge in March 2015," Cox said in an emailed statement.
"ICE focuses its enforcement resources on individuals who pose a threat to national security, public safety, and border security," he continued. "This includes individuals, whether alone or with family members, who have been apprehended while attempting to unlawfully enter the United States, recent border crossers, and individuals who have received a final order of removal on or after January 1, 2014."
But immigration experts say ICE is ignoring a critical fact: These are refugees, not migrants here for a free ride. The youths and families have fled three of the most violent countries in the world, and many have been targets of gang violence but lack access to legal counsel to win their asylum cases.
"We know the asylum system here in the United States is extremely complicated, so despite the fact that the government says these people have exhausted their legal options, the vast majority of these folks don't have access to resources to have a fair day in court," Fischer said. "We're essentially deporting people back to their deaths."
While in detention, teachers have mailed homework to Acosta so he can keep up with his studies. If he's deported, his mother fears he simply won't survive back in Honduras.
"He came here because he was threatened by the gangs. They said they'd kill him and hurt his family if he didn't join," she said. "Imagine how sad I feel. He's a piece of my heart. He's my son."
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