by Félix Pérez; image by Rick Reinhard
At a time when their classmates are hunkering down and grinding out the last days of the school year, Pamela, Salma, Axel, Morgan and Laura drove with their teacher in a van from Durham, NC, to Washington, D.C., to speak truth to power on behalf of their classmates who are being indefinitely incarcerated in a federal detention center.
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The group met yesterday with U.S. Secretary of Education John King, members of Congress, and representatives from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Three of them, unfazed by the spotlight and trappings of power, also shared their perspectives at a standing-room-only congressional briefing.
“I want elected officials to know that this is not just an immigration problem. It’s an education problem,” said Pamela González, a senior at Riverside High School. González is a classmate of Wildin Acosta, 19, who has been incarcerated since late January in the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, GA, with almost 2,000 men and five other immigrant students known as the “NC6.” Acosta was arrested outside his home as he prepared to go to school the morning of January 28. His family watched as he was taken away, frozen in terror.
Acosta’s offense? He came here two years ago, fleeing gang violence and death threats in Honduras and reuniting with his family. By all accounts, Acosta is a model student studying to be an engineer. He has been incarcerated 120 days, with no access to school materials and no court date. Acosta was on course to graduate June 8.
Acosta’s arrest has affected his fellow students, 30 percent of whom are Hispanic. At the congressional briefing, Morgan Whithaus, a Riverside senior who aspires to be a teacher, said:
I’ve seen students break down in tears in class. They’re afraid that their families, their friends won’t be home when they get there. I have seen anxiety and fear take over the lives of my friends and other students as they constantly fear about the future. Students fear that they will be picked up on the way to school the same way that Wildin was, and I see daily how Riverside is being torn apart by the terror that has been surfacing in our community.
Congressman G.K. Butterfield, whose district includes Durham, as well as Reps. Zoe Lofgren of California and Luis Gutiérrez of Illinois, commended the students and teacher at the briefing. “America would be better served if these raids targeted criminals, rather than young people who want to get an education and be safe,” said Butterfield, who has gone to Riverside to meet with staff and students. Butterfield and U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop of Georgia will visit Acosta tomorrow at the Stewart Detention Center. “I want to encourage him to stay strong and steadfast and to let him know he’s not alone in this fight.”
Spanish teacher Ellen Holmes, who accompanied the students to Washington, D.C., said school attendance dropped 20 percent in the days after Acosta’s arrest. “Multiple students come to me with questions multiple times a day. I assure them as best I can, and I tell them we still need to help, we still need to push to get these students released.” Holmes said attendance has picked back up, but she fears it will fall again in light of an announcement this month by the federal government that it is ramping up community raids. “We heard that a female high school student was picked up last week. And a mother and her daughter were taken away recently.”
Axel Herrera, a Riverside senior, asked Education Secretary King the question that most occupies his classmates and his community. “Why our students? Why our schools?” The lanky teen added, “It’s completely wrong to create such fear. Students are afraid to go to the school bus stop because they’re afraid they’re going to be taken away.”
Herrera, Whithaus and other students have been instrumental in drawing attention to the plight of the incarcerated student immigrants, helping to win a delay of deportation for Acosta. The students began a GoFundMe page to pay for their travel, food and lodging.
Salma Villareal, a Charlotte, NC, high school student whose classmate, Pedro Salmerón, is also incarcerated at Stewart, said she had grown used to the federal raids in her community. “But this time it’s different; they’re coming after our youth,” she said of the tactics of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. “They hide in the corners in their unmarked cars, terrorizing our community. Kids are literally being stalked”
At the end of a long day of advocacy, Holmes hesitated when asked what she will tell her students when she returns. “I don’t know. We’ll have to strategize about that on the drive back. But what I do know is that I am proud and appreciative of these students. They’ve held rallies, fundraising drives, social media campaigns, met with the secretary of education and gotten the support of members of Congress.”
The news show Democracy Now filed the story below about the arrest and incarceration of immigrant student Wildin Acosta.