by Sabrina Holcomb
When high school student Wildin Acosta left the house to warm up his car on a cold winter day a few weeks ago, he didn’t know he’d never reach school that morning. Instead, Acosta was seized by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents from his front yard as his family looked on in horror.
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Acosta hasn’t been back to school since. He and five other North Carolina students are being held in a Georgia detention center, awaiting deportation back to the violence they fled in Central America.
Acosta was set to graduate from school in May and wanted to be an engineer. Rather than the diploma he dreamed of, he now faces deportation, which amounts to a death sentence says his family. The studious teen sought refuge in the United States because he had been issued an ultimatum by an Honduras gang—join or die.
Acosta was arrested after an immigration judge ordered his removal from the country when he didn’t show up for his latest hearing. At a previous hearing, his lawyer told him that he had little chance of being granted asylum, scaring Acosta into not showing up for his next court date.
The devastating impact of the latest ICE raids on students across the country has educators and immigration rights activists questioning the revision in the Department of Justice’s deportation priorities.
Before the recent crackdown on families and unaccompanied children crossing the border, deportation efforts focused on violent criminals, convicted felons, and people with significant misdemeanors—not students like Acosta with good standing in the community.
“Many of us aren’t prepared with what to tell our students,” says Riverside High School teacher Mika Hunter Twietmeyer, who calls Acosta a model student peers and classmates look up to. “We thought coming to school was a safe thing to do.”
Acosta’s ordeal has sent waves of fear throughout the Durham school district. Attendance at Riverside High, where Acosta is the second student to be detained, has dropped 20 percent. And tearful parents are scared to register their children for school because they’re frightened about giving out a home address.
One school bus driver in another district reported that a student was picked up by ICE while waiting at the school bus stop.
“A lot of students aren’t coming to school because they’re afraid to leave the house,” says Ellen Holmes, a Riverside teacher who knows Acosta well. “When they are at school, they’re distracted, anxious, and sad. It’s hard to calm them down and reassure them when they don’t know who might disappear next.”
Educators at Acosta’s school made videos describing the impact his capture has had on the school, and sixth grade honors students in an English Language Learners class elected to write letters to the White House asking for Acosta’s release as part of a class unit on persuasive writing.
After the Durham Association of Educators wrote a letter to the school board asking them to take action, board members, worried about the “staggering impact the current situation is having on schoolchildren,” passed a unanimous resolution opposing the deportation of Durham students.
The local Association is also preparing a fact sheet about the mental health trauma students are experiencing, with the long-term goal of helping educators support their students. And they’re asking educators nationwide to share their stories with the White House testifying to the upheaval the raids are causing in school communities.
Meanwhile, Acosta, still determined to graduate, touched everyone when he sent word to his teachers asking them to please send his homework to the detention center. Last week, educators, family members, and advocates gathered in solidarity, walking together to the post office to mail Acosta a package with his school work and letters of support.
During the walk, Riverside teacher Ellen Holmes spoke to Acosta on the phone. “He wanted to know how soon his package will get there. He’s having a hard time, but I told him we’re fighting for him and will always be here for him—no matter what.”