Educators save one student from gang violence and deportation, lose another – and vow to keep fighting

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By Sabrina Holcomb

Educators who have been racing against the clock to save two more North Carolina students from imminent deportation are contemplating a bittersweet victory today. Yosselin Herrera-Palacios was released yesterday from Irwin Detention Center after furious lobbying by educators and other allies nationwide. A second student, Ingrid Portillo, was not so fortunate: despite last minute appeals, she was put on a flight to El Salvador today.

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Both Yosselin and Ingrid, high school students living in North Carolina, fled to the United States from El Salvador seeking asylum from gang violence and sexual assault.

The two teenagers were caught up in the latest wave of ICE raids—students seized by immigration agents at home and on their way to school—a practice activists fear is being carried out more aggressively in Southern cities.

Supporters who have been fighting for Yosselin’s and Ingrid’s release went into a flurry of activity in the last 48 hours to block their return to El Salvador this week. Working in concert with the girls’ families and community allies, NEA educators, leaders, and staff sounded the alarm and made 11th hour calls to officials.

Anxious educators said their greatest fear was that Yosselin and Ingrid would be executed or tortured by the gangs that had threatened them if they were sent back to Central America.

“I could not live with the thought of not fighting for my student to stay where she is safe,” said Yosselin’s art teacher at Jordan Matthews High School.

When they heard their students had been taken into custody, worried Siler City educators reached out to Durham educators whose activism helped free Wildin Acosta and Yefri Sorto-Hernandez, two other North Carolina students who had been detained by ICE on their way to school.

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Siler City teacher

With the support of North Carolina congressman G.K. Butterfield, they mobilized their colleagues and school community to engage legislators and put pressure on Department of Homeland Security officials. Yosselin’s teachers wrote letters to government officials and decision makers attesting to her studiousness, character, and leadership qualities. “Why does this happen to kids who are trying to do what’s right and better their lives?” wrote one teacher.

It’s a question echoed by frustrated educators and community members, who say that ICE raids targeting students are a misguided tactic to address the issue of Central American youth seeking refuge in this country. They point out that young women like Yosselin and Ingrid often bring unique trauma when they seek refuge from violence in Central America, only to be traumatized again by a lengthy detention and threat of deportation.

Educators say that DHS’ failure to follow their own Sensitive Locations Memorandum—which designates safe spaces for students on their way to school or in a school setting—is deeply troubling and indicates a larger policy failure to properly monitor and investigate ICE misconduct, particularly at school bus stops.

Meanwhile educators who are trying to process the roller coaster emotions triggered by the heartbreaking contrast in outcomes for Yosselin and Ingrid vow to continue the fight for the release of other students in detention. If these students are allowed to finish their education, says one of Yosselin’s teachers, “their contribution to this country will be great.”

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