Earlier this week, on June 8, purple-gowned seniors at Riverside High School in Durham, North Carolina, lined up to accept their diplomas as their families looked on with pride. But 19-year-old Wildin David Guillen Acosta wasn’t among them.
Acosta wasn’t absent because he didn’t care enough, or because he didn’t make the cut. Acosta missed graduation because he has been locked up in a Georgia jail since January, when Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrested him on his way to school. (In fact, Acosta cares about school so much that, even while in prison, he asked his teachers to send him his homework assignments. The detention center denied the request.) In an April letter to lawmakers, reproduced in part below, Acosta writes in Spanish:
I want to complete my dreams of graduating from school, so that my parents will feel proud of me, so that my parents can hear my name [be called] and the director of my school can give me my diploma and tell my parents, here is your son that I am proud of. … I am asking you from the bottom of my heart, please free me.
It’s not a legal mistake or a crack in the system that has put Acosta and five other youths from North Carolina who came to America as unaccompanied minors into detention; it’s a policy decision—one that activists and community members argue is categorically unfair.
Acosta is among 336 individuals ICE has rounded up since January in ongoing raids as a part of the Department of Homeland Security’s Operation Border Guardian. In a March statement, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson explained the targets for these operations:
The focus of this operation are those who came here illegally as unaccompanied children after January 1, 2014, and are now over 18, have been ordered removed by an immigration court, and have no pending appeal or claim of asylum or other relief. Others who are priorities for removal have been apprehended as part of this operation. When enforcing the immigration laws, our personnel will not, except in emergency circumstances, apprehend an individual at a place of worship, a school, a hospital or doctor’s office or other sensitive location.
From the minute they entered the U.S., these Central American youth were pushed through a pipeline designed flush them back out of the country. “The whole system is set up to ensure that these youths fail and inevitably get a deportation order,” Julie Mao, an enforcement fellow at the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild, told CityLab.