Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson Takes High-School Detention to a New Level

Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson. (Gage Skidmore / Flickr)(CC-BY-SA) Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson. (Photo: Gage Skidmore / Flickr/CC-BY-SA)

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson Takes High-School Detention to a New Level

Thursday, Jan. 28, was a cold morning in Durham, North Carolina. Wildin David Guillen Acosta went outside to head to school, but never made it. He was thrown to the ground and arrested by agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). He has been in detention ever since. Wildin, now 19 years old, fled his home in Olancho, Honduras more than two years ago. He was detained when crossing the border, but, as he was a minor at the time, he was allowed to join his family in North Carolina. He started out at Riverside High School, and was set to graduate this June. He wanted to become an engineer. Instead, he has been locked up in the notorious Stewart Detention Center in rural Lumpkin, Georgia, which is run by the for-profit Corrections Corporation of America.

Wildin is just one of hundreds of thousands of children who have fled the violence of Central America in recent years, either alone or, often, with their mothers. They come primarily from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Honduras is now one of the world's most violent countries, and Olancho has one of the highest murder rates there, causing many to flee. The U.S. Army and the Drug Enforcement Administration both have special-forces units permanently stationed there, joining in counternarcotics operations that have also killed Hondurans.

Wildin was arrested in part of a series of immigration raids, dubbed "Operation Border Guardian." Many believe its intent was to create fear among those still in Central America who might consider taking the perilous journey north to the U.S. "As I have said repeatedly, our borders are not open to illegal migration," Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson said at the time. "If you come here illegally, we will send you back consistent with our laws and values." Immediately after Wildin's arrest, family, friends, classmates and teachers at Riverside High demonstrated their values, rallying to support him and five others who were similarly arrested. The group of imprisoned youth is often referred to as the "NC6." Durham's Human Relations Commission appealed to ICE to release him, as did the Durham City Council.

"There is so much fear in our community, because, unfortunately, he is not the only child that they have detained," said one of Wildin's teachers, Ellen Holmes, in a support video. "It's creating absences and dropouts in our schools. It's creating just a huge feeling of fear inside our school and in our community." While there is scant evidence that the mass arrests and deportations have slowed the flow of Central American refugees to the U.S., they have certainly scared students and families currently here, forcing them to keep their kids out of school lest they be swept up like Wildin.

Wildin's request for asylum was denied, and on March 19, an immigration judge denied his appeal to reopen his case. He was set for deportation back to Honduras on March 20. However, bowing to the enormous public pressure brought by this youth-led grass-roots organizing, ICE Director Sarah Saldana issued an order that morning, delaying his deportation. Wildin's case for asylum is before the Board of Immigration Appeals, a process that could take months or even years to resolve.

"He should be released. Ninety days, by any standard, is an egregious period of time to be spending in detention," Paromita Shah told us on the "Democracy Now!" news hour. She is the associate director of the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild, and was in Washington, D.C., with several Riverside High students and teacher Ellen Holmes, visiting members of Congress and Education Secretary John B. King Jr., asking them to support Wildin.

Axel Herrera was one of the students who went to Washington. Like Wildin, he was an undocumented immigrant from Honduras, but entered at the age of 7, and thus qualified for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. "We've talked to representatives. We've made calls. We've sent letters. We've gotten support from a few of our congressmen in North Carolina to ask for their release," he told us. "But we haven't had the response we've wanted, which is to have Wildin and have some of the other NC6 back at our schools."

Wildin Acosta remains locked up in ICE's private prison in Georgia. His request that his schoolwork be sent to him was initially denied. After public outcry, the warden relented. Many high-school students get detention for refusing to study. Wildin is stuck in permanent detention, and he has to fight for his right to study. That is determination and commitment Jeh Johnson and everyone at ICE should agree is "consistent with our values."

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