When Wildin David Guillen Acosta left his apartment to head to high school one chilly morning in January, two immigration agents were waiting.
Acosta, 19, immediately threw himself on the ground and yelled for help. As his father watched from the window of their garden apartment in a scruffy southeast Durham neighborhood, he was handcuffed and taken to jail. Now he’s trying to avoid deportation to his native Honduras, where, he said, he’s afraid he might be killed by gangs.
“These people are crazy,” he said in a phone interview this week from Stewart Detention Center in Georgia. “One of them killed my uncle. That’s why I don’t want to go back to my country. I want to stay with my mother and my father; all my family is here in the U.S.”
Acosta was one of 336 young people snared in raids this year, an attempt by U.S. immigration officials to send a message of deterrence to Central America and avoid a repeat of the 2014 crisis when tens of thousands of children from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala arrived at the U.S. border.
But this small operation, which also netted 121 family members, touched off a giant uproar, spawning fierce protests from the administration’s allies on immigration and a new wave of fear in immigrant neighborhoods here and across the country.
The arrests also became an issue in the Democratic presidential primary debate in Miami on Wednesday. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders sparred over who has better defended immigrants, but ultimately agreed they did not support the recent arrests. “Children fled that part of the world to try … maybe, to meet up with their family members, taking a route that was horrific, trying to start a new life,” Sanders said, adding that President Obama is “wrong on the issue of deportation.”
Here in Durham, in a muddy yard across from a Catholic school, Latino parents and kids gathered one recent Sunday to buy pupusas and tortillas cooked on outdoor griddles, in a monthly benefit for a man who needs a lung transplant, and discussed their new fears of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“When ICE comes to your neighborhood … it’s not just terrible for the kids but for the whole community,” said Ivan Almonte, who’s worked as an immigration advocate here for 15 years. “As you can see here, it’s a family. We come together for things like this.”
Since the arrests, residents say, false rumors about ICE sweeps have swept through the city: Agents are at Wal-Mart, coming to schools, spotted lurking in apartment parking lots. At Riverside High School, where Wildin Acosta was a senior, teachers noticed many empty desks right after the raids, as students here illegally stayed home.
“People, when they visit us, we say you have to call us before you come,” said Luz Romero, 17, a friend of Acosta’s. She and her parents are in the country illegally, though the teenager is one of the young “Dreamers” who have received temporary protection from deportation.
“Now we live in fear of opening the door, or stepping one foot outside the door,” she said.
For many, scenes of agents arresting mothers and grabbing young adults on their way to school marked a grim return to a tougher era of immigration enforcement.
In West Mecklenburg, N.C., Yefry Sorto, 18, also was arrested after he left for school, spurring outraged protests when his family claimed he was grabbed at a bus stop. An ICE spokesman said Sorto was picked up before he reached the stop.
In Atlanta, Kimberly Pineda Chavez, 19, was in a car with her aunt and cousin, heading to Collins Hill High School, when agents pulled over the car and took her into custody. She too is in jail, and fighting plans to send her back to Honduras.
In Thomasville, N.C., Alexander Josue Soriano-Cortez was pulled out of the apartment he shares with his brother and a friend. He was sent to the U.S. by his parents, paying smugglers $5,000 for the trip, after dodging bullets and death threats from gangs while in El Salvador, said his older brother, Elman Soriano, who remembers his sibling “shaking” when he was picked up.
“He tells me, ‘If I return to my country, I am sure I am going to my death.’”
The administration said the arrests were in line with Obama’s stated intention to focus on sending back those who have come to the U.S. since the start of 2014.
The administration has tried to stem the tide from Central America, launching publicity campaigns about the dangers of the trip and working with Mexican authorities to stop children. More than 68,500 arrived in 2014; after declining through most of 2015, the numbers of unaccompanied children began to increase again last fall. More than 20,000 came in the four months ending Jan. 31, double the number a year earlier.
Under a 2008 law, minors from Central America must be admitted to the U.S. and get a chance to plead for asylum in immigration court.
Many of the students say they are fleeing murderous gangs in countries with some of the highest rates of violence in the world. But their fears are often not enough to win an asylum claim.
All of the young people arrested had reached the age of 18 and were ordered deported by a judge.
“They were admitted here to make their case,” said Bryan Cox, a spokesman for ICE. “In these particular cases, the judges found against them. ICE is the enforcement arm, and we’re executing those removals.”
But no law requires these applicants have a lawyer; of 18,600 Central American families who received deportation notices, about 85% didn’t have attorneys. Some, like Soriano-Cortez, say they never got notice of hearings. Acosta skipped his because a lawyer told him he had little chance of success; statistics show that at least 7,000 children were ordered deported without going to court.
Immigration officials believe the operation succeeded; the numbers of kids crossing has dropped since the operations began, Jeh Johnson, secretary of Homeland Security, said at a recent news conference.
“I know this has made a lot of people I respect very unhappy,” Johnson said of advocates and lawmakers angered over the raids. “But we must enforce the law in accordance with our priorities.”
Some of the recent arrivals from Central America ended up in North Carolina. Once the center of America’s tobacco industry, Durham, home to Duke University, is being transformed by a continuing influx of Latinos. The Latino population was 14% in 2010, and many more have come since. Businesses catering to Latinos have cropped up around the city, including the Latino Credit Union, which has 11 branches.
A bastion of liberalism in purple-state North Carolina, Durham had a reputation as a so-called sanctuary city, where police have avoided cooperation with ICE, until the North Carolina Legislature outlawed that practice last fall.
After Acosta’s arrest Jan. 28, the news spread quickly through the student body at Riverside, a sprawling school where 30% of students are Latino. “I fear what’s going to happen, that other Hispanics will be taken out of this country by force,” said Bryan Escoto, a 10th-grader at Riverside, whose parents also are from Honduras. “They just came here to be safe.”
Official Durham also rose in outrage. Acosta’s arrest was condemned by the school board, the teachers union and the Human Relations Commission, which called for an end of the raids and for the jailed young people to be released. Teachers staged an event to say they were sending Acosta’s homework to jail.
“I never thought the president, our president, would do that,” said Pilar Rocha-Goldberg, president of Centro Hispano, a Latino advocacy and service organization in Durham, said of Obama. “In some ways, I understand, of course … but going after kids, it was very unexpected.”
In suburban Washington, school attendance in Prince Georges County, Md., dipped in January, after news of the arrests began, and leaders in Montgomery County declared that police wouldn’t cooperate.
Soon after the arrests began, about two dozen immigration advocates confronted Homeland Security officials about the policies. “I’ve never been to a meeting like this. People were crying, they were so angry,” said one attendee, who spoke on condition her name not be used. The language became heated, she said: “‘This is shameful, this is unconscionable; families are in hiding.’”
At the same time, Republicans, both on the campaign trail and in Congress, have pressed the Obama administration to get more aggressive about immigration enforcement.
So-called interior removals, detentions of people who aren’t captured on the border, have plummeted – fewer than 70,000 in 2015, less than a third than in the peak year of 2012. For years, the agency has focused on arresting people with criminal records; they accounted for more than 90% of interior removals last year.
No new arrests have surfaced in the last few weeks, though Johnson said this week that the actions will continue. Meanwhile, the young people remain locked up and could be returned at any time. Lawyers are pressing for new hearings, or for ICE officials to simply grant their discretion and allow them to stay in the U.S. Elman Soriano and Dilsia Acosta, Wildin’s mother, came to Washington to ask members of Congress to intervene.
In the case of Josue Soriano-Cortez, his brother says they never received notice of a court hearing – just the final order of deportation. Lawyers sent officials copies of police reports from Honduras, where Josue reported a shooting and police did nothing, his brother said. The threats followed him to North Carolina, he said, with texts on his phone from members of the MS gang. “You’re dead,” one said. “The MS is going to take you to hell.”
“We are very close, and there’s a lot of trust,” said his brother.
“He says, 'I’m very afraid. I know you will do something.’”