In January 2016, 19-year-old Wildin Acosta hurried out of his family's apartment on his way to what he thought would be a typical day at Riverside High School in Durham, North Carolina. Backpack in hand, the senior drew up short when he encountered a sight he prayed he'd never see: six plainclothes Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers waiting for him with a deportation order.
Wildin's father, Hector, watched helplessly as his son was cuffed and taken away.
It was an easy catch for ICE. Wildin is an undocumented immigrant who lives out of the shadows so that he can pursue his education. But the process of deporting Wildin wouldn't be so easy. A personable, athletic young man, he was well regarded by friends, classmates and teachers at Riverside. Even as the wheels were set in motion to send him back to a life-threatening situation in Honduras, allies Wildin didn't even know had started joining forces to fight for his freedom.
Wildin's journey began in 2014 in the town of Silca in Olancho, Honduras. He was preaching the gospel in a park when members of Barrio 18, a violent gang, threatened to kill him unless he joined their crew.
Wildin knew better than to wait for the gang's second warning. By his own account, he set out on foot through Guatemala and, within days, had bribed his way into Mexico. He then rode buses to the Texas border, where Mexican border officials took what money he had left and allowed him to cross. On the U.S. side, he turned himself in to immigration officials, a refugee seeking asylum. He spent eight days in custody at an ICE facility before being released to join his family in North Carolina, where his parents had been living—also undocumented—since he was a small boy.
Wildin spoke little English but soon settled in and began to thrive at Riverside High School. He made friends quickly, joined clubs and played on community soccer teams. He was on track to graduate in June 2016. "What stood out to me the most was his drive," says Spanish teacher Ellen Holmes, whose club Destino Success included students who tutored Wildin. "He was a good student, balanced a part-time job, soccer and clubs, and was really involved at home in addition to the everyday issues that undocumented students face."
The ultimate issue came calling that chilly January morning. Instead of showing up for another day at school, Wildin found himself at Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia. His deportation back to Honduras seemed like a done deal. "I asked myself one question," Wildin recalls about his time at Stewart. "We all asked ourselves the same question: 'Why me? Why me and not someone else?'" He was alone, lacking legal representation and facing a potential death sentence once he stepped off the plane in Olancho.
Except that Wildin wasn't alone.
The Wildin Team
When news of Wildin's arrest reached school, it fell heavily on his friends and teachers alike. It also deeply disturbed four journalism students: Juliana Rodriguez, Olga Bonifacio, Aldair Corrales and Maggie Johnson*. As they followed the threads of the story, they learned that Wildin was a second-semester senior, a dedicated student and a good guy with a clean record. They saw their own fears reflected as well; three of the four are also undocumented immigrants. These three are recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and know the anxiety of living in households with mixed-immigration status.
"I had so many friends who are immigrants," says Maggie, who is a native-born citizen, now a first- year student at Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina. "I saw how they were already having struggles in the communities. I realized that it wasn't only Wildin being detained. It could be my friends, too."
Galvanized by the injustice of Wildin's situation, the four students decided to take action. They reached out to attorneys, community organizations and local officials—anyone who could shine a light on Wildin's predicament. They started raising local awareness via social media using hashtags like #FreeWildin and #educationnotdeportation.
Many Riverside teachers took up the cause, too. They had witnessed the chilling effects of ICE raids on their students: increased anxiety and lower attendance rates as undocumented students grew more fearful that they would be deported or come home from school to find their families gone. Some educators reported their observations to Durham's Human Relations Commission. With the support of the city council and mayor, the committee asked federal officials to stop detaining and deporting the city's young people.
Citing the right of all students for equal access to public education regardless of immigration status, Durham's school board passed a resolution one week later asking ICE to suspend its actions in the community and release detained youths to their families. Wildin's arrest had become a rallying point for an alliance ready to fight for all of Durham's undocumented young people.
"It opened up a dialogue about students who are here but can't work or have received final orders of deportation and how scary that is," says science teacher Mika Twietmeyer. "I was worried for Wildin specifically, but the more I learned about the issue, the more concerning it became."
Keeping Up the Pressure
The voices for Wildin Acosta's release were growing louder, but not everyone supported the cause. Despite the school board's actions, Riverside High School itself did not make formal statements about Wildin or his case, and media were not allowed on campus. Teachers describe a sense that not all administrators had much sympathy for Wildin's circumstances.
"Many people were like, 'This isn't worth it...there's no point,'" says Juliana, one of the student members of the Wildin team. "They had this view of Wildin as a criminal and they didn't understand why we were fighting for him."
Undeterred by skepticism within the school community, Juliana, Aldair, Olga and Maggie kept the pressure on, continually asking, "Why can't Wildin graduate?" to anyone who would listen. They collected petition signatures throughout the district, organized public rallies and shared photos and videos through the social media campaigns they created. They even designed and handed out white wristbands as symbols of commitment to Wildin's cause.
The kids did a great job reiterating that this was an education issue because his right to an education was being restricted.
Eventually, U.S. Representative G.K. Butterfield took notice. "Wildin's story is very powerful," says Butterfield. "It takes a story like Wildin's where a child—I want to emphasize the fact that he was a child—travels thousands of miles through several countries risking his life because the violence in his home country has become too great."
The Road to Washington
With 12 weeks to go in their high school careers, Olga, Aldair and Maggie—as well as Juliana, a junior—were consumed by Wildin's case, even as some of their classmates were losing focus. The week before Wildin's March 20 deportation date, Maggie asked for an extension on her schoolwork so she could submit a guest column to local papers calling for Wildin's release. Olga even missed class when the group traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with members of the U.S. Department of Education to discuss the academic consequences of federal immigration raids.
As March wore on, the students were generating more media coverage than ever, but time was running out. Thirty-six hours before Wildin was scheduled to be deported, activists made one last plea to Washington late on a Friday night.
"We rallied downtown, in front of Butterfield's office," says Maggie. "We had his representatives on the phone, but no decision had been made yet about Wildin's scheduled deportation."
Finally, with Butterfield's urging, then-ICE director Sarah Saldaña delayed Wildin's deportation. One day later the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) agreed to reopen the case.
Their deadline extended, the four students met Butterfield in person when he visited Riverside in early April. Then, in May, Ellen Holmes took them to D.C. to speak to Secretary of Education John King Jr., to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), to brief Congress and to meet the press.
Secretary King was familiar with Wildin's case and wanted to hear the students' perspective, but the meeting was tense. Representatives from the National Education Association and the National Immigration Project accompanied the Riverside contingent, but none of them had been told that DHS officials would also be in attendance. And, despite their best efforts to make a case for why Wildin should graduate, the students were not able to persuade King.
"The kids did a great job reiterating that this was an education issue because his right to an education was being restricted," Holmes says. "Secretary King disagreed and said we need immigration reform, but the kids kept defending the fact that Wildin deserved the right to an education."
The students walked away disappointed, but the adults were so impressed that they let them lead when speaking to the media and elected officials the next day.
"No one told us what to say or gave us guidelines when we briefed Congress," says Juliana. "For us to get to that point, we needed to have that moment with Secretary King to push us."
The Home Stretch
Juliana, Olga, Aldair and Maggie returned to Durham, and the three seniors took their final exams and prepared for graduation. It was June 2016, and Wildin was entering his fifth month at Stewart. It became clear that he would not earn his final three credits or walk with his class.
“When we realized he wouldn’t graduate, it was really hard to look back at all the work we’d done,” says Maggie. “I feared everything had been done for nothing and we hadn’t made an impact.”
Wildin’s mother, Dilsia Acosta, was a guest of honor at the ceremony. Aldair, the class president, gave a speech about Wildin’s journey, his current circumstances and the work still to be done. Hundreds of students wore the white wristbands, took photos and posted their support for Wildin on social media.
But the end of school didn’t mean the end of the road for Team Wildin. In July, two of his teachers visited him at Stewart Detention Center. By then, Wildin had been in custody for six months. He knew there were friends and advocates working on his behalf, but his time at Stewart was taking a physical and emotional toll.
“He looked at me and said things were not good,” Twietmeyer says. Sleep was difficult in the overcrowded facility, and there were worms in the food. Wildin disclosed that he had been placed in solitary confinement for translating letters for a fellow prisoner. One of his darkest moments, Wildin later said, was when he asked a guard when he might be free. “I don’t know why you’re here,” replied the guard. “I’ve seen your record.”
Finally, on July 19, the BIA reopened Wildin’s case. Three weeks later he was released on $10,000 bond, raised in just two days by the people of Durham in an effort led by the local organization Alerta Migratoria NC.
Wildin returned home on August 12 and, after two weeks of recovery, held a press conference. He recounted his experiences since leaving Honduras and vowed to help other undocumented students and families, especially his fellow detainees at Stewart. “If I can be a voice for my community, I will,” he said.
The Journey Continues
Wildin returned to Riverside the day after his press conference, stayed out of the spotlight and worked hard to pass his three remaining classes. He kept in touch with his former teachers and got to know some of the students who had advocated for him. Although his credits are now complete, he will walk at commencement in June 2017, and plans to enroll in community college and study engineering.
“Every time I saw him, he’d give me a hug and say, ‘Thanks for all you do and all you did,’” says Juliana. “Every single time.”
Wildin has also made good on his promise to help others. After the November election he spoke to a group of parents and teachers at a Durham elementary school about ways to support undocumented students, and he participated in rallies protesting the Trump administration’s immigration policies. In February he shared his story at a Riverside community forum. He again thanked the people who advocated for his release and urged the audience to make schools safer for all families.“I am a refugee. I am an immigrant,” he said. “It is because of your work that I’ve graduated.”
Riverside’s teachers and students have also become leaders. As new reports of security checkpoints and ICE raids emerge, teachers throughout the state are turning to them for advice.
“We’re focusing on rapid response,” says Holmes, who helped revise school board policies to strengthen students’ due process rights. “Knowing your rights, power of attorney, signing over guardianship and making sure families have emergency plans in place.”
As the fight continues for students caught at the crossroads of immigration and education, everyone looks forward to graduation. But Wildin’s own journey isn’t over; he still faces the threat of deportation while he awaits his August appeal trial. And immigrant families remain anxious about the uptick in ICE raids and the security of their families.
But on June 13, everyone will celebrate.
“Wildin is a success story that came out of our school and district,” says Holmes. “He represents what we would do for all of our students.”
“I picture Wildin sitting among us,” said Juliana, who will attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the fall. “Someone talking about his experience. Everyone standing up and clapping for him. It’s something he deserves.”
* Names have been changed to protect the identities of the students.
Strategies for Successful Advocacy
Know the facts, answer questions concisely and articulate how and why the issue affects your school and community. Share information through several communication channels. “Accurate information was really important,” says Maggie Johnson. “Kids were saying many different things and needed to know if our campaign was trustworthy. We didn’t want to portray a false image of what was going on.”
Find a rallying cry.
Pushing for policy changes, especially immigration reform, can be complicated. Find an angle that encourages others to advocate for a specific cause and outcome. Riverside students and teachers used “Why can’t Wildin graduate?” because it localized the issue and made their own perspectives more valuable.
Extend your reach.
Make your work visible through social media campaigns, customized clothing and posters. Foster relationships with other schools and community organizations. Riverside’s campaign took flight when advocates joined forces with other schools, education groups and community organizations like Alerta Migratoria NC.
There is nothing “slow and steady” about advocacy work. Progress will come very quickly at times, then not at all for days or weeks. Keep in touch with elected officials. Seek media coverage when necessary and always plan for the next step.