It was one of those rooms you see in the movies: dully lit, white concrete walls, a phone hanging next to a window. I expected to see Wildin David Guillen Acosta seated on the other side of the window, wearing an orange jumpsuit.
Instead, he was standing before me, on my side of the window, in scrubs, hands uncuffed. He was skinny, with a faint mustache on his lip. His knee bounced. He seemed nervous, gentle—no trace of the hardened exterior common to men who find themselves in rooms like this one.
"You're David?" he asked in choppy English. "I'm David, too."
At the Stewart Detention Center, in Lumpkin, Georgia, detainees are color-coordinated. Blue scrubs means low security risk; orange and red inmates are higher risk. Acosta, a nineteen-year-old with no criminal record, wore blue. Most of the detainees at Stewart wear blue. And most of them will eventually be deported.
I first heard about Acosta in late January, when the news broke that several teens in North Carolina—sometimes referred to as the "NC6"—had been targeted by Immigrations Customs and Enforcement agents and taken away for deportation.
They came for Acosta on a Thursday morning, while he was on his way to class at Riverside High School. He lay on the cold ground outside his southeast Durham home as agents handcuffed him. His father, also an undocumented immigrant, watched in fear from the kitchen window as his son was hauled off.
Acosta was first sent to the Wake County jail, then a jail in South Carolina, where he was able to call his parents three days after being apprehended. The next day, he was transferred to Stewart.
Almost everybody picked up by ICE in the southeast ends up at Stewart. It's the last stop before they send you back to whatever country you came from.
- Photo by David Hudnall
- CCA cleared $26 million in taxpayer money in 2014 operating immigration jailslike the Stewart Detention Center.
At first, Acosta's story seemed like a clear-cut injustice: he'd left Olancho, Honduras, a bloody place of civil unrest, to reunite with his family in the United States. He enrolled in a Durham high school. He wanted to be an engineer. He wasn't a criminal.
Soon after his arrest, the community rallied around him: there were vigils and press conferences and denunciations from political leaders. Questioning why ICE had targeted a high school student, they pitched his detention as part of a Manichean struggle between a callous government and a helpless teenager.
The reality, however, is more complicated. In recent years, there's been a surge of unaccompanied minors coming from Central America. An estimated sixty-eight thousand youths from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador showed up at the border in 2014, the year Acosta made his trek. Many of them left their homes under the impression that they'd be allowed to stay and access public benefits.
The Obama administration funded a public relations effort to dispel this notion. For a time, it seemed to be working. But the flow of Central American children to the U.S. border has picked up again. Since October 2015, twenty thousand more Central American minors have been caught at the border.
The White House appears to be slowly coming around to the view that this wave of immigrants represents a refugee crisis. In January, it expanded a program to allow Central American migrants to apply for refugee status before coming to the United States. Obama also authorized an additional $70 million for refugee assistance.
But that doesn't address the hundred thousand or so who are already here.
If Acosta had been an adult when he arrived, he would have been turned away then and there. But he was only seventeen. Federal law grants minors a date in front of a U.S. immigration judge—and, in the meantime, the opportunity to reside with family members. That's how Acosta ended up in Durham.
But Acosta skipped his court date, and a judge issued a deportation order in March 2015. ICE came ten months later.
And so the more I learned about Acosta's story, the less it sounded like a travesty than the unfortunate but logical outcome of America's immigration machinery. Whether the hulking, amorphous apparatus that had ensnared him was just, however, was an entirely separate question.
More information was required. In early March, I made the eight-hour trip from Durham to Southwest Georgia to get a closer look at the system that had uprooted Acosta—and that had stirred so much outrage in his adopted hometown.