It's been twenty-one months since an Immigration and Customs Enforcement operation swept up a group of undocumented teenagers in North Carolina. They became known as the NC6, though more than six people were snatched from communities in this state in the early months of 2016.
Their detention sparked an outpouring of support around North Carolina, particularly in Durham, where Wildin David Guillen Acosta was taken into custody outside of his home while on his way to Riverside High School.
Acosta, now twenty, came to the United States in 2014, fleeing threats of violence after trying to convert gang members in Honduras to Christianity. Last week, he appeared before an immigration judge in Charlotte and was given a two-month continuance of his asylum case. He will return to Judge Stuart Couch's courtroom on December 5 to learn his fate.
Because of the way Riverside wrapped itself around Acosta, he's received more sustained attention than others considered part of the NC6. That isn't to suggest there's been apathy toward the other teens—community members, legislators, and advocacy groups all rallied on their behalf; it's just that easy for someone to slip into the abyss of the American immigration system.
"There's any number of things that are just completely impossible when the government is playing musical chairs with your client," says Brian Hoffman, a lead attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center's Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative in Lumpkin, Georgia.
Closed proceedings are one way the system is shrouded in relative secrecy—although this does prevent sensitive information about a person from becoming public and reaching their persecutors abroad. Last week, Acosta gave permission for friends and supporters to join his hearing, normally a confidential proceeding. The group still had to turn off its cellphones and hand them to a guard to verify the devices were really off.
Case information is also largely inaccessible. An 800 number for the Executive Office of Immigration Review only provides basic case details, like the date and location of an upcoming hearing. ICE's online detainee locator will tell you where a person is detained, but not why or for how long.
Hoffman says immigration attorneys may be limited in what information they can get from courts and often have to rely on Freedom of Information Act requests to obtain client information, which can take months.
"I can say there are a few cases where if we had just been able to get a look at their file, they would not have been deported," Hoffman says.
Detention centers, like Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, where Acosta was detained for seven months, are isolated not only from detainees' families but also from legal help. Hoffman says attorneys are often unable to schedule phone calls with clients, who are sometimes moved to other facilities without notice.
"We find even having our office five minutes from the Stewart Detention Center, it's difficult just getting a client in front of you to get the information we need," he says.
A search for the names of the NC6—Acosta, Bilmer Pujoy Juárez, Yefri Sorto-Hernandez, Josué Alexander Soriano Cortez, Santos Padilla Guzmán, and Pedro Arturo Salmeron-Salmeron—will yield news reports about their detentions as part of an immigration enforcement push aimed at unaccompanied minors. But little comes up since last summer.
In the interim, two—Padilla Guzmán and Salmeron-Salmeron—have been deported. Both had come to North Carolina fleeing gang violence in El Salvador. Salmeron-Salmeron, who lived in Charlotte, was deported in November 2016. According to The Charlotte Observer, his parents had been keeping him home from school for fear of ICE when he and his father were pulled over and he was detained. Padilla Guzmán, who lived in Wake County, was deported July 28 after his asylum application was denied.
According to advocacy group Action NC, Salmeron-Salmeron had a pending asylum application when he was deported, although this has been contested by the government, which says there was a computer error. Salmeron-Salmeron, along with Pujoy Juárez, each filed petitions arguing that their detentions had been unlawful—pulling their cases into the light of the federal court system.
Pujoy Juárez, who lived in Greenville at the time of his detention in late January 2016, is due in immigration court November 9, according to the EOIR. (His attorney declined to comment.) According to his petition, the Board of Immigration Appeals had reopened his removal proceedings in August 2016, rescinding a previous removal order and allowing his asylum case to proceed. An ICE spokesperson confirmed Pujoy Juárez is no longer in custody. (Que Pasa says he was released in late September 2016).
The same goes for Sorto-Hernandez, who is due in court April 5, according to the EOIR. Sorto-Hernandez lives in Charlotte and also fled gang violence in El Salvador. He was detained on his way to his bus stop in late January 2016 while headed to West Mecklenburg High School.
The least information is available about Soriano Cortez. The EOIR lists no upcoming hearings and no information about an appeal to the BIA. According to ICE, he was released from custody on August 5, 2016.
"That's all the detail I can provide under our privacy rules as he's not in ICE custody," says spokesman Bryan Cox.
Soriano Cortez, who is from El Salvador, lives in Thomasville. He was detained at home in early February 2016. La Noticia reported that he had plans to become a police officer.
Although they are out of Stewart, a detention center where conditions have prompted calls for a shutdown, Acosta, Pujoy Juárez, and Sorto-Hernandez are not out of the woods. The Charlotte immigration court is notoriously tough for asylum cases. According to the EOIR, Charlotte judges in fiscal year 2016 granted just 17 percent of asylum applications. Couch, the judge Acosta faces, granted just 71 of 386 asylum applications that came before him from 2011–16.
President Trump—who in August said he "hates taking" asylum seekers—could make these odds even longer. On Sunday, the president demanded that any legislation protecting recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program must include "tightening standards" in the asylum system to allow more detentions and deportations and the "expeditious" return of minors who came to the U.S. unaccompanied.