Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-NC-1) says he saw nothing wrong with prison conditions nor treatment of inmates when he toured the entire facility of Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia recently.
“It was clean,” he says. “It was spacious. It was state-of-the art – as state-of-the-art goes for a prison facility.”
Regardless, he says it pains him that nineteen-year-old David Wildin Acosta of Honduras remains there, separated from family and friends in Durham for what could take years before a deportation case for the Riverside High School student is resolved.
“This is an unfortunate case,” says Butterfield. “Wildin should be in school. He was a star student. And he is beloved by the student body and the faculty. It’s just a shame that he has to sit in a detention center in a faraway place, while his life is passing him by.”
Butterfield traveled to Lumpkin May 27, accompanied by fellow Democrat Rep. Sanford Bishop of Georgia, to talk to detainees seeking asylum from violence in their home counties, and to put a spotlight on their plight. Butterfield was there to hear Acosta’s story.
“He has a strong case for asylum, because of the enormous violence that’s taken place in Honduras and Guatemala and other countries,” he says.
Now he wants to take a second congressional delegation to meet the refugees at Stewart. It could include Rep. John Lewis, Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, Rep. Hank Johnson, and Rep. Zoe Lofgren. But don’t count too hard on it.
“It’s hard to get four or five congressmen to get their calendars in sync,” he admits.
This is not the first time Butterfield has advocated for Acosta, who was just a young teen by the time both his parents left him in the care of an older brother in violence-torn Honduras. He suffered threats and violence from gang members who assumed he had money sent to him from the U.S.
He escaped to the U.S. as an unaccompanied minor in 2014, surrendered to authorities, and was reunited with his family in Durham.
On poor advice from a lawyer who warned that he faced certain deportation if he went to a hearing on his asylum request, Acosta skipped it. That decision eventually landed him in Lumpkin, behind concrete and barbed wire, courtesy of ICE.
“He was a seventeen, eighteen-year-old child, at this time, who made an unknowing decision,” says Butterfield.
The congressman’s intervention, at the request of Durham constituents, prevented Acosta from being flown back to Honduras months ago.
Butterfield appealed to Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, with some success.
“He understood the argument I was making, which is that this young man is just not an immigrant looking for a better place to live” says Butterfield. “This is a refugee seeking asylum, to protect himself from certain death.”
Johnson put Butterfield in touch with ICE Director Sarah Saldana. With help from Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat from California, a stay of deportation pending review was granted in March.
However, Butterfield was unsuccessful in convincing the ICE that Acosta should be released on bond with electronic monitoring.
“I’m terribly disappointed,” he says. “I will continue to apply the political pressure, and the lawyers will continue to pursue legal remedies. And communities have promised me and others that they are going to continue their advocacy, and take it to an even higher level.”
Butterfield says he plans to bring the issue of those he calls refugees — not immigrants — to the House floor, in either a resolution or a speech.
“I know it will not go anywhere,” he admits. “But sometimes, you initiate legislation to open eyes, and to expose injustice.”