Tuesday morning, in the parking lot of a Compare Foods in Durham, Wildin Acosta stood in front of a television news camera. This hasn’t been uncommon for him lately. The twenty-year-old Durham resident has given so many interviews over the past two years—since he was picked up by ICE on his way to Riverside High and shipped off to a private immigration jail in rural Georgia, only to be released last year on a $10,000 bond while he pursued his asylum case—that he’s lost count.
But for the first
while speaking in public, his voice cracked. His nerves got the best of him. He struggled to maintain his composure.
“I’m a little worried because this judge is very difficult,” he told the camera. “My mom has told me to pray. If I go back to Honduras, people will kill me.”
Since he was picked up, Acosta has been telling anyone who would listen that fled Honduras after he was targeted for trying to evangelize members of the M-18 gang. A deportation order, he said, could be tantamount to a death sentence.
That’s why Acosta was nervous. After this interview, he was on his way to Charlotte, to go before an immigration judge whose track record suggested that he was not predisposed to find in Acosta’s favor. Acosta could lose. Tuesday could have been his last hearing in North Carolina. He could have been detained again. He could have faced imminent deportation. This could be it.
that afternoon, a similarly palpable nervousness spread through a small Charlotte courtroom, where at least a dozen of Acosta’s supporters sat through an hour-long hearing. The group included his new wife, Angela, and at least seven Durham Public Schools teachers who had known Acosta as a student. They greeted and hugged each other upon entering the waiting room, where forty other immigrants were waiting for their cases to be called.
Acosta went to once again face Judge V. Stuart Couch. As the INDY reported in October, from fiscal years 2011–16, Couch granted just 71 of 386 asylum applications that came before him. Out of 268 immigration judges, he ranks 74th for the most denials.
Acosta didn’t want to roll those dice. So he formally withdrew his application for asylum. Couch asked him three times if he understood what that meant.
“You are afraid to go back,” the judge said. “If you withdraw that application for relief, you will not be able to proceed. Do you understand that?”
“Yes, your honor,” Acosta replied in Spanish.
This wasn’t Acosta giving up; rather, it was a change of strategy.
His new attorney, Nardine Guirguis, picked up the case after Acosta filed a complaint with the N.C. State Bar against his former lawyer, Evelyn Smallwood, in early October. In that complaint—which was given to the INDY by Alerta Migratoria NC, a group that has lobbied on Acosta’s behalf—Acosta wrote that his detention was “prolonged by two months because Ms. Smallwood was not timely in filing papers with the immigration court.” This, he argued, affected his ability to get a work permit, which he still hasn’t received.
After ending the asylum plea, Guirguis filed two additional motions: One was for administrative closure, which closes the case as is. The other sought to again continue the proceedings based on two factors: attorney negligence and a pending I-130 visa application—a “petition for alien relative” on behalf of Acosta’s wife, Angela.
The high school sweethearts were married in November; Angela is a U.S. citizen of Chinese and Salvadoran descent.
“You realize you now have a heightened burden to show the marriage is bona fide,” Couch intoned.
Guirguis reiterated their claims of “ineffective assistance of legal counsel” before Couch cut her off.
“Stop right there,” he interrupted. “I take those claims very seriously.”
“I don’t take it lightly, either,” replied Guirguis. She spoke of digging into Acosta’s case and finding a “pattern of mishandlings,” which she called “disconcerting.” She noted missed deadlines that she says didn’t give Acosta a fair opportunity to proceed,
prolonging the legal process—a series of delays Couch took issue with at Acosta’s last hearing, in October.
After a short break, Couch announced that the case would resume in January; he could make a decision about each motion before then. Acosta’s next court date is scheduled for January 4.
The State Bar said it could not confirm the complaint against Smallwood, as such grievances are confidential.
In an email to the INDY, Smallwood said she had “yet to be informed by any disciplinary authority of a complaint filed against me. There are nuanced issues with every immigration case. I approach every case with diligence and care, whether it is pro bono or not. Our policy is not to comment on any pending case nor to interfere in the pending case of another attorney.”
After the hearing, Acosta and Angela beamed with relief. They stood outside with teachers and friends who lifted signs that said, “We want Wildin” and “Wildin is a part of our community.” A Spanish-language journalist asked how they met. Acosta did most of the talking, describing how they met in high school and then reconnected through an online video game. Angela stood by, quiet and shy.
Later, in the car, she was talkative, fighting over the music with Acosta and wondering aloud how people knew she was nervous. “I tried to keep a calm face. How could they tell?”
On the way home, they stopped at a Pollo Campero, a popular fried chicken chain from Central America.
“Durham really needs one of these,” Acosta said. “This chicken is delicious.”
Earlier in the day, he’d had trouble finishing a tamal for breakfast. But at the fast food joint at four p.m., he shoveled French fries into his mouth as if he hadn’t eaten in a week.
“I was so nervous,” he explained. “It’s even more difficult when you don’t understand what they’re saying the entire time. But I kept looking at the judge to see what he would say.”
Away from the cameras, Acosta relaxed in the backseat of a teacher’s car. After a few long minutes of silence, Acosta spoke up to no one in particular.
“This is not over, but I would call it a small victory,” he said.