Leaving a Charlotte immigration court on Tuesday, Wildin Acosta felt like he could breathe again.
It was a far cry from how he felt yesterday when he was unsure whether a judge who denies 82 percent of asylum cases would deny his as well, sending him to what he considers a certain death in his native Honduras, and even from this morning when he and his mother rose at three and prayed that God would see him through his court appearance.
Tuesday morning, Judge Stuart Couch continued Acosta’s case until December 5, buying him at least two more months in the country where he has lived for three years and bringing some relief — even if it may be temporary — to a stressful and uncertain ordeal that began when Acosta was detained by immigration officers on his way to school in January 2016.
Acosta was due to appear in front of Couch in late August, but that hearing was postponed.
“I want to emphasize that I have granted two continuances because you asked for it,” Couch told Acosta, “but, sir, it is time to get your case resolved.”
Reporters and friends of Acosta’s were allowed to sit in on his hearing, typically a closed proceeding, at Acosta’s request. No cameras or recording devices were allowed and cell phones had to be turned off.
At the start of the hearing, he granted motions making Nardine Guirguis Acosta’s attorney. Couch stressed that the case was being continued solely to give Guirguis time to adequately prepare.
During the hearing, Couch offered some stern words about Acosta’s case thus far. News reports about Acosta’s August hearing being postponed inaccurately said he gave no reason for the delay, he said. He also raised concerns about communication by Acosta’s previous attorneys and said letters of support sent directly to him on Acosta’s behalf were “inappropriate and uncalled for.”
Acosta came to the United States from Olancho, Honduras, in June 2014 to reunite with his parents, who were already in North Carolina. Like many unaccompanied minors, he was apprehended at the border before being released to his family. In March 2015, he missed a court date and was issued a deportation order.
He was a student at Riverside High School with Immigration and Customs Enforcement detained him outside of his house while he was headed to school. During his seven months of immigration detention, classmates, teachers, community members and elected officials advocated on his behalf. On Tuesday, former teachers and classmates drove nearly three hours to be with him in court.
He is seeking asylum in the U.S. on the grounds that he would face persecution for his religious beliefs if he returns to Honduras. A devout Christian, he had been targeted for trying to evangelize members of the M-18 gang.
Asked Tuesday if he felt like Couch’s decision represented a second chance, Acosta said his second chance came when he was released on bond from Stewart County Detention Center in Georgia. Acosta said he is putting his fate in God’s hands.
“My mom said, ‘you know, son, God got you out of detention,” he said through an interpreter. “God doesn’t do things halfway, he does them completely.”
Those who accompanied Acosta to the hearing were relieved. Waiting outside as he spoke with Guirguis, they held signs reading “We need Wildin safe at home” and “Asylum for Wildin now.”
Mike Twietmeyer and Morgan Whithaus came to Charlotte Monday night to support Acosta. Whithaus taught Acosta ESL biology at Riverside High School. A fellow Riverside student, Whithaus helped organize support and advocate on behalf of Acosta and others detained around the same time.
Twietmeyer said she wanted Acosta to see that the community is still behind him after pushing for his release from Stewart in August 2016 and for him to graduate high school in June. She said Riverside students know Acosta’s story and that their teachers will support them in similar situations.
Viridiana Martinez, with immigrant advocacy group Alerta Migratoria NC, said Couch’s decision was the best possible outcome given the Charlotte immigration court’s record on asylum applications.
“Es grandisimo,” she said in Spanish.
According to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, from fiscal year 2011 to 2016, Couch granted just 71 of 386 asylum applications that came before him. Out of 268 immigration judges, he ranks 74 for most denials.
Charlotte judge overall deny asylum applications at higher rates than other courts in the region. According to the Executive Office for Immigration Review, Charlotte judges in fiscal year 2016 granted 17 percent of applications, compared with 63 percent in Baltimore and 62 percent in Arlington, Virginia. However, chances in Charlotte are better than in Georgia. Atlanta judges that year approved only 2 percent of cases, and the court at Stewart Detention Center, where Acosta had been held, approved only 7 percent.
In letters and emails sent directly to Couch, supporters including the Durham City Council, Durham County Commissioners and the Durham Human Relations Commission, detailed the danger Acosta would face if deported. Couch said Tuesday morning any letters of support should have been filed as part of his case, in part so that the information would also be provided to the government’s attorney in the case.
“While the court appreciates the efforts of individuals,” Couch said, “as a legal matter it is highly inappropriate … to contact a judge directly outside the confines of the court.”
Advocacy on Wildin’s behalf “comes from a place of love,” Martinez said, and isn’t intended as a personal affront to Couch.
Acosta’s attorney is putting out a call for letters of support to be directed to her office by mid-November, a Christian law firm.
“It is now our responsibility to proceed in the most effective manner and to do it collectively in the community. We do not believe, as other attorneys might, that this is something you need to do in a vacuum,” she said.
Couch emphasized that his decision would not be swayed by outside influence.
“I’m going to decide your case based upon the documents that have been filed and the testimony you give on the witness stand,” he said.
Acosta will testify at his next — and likely final — court appearance in Charlotte on December 5 at one p.m.