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, gentleno 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 Carolinasometimes 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.
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 judgeand, 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 Acostaand that had stirred so much outrage in his adopted hometown.
In a mix of Spanish and English, Acosta told me about Olancho, one of the most violent regions in a country with one of the highest murder rates in the world. His father had immigrated to the United States in 2005, back when Honduras was more peaceful. By the time his sister and mother fled to the United States, in 2013, gang members”sicarios,” Acosta called themruled the streets. Acosta said the sicarios killed his uncle. He feared he’d be next.
So in 2014, Acosta made his way to the Texas border, traveling by car and on foot. He was apprehended and then sent to live with his parents in Durham until his court date.
In Durham, he worked off the books at a restaurant, where he made about $300 every two weeks. He played soccer. He had a girlfriend.
“I really miss my girlfriend,” he told me.
He missed his mother, too. He talked to her daily, but he didn’t want her to see him in here.
The conditions inside Stewart, a for-profit facility (see sidebar), are notoriously poor. A 2012 report by the ACLU found evidence of irregular meals, inadequate medical staffing, and the sky-high prices for phone calls and commissary food common to private prisons. In 2009, a detainee named Roberto Medina-Martinez died of what his family subsequently claimed in a lawsuit was a treatable heart infection. (The lawsuit was settled out of court.) Like most detainees at Stewart, Medina-Martinez had no criminal record. He was arrested in Charlotte in January 2009 for driving without a license and speeding. A few weeks later, he was transferred to Stewart. By March, he was dead.
“Our focus right now is to shut [Stewart] down,” Azadeh Shahshahani, the legal and advocacy director of the Atlanta-based organization Project South, told me. “That’s the motto these past two years. There was a hunger strike last fall in response to the inhumane conditions. In the summer before last, there was also a hunger strike over reports of maggots in the food.”
I asked Acosta about his treatment at Stewart. He said the food was “horrible, man,” and said it’s difficult to sleep because it’s loud (so many bunks in the same room) and bright (they don’t dim the lights).
“People in here, they just want to get out,” he said. “They’re happy when they leave.”
Out in the eerily still parking lot, past the fences with the curling spiked wire on top, I spoke with Bryan Cox, a communications director for ICE. Cox is no rumpled bureaucrat; he’s slick, a mix between TV anchor (he used to run a Fox station in South Carolina) and FBI agent: aviators, crisp suit, confidence.
As an arm of the Department of Homeland Security, he explained, ICE follows civil enforcement priorities set by the DHS. Secretary Jeh Johnson revised these priorities in November 2014, in response to a surge of immigrants from Central America. Acosta met two of these new criteria, making him a more eligible target for deportation: he was apprehended at the border, and an immigration judge ordered him removed from the country after January 1, 2014a date that roughly coincides with the beginning of the Central American refugee crisis.
But ICE doesn’t apprehend everybody who meets these priorities. The agency has discretion. Cox described this as a “case-by-case examination of the totality of a person’s circumstances.”
So why Acosta?
Cox would only say that Acosta met the DHS’s enforcement priorities. He kept repeating the phrase “totality of the situation.” He went no further. I asked whether Acosta drew an unlucky number in the ICE lottery.
“We would push back against that characterization,” Cox replied.
One way to interpret ICE’s targeting of the NC6 (and the 336 other Central Americans apprehended since January) is that the government is sending a message to would-be border crossers. ICE doesn’t have the resources to pursue each of the roughly ten thousand unaccompanied minors who’ve been ordered out of the country since July 2014. But neither can it give the impression that there are no consequences to illegally crossing the border.
After Acosta’s arrest, teachers at Riverside reported that attendance dropped; students and families were afraid ICE would come for them, too.
Cox told me these fears are unfounded: “One, we don’t conduct enforcement at schools. We have a policy of no enforcement at sensitive locations, which means, schools, hospitals, or churches. Two, our priorities are not a secret. They’re on the website. If you’re worried, read the priorities. Do you meet those priorities? If you do, then, yes, you may be taken into custody. If you don’t, then no, you won’t.
“It’s a political issue, and I get that,” Cox continued. “It’s complex, and people see it in different ways. But I think it’s important to remember, as far as ICE goes, that a judge made this decision [about Acosta]. A judge listened to the facts and made a determination that he should be deported.”
Except that’s not exactly what happened.
Acosta attended his first court date but skipped subsequent ones on the advice of an attorney who told him he didn’t stand a chance, his mother says. Though Acosta’s advocates have declined to identify that attorney, he or she probably had a point. North Carolina immigration judges granted only 16 percent of asylum requests in 2014, well below the national average of 49 percent. In 2014, judges at Stewartthe jail has its own courtgranted only 6 percent of asylum cases.
A few blocks off the square in Lumpkin, there’s a large sign on a patch of grass that says “Matemu Law Office: Deportation Defence.” The 800 number routes you to Japeth Matemu, who, it turns out, is based in Raleigh. With a few exceptions, he told me, immigration judges in North Carolina and Georgia are “very hostile” to immigrants.
“The thing to understand is that immigration law is a totally separate track than what we think of when we think of the American justice system,” he said. “You have very few constitutional protections. You only qualify for a couple types of defenses. And to top it all off, whether you are granted relief or not is determined entirely at the discretion of a judge. You can say, ‘I have a wife, children, I’ve been here fifteen years,’ and the judge can still deny you if he wants, and there’s very little you can do.”
The next step after a deportation order is the Board of Immigration Appeals, though the terrain doesn’t get any friendlier there. “The BIA will tell you that it can’t modify the immigration judge’s ruling unless it’s an egregious or obvious miscarriage of justice,” Matemu said. “You basically have to prove the judge is off his rocker.”
The mountainous backlog of immigration cases in the system474,000 nationally and over 5,000 in North Carolinaalso stacks the deck against immigrants. Sometimes people are deported before their appeals can be filed. Others sit in miserable jails waiting indefinitely for their day in court.
Though ICE says the average length of stay at Stewart is around thirty days, stories of those kept there much longer are not hard to come by. Acosta told me his bunkmate had been there for over a year.
A typical removal defense will last anywhere from four to six months, says Julio Moreno, an Atlanta immigration attorney who practices in North Carolina and Georgia. “And if the judge denies the case and the person decides to file an appeal, you’re looking at another four to six months of detention while the appeal is decided,” Moreno told me.
The remote location of the jail in Lumpkin poses another obstacle.
“Psychologically and emotionally, this is tough on the detainees, who are very far from family or witnesses who can help them fight their immigration cases,” Moreno said. Moreover, obtaining a bond at Stewart is “harder than any other court I’ve ever practiced in,” which means immigrants most often end up having to fight their case while detained.
Faced with these long oddsnot to mention the harsh conditions inside ICE jailsmost detainees simply fold. “They end up accepting final removal orders rather than attempting to fight,” Moreno said.
There’s no doubt Acosta broke the law: he entered the country illegally, hadn’t applied for refugee status, was an adult, and had skipped his court date.
In other words, he checked all of the boxes you need to check to arouse ICE’s attention.
Based on the reaction in Durham, though, you’d think ICE had done something pernicious and extraordinary.
A week after he was taken into custody, the Durham Human Relations Commission drafted and ratified a statement of support for Acosta. The following week the Durham City Council endorsed that statement. An attempt to send Acosta’s homework to Stewart yielded another round of news reports. And when Riverside teachers began speaking out about attendance plummeting, the national media took notice.
In short, activists elevated Acosta to something of a cause célèbre.
Then, on Thursday, March 17, they sent out a press release announcing that he was going to be deported three days later, on Sunday.
That evening, Viridiana Martinez, the coordinator for the group Alerta Migratoria NC, which has been working on Acosta’s behalf, told me that Acosta’s new lawyer, Evelyn Smallwood, had filed a motion to reopen Acosta’s case on the grounds of ineffective counsel. “If ICE deports him on Sunday with this motion pending, that’s a violation of his due process,” she said.
Over the next few days, though, it looked as if that was exactly what was going to happen. After U.S. Representative David Price publicly questioned the detention of the NC6 in a House Appropriations Committee meeting, activists called for the same from Representative G.K. Butterfield.
On that Friday afternoon, seventy-five of them stalked around outside his Durham office. At one point Martinez demanded that one of Butterfield’s aides go tell the congressman to tell President Obama to halt Acosta’s deportation.
Instead, what the protesters got was a statement assuring them that Butterfield had placed calls to the DHS and ICE asking them to delay Acosta’s deportation. But while the protest was happening, Acosta’s motion was denied in Charlotte. Later that evening, ICE director Sarah Saldaña said ICE would be moving forward with his deportation. And that seemed to be that.
Sunday morning, though, saw another statement from Butterfield: he and Representative Zoe Lofgren of California, the ranking Democrat on an immigration subcommittee, had pressured Saldaña into delaying Acosta’s deportation a few days until he could file an appeal with the BIA.
On Monday, another victory for Acosta: the BIA granted Acosta a stay, which prevented ICE from deporting him while the BIA is reviewing his case. That is likely to take a few months. And if Acosta is released from Stewartas his advocates are now demandingit would likely be one or two years before his case is heard.
(That decision is left to ICE.)
I asked Butterfield why he thought Acosta should be granted an exception to the immigration rules. Was it just because of the protesters and TV cameras?
Through a spokesperson, Butterfield admitted that “public interest and pressure certainly played a valuable role.” He added that he’s hopeful that “with his current legal counsel and an opportunity for his case to be decided based on its merits, Wildin will eventually be granted asylum.”
That may well happen.
If it does, it will be because Acosta had the good fortune of being in Durham, a liberal city with an unusually high percentage of people who enjoy standing around, chanting, and holding signs. Oscar Hernandez, an El Salvadorean picked up in Charlotte during the same round of ICE raids, did not fare so well. He was sent to Stewart and then quickly put on a plane. Same with Edwin Alvarez of Cary, who’s now back in Honduras.
On my last day in Georgia, I interviewed a twenty-six-year-old man who had just been released from Stewart after seventeen months. We spoke on a park bench overlooking the Chattahoochee River, in downtown Columbus, forty miles north of Lumpkin. It was a beautiful day: sixty-five degrees and sunny, the whitewater river current jagged and shiny like a cracked mirror.
He had burn scars on both hands, the result of a scalding-hot-water accident sustained while working a kitchen shift at Stewart. He wouldn’t give his name. “If I had a green card, my name is no problem,” he said. “But I have nothing. ICE is very powerful.”
Unlike Acosta, he had no advocates in his corner. His home country was not in the Western Hemisphere, and his English was too poor for him to articulate the circumstances that had led to him languishing inside Stewart for a year and a half. But it seemed likely that both of these facts contributed to the length of his stay. He had no voice, his case was buried somewhere in the haystack of immigration-court dockets, and he was being detained by a private company that made money every day he was stuck inside its jail.
It seemed almost a miracle he was let out at all.
For whatever reason, though, he had been released. A family member was driving from a faraway state to come get him. He didn’t want to say where he was going. Like Acosta, he just wanted to get out of Georgia as fast as he could.
Low Risk, High Reward
In 1850, Stewart County was one of the most populous counties in Georgia. It was also one of the state’s largest cotton producers. Both of these facts were the direct result of slave labor: roughly half of the county’s residents were slaves.
Today, Stewart County is one of the least populous counties in Georgiaa little over six thousand people. But its tradition of profiting off individuals with restricted rights lives on. These days, the money comes from a private prison. Those being exploited tend to be Hispanic, rather than black. They make $4 per day working eight-hour kitchen shifts.
No county in the entire United States had a higher increase in its Hispanic population between 2000 and 2010. Seventy-nine Hispanics in 2000 turned into over fourteen hundred by 2010, a jump from 1.5 percent of the population to 24 percent. The Stewart Detention Center, which can house as many as two thousand people, accounts for nearly every single one of those new residents. Most often, they live in the jail until they are deported.
Quite literally a jail built in search of prisoners, Stewart Detention Center sat empty for two years after it was built. In 2006, ICE came to the rescue. A deal was struck between ICE, Stewart County, and Corrections Corporation of America whereby ICE pays the county about $60 per day per prisoner. The county in turn passes along all of that money to CCA to operate the facility, minus its cut$0.85 per day per prisoner. This ends up being just enough to keep Stewart County solvent.
CCA, the largest for-profit prison corporation in the United States, enjoys considerably fatter margins. Off revenues of $1.6 billion in 2014, CCA earned profits of $195 million. In 2014, CCA cleared approximately $26 million operating immigration jails. With the possible exception of the Geo Group, its only competitor for ICE contracts, no organization has benefited more from the rise of immigrant detention in America.
And quite a rise that has been. In 1995, there were fewer than seventy-five hundred immigration detention beds in the United States. Today, federal law mandates that thirty-four thousand beds be filled by immigration detainees daily. This quota, passed by Congress in 2010, was designed to ensure that immigration officials were aggressively pursuing unauthorized immigrants.
It ended up being a gift to private prisons. The number of immigration detention beds operated by for-profit prison companies jumped 13 percent in the five years following the law’s passage. And no wonder: the quota means guaranteed revenues.
In America, locking up immigrants is a low-risk, high-reward business.
This article appeared in print with the headline “Trapped in the Machine”