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Trump Administration Pursues Asylum Seekers Even After They’ve Been Released From Detention

Tina Vasquez

"All I want is to go to college and study electric engineering to open my own business one day," said Wildin Acosta, who is now fighting a deportation order after being released from detention in August 2016. "That's all I want in life. Is that too much?"

Wildin Acosta in August 2016 became one the 5 percent of people who are released from Lumpkin, Georgia’s notorious Stewart Detention Center on bond, but that didn’t mean he was safe. The asylum-seeking teen has endured an uphill battle to remain in the United States, and he is now fighting a deportation order.
Acosta made headlines as a member of the NC6, a group of six North Carolina-based high school students, all asylum-seeking teens who entered the United States as unaccompanied minors, who were targeted for deportation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) as part of Operation Border Guardian. The enforcement operation, which targeted Central American migrants ages 18 and older who came to the United States as unaccompanied children after January 2014, resulted in the detainment of 336 young people. 
Alerta Migratoria, the North Carolina-based immigrant rights organization advocating on his behalf, said Acosta was supposed to appear before immigration Judge V. Stuart Couch on Thursday, but the Executive Office for Immigration Review told local media that Couch issued a deportation order for Acosta on December 12.
Acosta recently filed a visa application seeking lawful resident status since marrying his high school sweetheart, a U.S. citizen, last year. Alerta Migratoria reports that Acosta has an open complaint against his previous attorney, Evelyn Smallwood, alleging she mishandled his case and violated professional conduct regulations established by the Executive Office for Immigration Review, resulting in Acosta’s six-month long detainment in Stewart Detention Center. 
Acosta plans to appeal Couch’s decision and has until January 11 to do so, according to Indy Week.
In August, before a spate of court hearings that would result in his deportation order, Acosta told Rewire that he feared for his future. He’d just graduated from Riverside High School and was looking to attend Durham Technical Community College. Just as it had disrupted his high school education, navigating the immigration system was now hindering his ability to attend college.
“When I was in detention, I thought about the United States a lot. All the time, you hear people say, ‘Young people are the future.’ I started to wonder why they said that in the United States,” Acosta said. “I’m not the young man I was then. Detention changed me. It changed my life. All I want is to go to college and study electric engineering to open my own business one day. That’s all I want in life. Is that too much?”

While every person’s case who is navigating the U.S. immigration system is complex and unique, and the community support Acosta received is essentially an anomaly, there are larger, systemic issues at play affecting people like him who were or remain detained while seeking asylum.

Naomi Tsu is the deputy legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) Immigrant Justice Project, which includes the Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative, providing pro bono legal representation to detained people at three detention enters in the deep south, including Stewart. Tsu told Rewire that simply getting out of a place like Stewart is a near-miracle.
Unlike U.S. citizens in the criminal justice system, undocumented people in the detention system are not assigned an attorney. They must articulate in an immigration court their complicated asylum casekeeping in mind that asylum is among the most complicated area of immigration lawsomething Tsu said immigration attorneys sometimes have trouble doing. Many must do this while facing a language barrier. The American Immigration Council reports that detained immigrants with counsel are nearly 11 times more likely to seek relief such as asylum than those without representation, translating to 32 percent with counsel versus 3 percent without.

Courts nationwide have about a 40 percent rate of granting asylum. At Stewart, it’s about 5 percent, according to the SPLC. Then there’s the issue of obtaining a bond, an increasingly difficult task with an increasingly hefty price tag.

When seeking a bond, a asylum seeker must show they are not a flight risk or a danger to the community. One of the things the judge must consider in making this determination is the likelihood the undocumented immigrant will succeed in their underlining immigration merits case, which means successfully proving they have reason to fear returning to their country of origin. Tsu said many judges at Stewart place an unusual amount of emphasis on this.

The judge who rules on the bond motion is the same who rules on the merits motion. Julie Mao, an enforcement fellow with the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild, told Rewire that the judge who ordered Acosta removed from the United States will ultimately decide if Acosta is eligible for relief from deportation.  

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“Being out of detention means that an individual has the ability to fight from outside the traumatic environment of jail, but it is still difficult path forward,” Mao said. 

For Tsu, it’s important to dispel any notions that those released from detention are “safe” or will be granted a pathway to citizenship. It’s actually quite the opposite. People like Acosta who survived detention still have deportation proceedings to fight. A bond, if it can be secured, is simply to ensure that the person appears at future court hearings, which Acosta has dutifully done.

Without knowing the specifics of Acosta’s case, Tsu told Rewire that based on what she does know, a judge choosing to resolve a case by issuing a deportation order before the scheduled hearing is unusual. But when considering recent actions by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, it begins to make sense.

Immigration judges are employees of the Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review, which gives Sessions broad oversight powers. The attorney general has routinely expressed his desire to cut down on the immigration court backlog by hiring more judges and his Department of Justice (DOJ) is “refusing to tolerate repeated delays in deportation cases,” according to the Washington Post. This translates into a reversal of Obama-era policies that allowed prosecutors to “indefinitely postpone low-priority cases,” which DOJ officials said “allowed some immigrants to delay ‘inevitable” deportations,'” the Post reported. 

There is evidence indicating that the DOJ wants to start rating immigration judges based on how many cases they resolve, which would pressure them to resolve more cases more quickly while showing immigrants less leniency. As Vox reported, “These moves aren’t about making more people eligible for deportation. They’re about making fewer people eligible for a full legal process before getting deported.”

Tsu told Rewire she’s “deeply concerned” about the tone Sessions is setting for undocumented people navigating the immigration system, but especially for young people like Acosta, who is an asylum seeker from Honduras, one of the deadliest countries in the world. Acosta fled gang violence after having his life threatened and has repeatedly said that if he is forced to return to his country of origin, he will be killed.

“What we’ve seen from Sessions is basically a guidance telling immigration judges to be less generous with granting continuances, which is time needed to gather evidence to prove your case. He wants this process to move more quickly, but if we want people to have a fair hearing, it’s a process that takes time,” Tsu said. “We have to decide what kind of country we want to be. Are we a country that wants people to receive a fair day in court where judges prioritize protecting due process rights, or a society that arrests children and hurries them toward deportation without giving them a fair day in court? I hope we stand up and say we want justice for everyone and that it’s inappropriate for our attorney general to be calling for speed over fairness.”

If the DOJ’s Board of Immigration Appeals affirms Acosta’s deportation order, a process that can take up to six months, Acosta can still appeal to the federal circuit court of appeals. Tsu told Rewire that if Acosta is forced to go to this second state of review, he could remain in limbo for as long as a year and though he should remain free during that time, different circumstances could warrant that he be detained as his appeal is decided upon.

Acosta told Rewire in August that one of his most disliked phrases is when he hears U.S. citizens say that undocumented people like him need to “get in line.” The U.S. immigration system offers no pathway to citizenship for a bulk of the nation’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants.

“We didn’t stand in line not because we didn’t want to, but because we couldn’t. There was no line and for me, I had to leave Honduras because it was so dangerous, one of the most dangerous places in the world,” Acosta said. “Life is so good when you’re a small child and you don’t know where you are. Then you grow up and things get hard, especially in Honduras. People might say this is bad luck, but it’s just life. It’s how it is and I just want to live my life and keep moving forward. That’s what I’m trying to do: I’m trying to move forward.”

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