(Pictured above: the parents of Yefri Sorto-Hernandez. You may find the Go Fund Me page raising funds for his bond here.)
Over the last six months, I’ve been part of a network of concerned educators, family members, activists and allies that have been working to gain the release of a group called the NC6 from Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, GA, which is operated by the notorious private contractor CCA. As readers of this blog may recall, these are 6 teenagers that were picked up by ICE in late January as part of an Obama administration directive to detain and deport 18 year olds that arrived in the United States as unaccompanied minors after 2014. Four more teenagers have since been picked up to expand this group to the NC10. The pretext for their detention was to discourage a wave of minors from arriving without papers in the US during the summer of 2016 as they had the year before. The motivation almost undoubtedly had to do with election year politics and the political theater that led up to the recent Supreme Court decision on DAPA. These teenagers would have been released quickly if they were adults, but became in effect political prisoners appropriated to cast the Democratic Party as “Tough on border enforcement” in the media during a window of time when this spin is high on their list of priorities. The negative outcome of the DAPA case is only the latest in a series of examples of how the Obama Administration’s negotiation strategy of offering concessions to their opponents in advance has consistently failed.
A delegation of about 30 of us went down to Stewart Detention Center from Durham and Charlotte on Sunday night. We went to attend a Monday morning bond hearing for a high school senior named Yefri Sorto-Hernandez, who had been taken by ICE while at a school bus stop on his way to class in Charlotte one morning in late January. Our hope was that the judge would be more likely to grant a bail bond for his release if we packed the courtroom with family members and allies. Unfortunately, we only half right. The judge did grant a bail bond for Yefri’s release, but she set it at the unprecedented and punitive rate of $30,000. By contrast, Kimberly Pineda Chavez, a high school student who was detained in Atlanta around the same time, was released from Irwin County Detention Center after posting a bond set at $1,500. For the entire time we were there, it was clear that the guards and staff of Stewart Detention Center were not used to having so many advocates present at a bond hearing. We feel that the high profile nature of Yefri’s case and that of Wildin David Guillen Acosta of Durham has made them a target for retribution by the detention facility. Wildin was recently placed in solitary confinement for several days on flimsy pretexts, and only gained his release after advocates applied pressure. One of those advocates was Congressman G.K. Butterfield, who had been to visit Wildin at Stewart only a few days before he was placed in solitary. Butterfield’s press release calling for his release from restricted housing explicitly raised the question of whether his visit led to Wildin’s being placed in solitary in the first place.
It seems that the bond set for Yefri, whom I had the chance to meet and speak with on Monday afternoon, was designed to either prevent his actual release or to inflict a form of financial punishment and revenge against his family on the way out the door. His parents have worked here legally for 18 and 16 years, and they have a 9 year old daughter who was born here. Their son has committed no crime other than want to rejoin his parents and escape gang violence that spread in his native El Salvador. This violence has roots in US Foreign Policy mistakes of the past several decades, including the use of alliances with drug cartels to help “win” the cold war, a topic I’ve written about on this blog in the past.
Supporters have organized a Go Fund Me campaign to help raise the bail bond for Yefri. Please consider giving if you can, even if and after the campaign reaches its initial target of $3,500. The bar was set low in the hopes that his family would at least get something. There will be an appeal of the amount of his bond, and his lawyers hope to see it reduced. Advocates have been contacting the Department of Justice towards this end. But we have learned that these young men are not safe in this facility and want to get Yefri out as soon as possible in the hopes that bond hearing for the rest of the NC10 can proceed with better results.
Let me share one detail I observed while at Stewart Detention Center. It’s not the most serious punishment that we’ve heard about there – the solitary confinement, the food that is often 2 years past its expiration date and crawling with maggots, waking Wildin up at 3 in the morning to tell him he was about to be deported when the guards knew full well that he had just been granted a stay of deportation pending a hearing for asylum that will take a year or more to complete. But it’s a symbolic thing – the phones.
About 8 of us went in to speak to detainees at a time. There were 6 booths with glass separating us from them. Voices were connected to each other by pay-phone style cables and handsets. We were there for two 90 minute sessions with two different groups of detainees, one in the morning and one after lunch. Over that time, I used every one of those 6 handsets. None of them worked well. At best, the voices were heard at a very low volume, more like a faint echo heard through two cans connected by a string than a voice conveyed by a (relatively) modern technology. More often, handsets were rendered periodically useless by clouds of static. Some of them didn’t work at all for periods of time.
Given CCA’s thriving profit margins, it seems clear that they could afford to upgrade these connections. One can only draw the conclusion that they keep them in disrepair on purpose in order to further cement the experience of social isolation that they aim to induce in people who are housed there. This is also the logic behind the decision to locate detention facilities in remote locations such as Lumpkin GA, which is 2.5 hours southeast of Atlanta. I drove down there from Durham with one of Wildin’s former teachers and Wildin’s mother. It took us 9 hours. It is obviously not easy for low income people to make such trips. We stayed at a wonderful place called El Refugio that was set up to provide free accommodations to family members visiting loved ones who are detained at Stewart, which is just a mile down the road. I was moved by the toys that were at the foot of the sofa bed I slept in. They were touching but also terrifying in that it made me think of the impact of detention on young children. It made me think of students I have taught who either fear their parents will disappear due to detention or who have been separated from family members by detention and deportation. The burlap coffee sacks – all fair trade – that hang on the walls there were gentle but firm reminders of the fundamentally economic basis of the emigration patterns between Central and North America.
Of course El Refugio can only mitigate the isolation. Josue, a detainee whose brother I met on a lobbying trip to Congress in DC in March, told me that Elman had not been able to come see him in 5 months. He has no other family members in this country, and his bond hearing was denied in early June. I spoke with a young man from Georgia whose parents had not been able to come visit him at all because they are undocumented. The detainees from NC brought him out with them because they know he needed to speak to someone from outside. He asked me to contact three teachers from his high school to tell them how he was doing, and I had a great conversation with one of them last night. She told me that Stewart makes it extraordinarily difficult to send money to detainees, as she has been trying to do for this student. While we there I overheard CCA staff telling a visitor that they could only send money via Western Union. But the teacher from Georgia I spoke with said that she had tried to do so but it didn’t work.
Wildin’s teachers made efforts to respond to his request to send him homework over the spring semester that were sometimes returned to sender because of petty regulations. We are going to be sending the detainees reading materials because we learned the only books they have for them in the library are comic books and the bible. Josue asked for science fiction and mystery. If anyone has tips on good titles in those genres available in Spanish, leave a comment below.
The National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild has put out the following release on this bond issue. They have been doing great work leading this fight.
June 27, 2016
Lumpkin, Georgia— This morning, a delegation of more than 30 North Carolina community members along with families of detained youths attended the bond hearing of Yefri Sorto-Hernandez, a Charlotte high school student.
In late January, ICE arrested Yefri at his school bus stop. Since then, ICE has ignored all pleas from community and public officials to use its discretion to release Yefri and other NC youth.
Today, before a packed courtroom, the Immigration Judge at Stewart Detention Center set the bond amount for Yefri at $30,000, a highly disproportionate and unnecessary amount to place on a high school student and his family. Unfortunately, this high bond amount comes at no surprise given that the Immigration Court in Georgia is one of the most anti-immigrant in the country. As it struggles to come up with this money, the community calls on President Obama and DHS Secretary Johnson to release the North Carolina youth subject to indefinite detention and end the ICE raids:
John Davis, Treasurer of Durham Association of Educators and Board member of Durham People’s Alliance: “What I saw today was the Immigration Court and ICE working in concert to criminalize our North Carolina youth. $30,000 is an outrageous price to pay for a 19 year-old student whose biggest wish is to return to his family and finish his high school education. We call on President Obama and DHS Secretary Johnson to release these youth now. Students belong in classrooms not jails.”Salma Villarreal, graduate of Vance High School, Charlotte: “The ICE raids have terrorized my community in Charlotte and taken away my fellow classmates. DAPA may be frozen by the court, but there is still a chance for President Obama to stand up for immigrants—the raids must stop and Yefri and the other NC youths should be released now.”Dilsia Acosta, mother of detained youth Wildin Acosta: “I pray to God that the doors will open for Yefri and hope the same for my son. I hope my son will be out of Stewart very soon and thank God as we continue forward.”
Said Rep. Lewis: “No human being can be illegal, and no innocent child should live in fear of deportation. I have fought my whole life to ensure that every human being is treated with fairness and justice…The raids conducted as part of Operation Border Guardian have deeply troubled me. They are not right, not fair, not just. They are an inappropriate response to those fleeing violence and disorder.”