Central American Immigrants, Wary of Recent Raids Sweeping up Young People, Adjust to a Life of Fear

Joseph Tanfani, Los Angeles Times, March 11, 2016

When Wildin David Guillen Acosta left his apartment to head to high school one chilly morning in January, two immigration agents were waiting.

Acosta, 19, immediately threw himself on the ground and yelled for help. As his father watched from the window of their garden apartment in a scruffy southeast Durham neighborhood, he was handcuffed and taken to jail. Now he’s trying to avoid deportation to his native Honduras, where, he said, he’s afraid he might be killed by gangs.

“These people are crazy,” he said in a phone interview this week from Stewart Detention Center in Georgia. “One of them killed my uncle. That’s why I don’t want to go back to my country. I want to stay with my mother and my father; all my family is here in the U.S.”

Acosta was one of 336 young people snared in raids this year, an attempt by U.S. immigration officials to send a message of deterrence to Central America and avoid a repeat of the 2014 crisis when tens of thousands of children from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala arrived at the U.S. border.

But this small operation, which also netted 121 family members, touched off a giant uproar, spawning fierce protests from the administration’s allies on immigration and a new wave of fear in immigrant neighborhoods here and across the country.

The arrests also became an issue in the Democratic presidential primary debate in Miami on Wednesday. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders sparred over who has better defended immigrants, but ultimately agreed they did not support the recent arrests. “Children fled that part of the world to try . . . maybe, to meet up with their family members, taking a route that was horrific, trying to start a new life,” Sanders said, adding that President Obama is “wrong on the issue of deportation.”

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Immigration officials believe the operation succeeded; the numbers of kids crossing has dropped since the operations began, Jeh Johnson, secretary of Homeland Security, said at a recent news conference.

“I know this has made a lot of people I respect very unhappy,” Johnson said of advocates and lawmakers angered over the raids. “But we must enforce the law in accordance with our priorities.”

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