Group rallies behind Jorge Steven Acuña for education, not deportation
Sitting in a maximum security cell of a immigration detention center this week, Jorge Steven Acuña, 19, said he thought his life in America was over.
“I was thinking it was the end of it,” he said.
But with every visitor - friends who told him of a rally being formed in his name, and of state and federal leaders who wrote letters to Immigration and Customs Enforcement in support of his family - Acuña said that he grew more optimistic that his family would be allowed to stay.
On Tuesday, after six days at Snow Hill Detention Center on the Eastern Shore, Acuña and his parents, Blanca and Jorge Acuña, who were also detained, got the break that they were looking for - the freedom to go home.
After being detained by ICE March 7 from their Germantown home, on the 12900 block of Walnut View Court, the Acuñas were released Tuesday and granted a one year stay of removal, allowing them to remain in the U.S. so Jorge Steven Acuña can finish his studies at Montgomery College, according to a statement provided by ICE spokeswoman Nicole A. Navas.
Acuña and his parents spoke to a crowd Wednesday, at a rally at Rockville Town Center that had been planned by the family’s friends to advocate for their release. More than 60 of their friends and family gathered, wearing white shirts and holding signs with messages such as, “Free Jorge,” and “Education not Deportation.”
The group, which calls themselves Team JSA, for Acuña’s initials, formed to advocate for the family’s release. By Tuesday, more than 5,000 people had signed an online petition formed by the group. U.S. Rep. Christopher Van Hollen Jr., U.S. Sens. Benjamin L. Cardin and Barbara A. Mikulski and Montgomery County council members, wrote letters to ICE and other federal government officials encouraging them to release the family from custody. Casa of Maryland, the Langley Park-based immigrant rights advocacy group, represented the family free of charge to bid for their release.
The family’s supporters all pointed to Steven’s impressive grades and ambitious college goals as proof the family is hard-working and should not be a priority for immigration officials. Steven graduated from Northwest High School with a 3.8 grade point average and is in his first year at Montgomery College.
Acuña and his parents thanked the crowd and the state and county officials Wednesday.
“My biggest dream right now is to take this a step further and help people who are in my situation,” Acuña said.
Sebastian Roa, Steven’s second cousin, told the crowd that, although the Acuña family is back, the rally Wednesday was just the beginning of the group’s advocacy efforts.
For the last 11 years, the Acuñas, from Colombia, have made America their home.
They fled Colombia to escape violence, according to Roa. Blanca and Jorge Acuña filed for asylum status in the U.S. after fleeing Colombia, he said.
Acuña had always considered his family to be safe living in America, “the home of the free,” he said Wednesday.
“I was so eager for education that was all that mattered to me,” said Acuña, who wants to be a neurosurgeon.
He never thought of the possibility of his family being detained, until the morning of March 7, when there was a knock at the door as he was getting ready for school, he said. His dad came upstairs, and told him that the ICE officials were there.
He said he has a message to share with others in his situation.
“Never stop dreaming,” he said. “Always work hard, and that is just it.”
Gustavo Andrade, an organizing director at Casa, who also spoke Wednesday, said that Casa will continue to work with state and ICE officials to see that the Acuñas and other families in similar situations are able to stay in the U.S., he said.
“Steven and his family are out of jail, but by no means out of jeopardy,” Andrade said.
Not everyone agrees that immigration officials should dismiss the case against the Acuñas. Brad Botwin, executive director of the anti-illegal immigration group, Help Save Maryland, told The Gazette Tuesday that, good grades or not, the Acuña family is in the country illegally.
“They went through the process of applying for asylum and they were denied,” Botwin said. “What a surprise; the system works. It’s time to head back to Colombia for the entire family.”
ICE officials declined to discuss the specifics of the Acuña family’s case, citing privacy waivers that would need to be filed through the family’s attorneys that were not available as of Tuesday afternoon.
Councilman Craig L. Rice (D-Dist. 2) of Germantown, who attended part of the rally and press conference Wednesday, said that the county council is set to meet with Van Hollen (D) of Kensington soon to discuss the way in which the county and state can provide pathways to citizenship.
There are families who are in similar situations who may not have the connections and friendships that the Acuñas did, he said.
The county council wants to start outreach to see that families are more aware of deadline dates, and that it is not a last minute effort to help these families.
Acuña said that, with his 20th birthday Saturday, he is thankful that he will be surrounded by all of his family and friends, and not in the dark jail cell with his father.
Staff Writer Jeremy Arias contributed to this report.