Interview conducted by Matt Villano.
There’s no telling what would have happened to Wildin Acosta if his classmates and teachers hadn’t mobilized on his behalf. While the adults at Riverside High School were critical in that effort, none of it would have happened without the strategic action of four students—Maggie Johnson, Olga Bonifacio, Aldair Corrales and Juliana Rodriguez.* Teaching Tolerance sat down with “Team Wildin” recently to discuss their experiences and what they learned during the months they spent telling Wildin’s story to anyone who would listen.
What was it about Wildin's story that piqued your interest and inspired you to want to get involved with helping him?
Aldair: For Juliana and me it was a very personal matter. Immigration or anything to do with immigration is our story, our life. We’re both DACA kids. Their stories were our story.
Juliana: I agree. When I heard about what had happened, I realized, ‘Hey, I could have been the same student, detained.’ All of a sudden it meant it wasn’t only like, ‘Oh, this is about a kid that I see sometimes in the hallways,’ but instead was more like, ‘Wow, this is a fellow immigrant who doesn't deserve this, and it could’ve easily been me.’
Olga: I’m a DACA kid, too. Maggie and I noticed that a lot of students at school weren’t doing much about it, or weren’t advocating on his behalf. And this is something that we felt passionate about, so that’s when we started organizing and seeing how we could help.
Maggie: My sophomore year of high school, I joined the journalism staff at Riverside, and my first big story for the newspaper was about immigration. Later, I heard the story of someone being deported, and I was like, ‘That’s insane, so inhumane.’ Finally, senior year, when Wildin was detained and I heard what happened, it didn’t make any sense how he could be taken and not be allowed to finish his education. I just knew there was something that had to be done.
To what extent have you had similar run-ins with ICE?
Olga: I’ve never had an encounter with Immigration. I know stories where Immigration would show up at apartment building complexes searching for someone else, but would actually take everyone who was undocumented. So, growing up, it was something that I would hear about from my parents, but it wasn’t something that necessarily hit so close to home.
Aldair: I’ve had this order of removal for more than 10 years, and even now it affects my case. If I leave the country, I basically self-deport. One time my stepdad was stopped. He was taking me to school. He was stopped by the police officer for crossing at the wrong time when a bus had a stop sign on. He was detained for about three months, and luckily he was released, but he was in removal proceedings in detention.
Juliana: My dad had a close call. He’s a construction worker, so he travels a lot to go to work. At the beginning of high school, he went to Jacksonville and was stopped by the police because his van looked suspicious, and it looked like he was carrying a lot of weight. The cop found out that my dad was driving without a license, and he was carrying eight other people in the van, but they were driving to work, from the hotel where their bosses had them. He basically told my dad, ‘Hey, you can get into very serious trouble, because not only are you driving without a license but you also are carrying all these people who are also undocumented.’ The way my dad told me the story, the only reason the cop didn’t take him at that moment was because my dad had a picture of me and my brother on his dashboard, and the cop basically told him he also had the same-aged children. So he just gave him a ticket and that was it.
Once you heard what had happened to Wildin, what was the plan of attack?
Juliana: One of our teachers went to Washington, D.C., with a couple other people and some of Wildin’s family. Back here, we were like, ‘Okay, yeah. We can write letters, and we can do stuff like that.’ So we did. And then we decided to get more people involved. It turned into setting up tables in the lunchroom, having kids to come up and take pictures of signs and post them to social media, and asking kids to call our local congressman, things like that.
How many students were you able to mobilize?
Aldair: A lot.
Olga: Yeah. A majority. At one point we cut pieces of cloth to make bracelets, and I remember the majority of the school was wearing a bracelet in support. I had people who would randomly come up to me and ask me for more information about it, so the whole school in general was aware of what was going on.
Juliana: We counted social media [hits] near the beginning, and I think our initial wave of letters and Facebook posts of the signs and things like that was around 200 or 300.
How much of the impact do you think was driven by the students?
Aldair: They were a huge part of it. The argument that we eventually developed was that it was an education issue as well as an immigration issue, since Wildin was just trying to get an education and be successful in life. That’s what all students do, right? When the opportunity for him to strive for something better through the education system was taken away, we were like, ‘This is unfair. Why is this happening?’ We found that when talking to government officials and making our case, our stance as students was strong. It was as if we were saying, ‘We students stand with him, and we’re making a statement because he deserves an education just like all of us deserve an education, so why is he being singled out?’ It was like a youth movement.
Juliana: I’m the youngest of the four of us, and I was a junior when all this started, and I’d never had any sort of experience advocating for people. But I think a lot of our success had to do with our teachers, Mr. Christopher and Miss Holmes. They trusted us; they told us that we were capable of doing what we were doing. The confidence they had in us helped me have confidence that we were doing something good and doing it the right way.
How did you educate skeptical peers about the importance of your mission?
Juliana: Olga mentioned it earlier, but we set up a table in the cafeteria at school and started distributing cloth bracelets. Students kept coming to our table and asking, ‘What are these bracelets for? What do they represent? What are you guys trying to do?’ That’s when we told them about Wildin and his situation. And a lot of kids were shocked to hear that a student was taken. A lot of students weren’t familiar with immigration policies. There were a lot of students who weren’t even familiar with Wildin himself. But most of them had this sense it was really unfair that he was taken. If the students wanted to help, they could take a bracelet, then go back to their seats and tell their friends. If students weren’t as open-minded, they just kept walking and wouldn’t say anything. Or they’d come over but not come back.
Maggie: I didn’t actually have a whole lot of one-on-one conversations with people. A lot of it was just making sure the material was out there and having Wildin’s story heard by students, and so at least they were aware of what was going on, and then they could come to their own conclusions.
When you heard Wildin was released and when you heard he finished his coursework, how did that make you feel?
Maggie: I had never met Wildin before he was arrested, and I’d probably passed him in the hall once or twice, but I didn’t even recognize him. Still, when I graduated, when I walked and Wildin did not, it was hard for me to go through with it. So when I got the text that he had been released, I ended up just crying my eyes out.
Aldair: I had the chance to give a speech at graduation, and I referenced Wildin’s situation and how it was something that our class had dealt with. I remember thinking we had lost a battle in the sense that he wasn’t released beforehand, but we had hope that something was going to happen shortly after that. And it did. When he was released, it was great. I was very pleased that things had worked out well. What I’m most proud of is how we’ve learned about all the tools at our disposal to do something. Even Wildin learned. He still has friends still detained, and he’s taken on the role of advocating for them.
Juliana: I felt really proud of Wildin for making it. When I found out he was cleared to graduate, he posted it on Facebook. He was basically thanking his teachers and all his classmates for supporting him. I just remember having this huge smile on my face. I was home alone, so I was just laughing to myself, and I was really happy. Yeah, everyone helped him get out of detention, but he was the one who had that drive to keep going. Despite his challenges, he still managed to do it. I was very proud of him. I’m a year behind Maggie, Olga and Aldair, which means I’ll get to graduate with Wildin in June. I can’t wait.
What would you say you learned about American democracy through this ordeal?
Olga: I used to think before that government and politics and democracy were things I couldn’t exactly be a part of [because I’m undocumented]. Going through this has allowed me to realize that I can make a difference too. I can make my elected officials hear what I’m saying. If the whole community takes a stand, they have to hear what we say as a community. And we can make change.
Aldair: I think the system’s messed up, big time. Thankfully for us, we were able to make it work in our favor. We were able to talk to the right people. We were able to make a difference. We were blessed to have teachers and supporters to help us make democracy accountable for what was happening. The United States is a big place, and there are areas where people like Wildin go through issues, get picked up and just get sent away because they have nobody to speak out for them. For this reason, now, our role and responsibility is to spread these stories of why people deserve a chance. There’s a lot more work to do.
*Students’ names have been changed to protect their identities.
*This interview was produced in partnership with the anti-hate news project 500 Pens.