Nearly a dozen people are hunched over a long table at the LGBTQ Center of Durham on a recent evening.
They're scrawling hopeful sentiments on brightly-colored pieces of paper. The letters of support are headed to six young men arrested in North Carolina in targeted immigration enforcement actions in January.
All six men are still at the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia.
Holly Hardin, a middle school teacher at Lakewood Montessori Middle School in Durham, organized the event. She plucks a colorful note from a file folder designated for Wildin Acosta, one of the detained men.
The note reads: "Wildin, I am a student in Durham. We have been talking a lot about your story in school and at home. We are all rooting for you and doing our best to help. I hope you are able to get through this. Stay strong. We're on your side. Love, Sophie."
Fears persist among Latino students
A third of Hardin’s students are Latino. News of the arrests has been hard on them, she said.
"Students having stomach aches, having headaches, falling asleep in class all from the trauma and worry that when they get home, their families won't be there, their friends won't be there," Hardin said.
Hardin said her students fear not being able to answer the door or leave their homes except to go to school. She said some are having trouble sleeping at night.
ICE agents arrested Acosta on January 27, as he left his apartment to go to Riverside High School, where he was a senior. The others arrested in the raid include: Bilmer Pujoy-Juarez, of Greenville; Josue Soriano-Cortez, of Thomasville; Pedro Salmeron, of Charlotte; Yefri Sorto, of Charlotte; and Santos Padilla-Guzman, in Raleigh.
The group SONG, or Southerners on New Ground Latino Caucus, has taken a lead in organizing the letter-writing event as a way "to... just to show them them that Durham is here for them," according to Hardin.
"We also want to let the government, let Secretary [Jeh] Johnson at the Department of Homeland Security, know that they're members of our community and we're not giving up," she said.
Earlier this year, Secretary Johnson directed ICE officers to target "individuals who pose a threat to national security, public safety and border security." This includes anyone who arrived in the U.S. as a child since 2014, but is now over 18.
In an e-mail, ICE spokesman Bryan Cox said agents don't make arrests at "schools, hospitals and places of worship, except in emergency circumstances."
Fleeing gang violence in Honduras
Acosta, 19, came to the U.S. illegally in 2014. He said in Honduras, a violent gang was trying to recruit him and he feared being killed if he didn't join the gang or leave the country, according to family friend Ivan Almonte.
"Almost two months ago, one of his best friends got killed in Honduras. They went [on] a field trip and he got killed by gang members," Almonte said. "Now, in Honduras, the newspapers, the TV, everybody knows about Wildin. So, can you believe he'd get deported?"
An immigration judge ordered Acosta to be deported in March, but his attorney, Evelyn Smallwood, is appealing the decision. She said in an e-mail that ICE has denied requests to release Acosta while his appeal is pending. He has another brief due June 9.
And U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield said he's planning to visit Acosta at the detention center in Georgia. In a statement, Butterfield said ICE should focus on "dangerous criminals" rather than high school students and teenagers fleeing violence.
Life in Detention
Earlier this week, Acosta called Almonte's cell phone from the detention center. Almonte received the call while he sat with other activists and wrote letters of support to the detained men.
On the phone, Acosta sounded stressed. He told Almonte life in detention is hard. Almonte reassured him that his friends in Durham are thinking and lobbying for him.
"It's, like, four months, and he's still detained," Almonte said, incredulous. "And it's painful because ... he doesn't feel good. He's depressed. He wants to give up. He misses his family. He wants to go to college and now it's painful for him because in 2 weeks his classmates are graduating from Riverside, but he won't be able to."