ROCKVILLE – One morning last week, Jorge Steven Acuna, a 19-year-old aspiring surgeon, was preparing for another day of school at Montgomery College in Germantown.
Moments later, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Officers swarmed Acuna’s quiet Germantown home, bound Acuna and his parents in shackles and shoved them into a van headed for a detention center in Eastern Maryland.
Acuna, Jorge Acuna Sr. and Blanca Acuna are illegal immigrants from Colombia. They were going to be deported.
In the next few days, friends and family of Jorge Acuna — who goes by his middle name, Steven — launched a campaign to keep him in the country.
Acuna’s friends teamed up with Hispanic rights advocacy groups CASA de Maryland and the Maryland Dream Youth Committee, working to free their friend by creating an online petition, a YouTube video, a Facebook page, and a Twitter campaign, #JSA.
The Acunas were released in six days through the legal principle of prosecutorial discretion, which granted them a year of relief from their detainment.
But the Acunas’ friends aren’t celebrating, yet. Acuna and his family could still face deportation when the deferment ends next year.
On Wednesday, Acuna’s supporters held a rally at Rockville Town Center to spread the word about immigrant rights, attracting a few hundred supporters.
“What I’ve lived through these past couple days, I’ve never experienced,” Acuna said at the rally, his eyes heavy and his voice trembling. “I want to say thank you to each and every one of you.”
Dawn Johnson, a college student passing through the town center, disagreed with the rally’s message.
“If they don’t want to be deported, they shouldn’t come here illegally,” Johnson said. “If you don’t have laws to govern people, there is anarchy, and things fall apart.”
“I’m not racist, but I think people should do things the right way,” Johnson said.
Most likely, CASA de Maryland will continue to represent the family and seek more years of relief until the Acunas gain citizenship.
“What we want is to bring attention to their situation in the sense of illustrating what people go through,” said Enid Gonzalez, an attorney working with CASA de Maryland who helped arrange the Acunas’ freedom.
When they first arrived in the United States, the family spent tens of thousands of dollars on legal representation to earn political asylum, according to a CASA de Maryland press release.
But their case didn’t receive enough legal attention, and the attorney representing them was later disbarred.
Since then, Gonzalez said, the Acunas have paid their taxes, and lived in Maryland long enough for Steven Acuna to qualify for Maryland’s Dream Act, which would give illegal immigrants in-state tuition rates at Maryland public colleges.
One of the Dream Act’s biggest supporters, Sen. Victor Ramirez, D-Prince George’s, said Acuna was a great example of why the country needs drastic immigration reform.
“He wants to become a full citizen and the opportunity is not there for him,” Ramirez said. “We should be trying to help kids like this rather than deport him.”
One of the Dream Act’s biggest opponents, Delegate Pat McDonough, R-Baltimore County, also heard about the Acunas’ plight.
“I don’t have a problem with it. It’s the law,” McDonough said about Acuna’s potential deportation.
Last year, McDonough and others started a petition against the Dream Act that collected enough signatures to put the law before voters for referendum in November’s election.
“They’re not allowed to be hired. It’s a federal felony,” McDonough said about illegal immigrants. “The Dream Act is based on emotion and illusion. People think it’s a good thing to be doing for young people. But it’s unfair to people who are American citizens.”
Acuna and his parents came to the United States in 2001 to escape political violence in their home country of Colombia. They lived in Florida at first, but soon moved to Germantown, where they became part of the community.
As a student at Northwest High School in Germantown, Acuna made friends, played on the soccer team, maintained jobs and graduated with a 3.8 GPA.
“He was the type of guy everyone wants to be friends with,” said Adrienne Pena, Acuna’s girlfriend since 2008. “He could make friends with a rock.”
Acuna told his friends he wanted to go to Johns Hopkins University and become a surgeon.
“He would always say his purpose in life was to save people,” Pena said.
Acuna’s career as a multi-sport athlete ended with a knee injury that, without medical insurance of his own, he couldn’t afford to fix.
“He has to do so much just to get the things we get for free,” said Victor Castillo, Acuna’s friend.
At Montgomery College in Germantown, Acuna was taking science and pre-med classes, and was on track to achieve a two-year associate’s degree.
Now, the Acunas are forced to wait until their next deferment ends before they know their fate.
As of March 14, the petition, created on change.org, has more than 6,000 signatures throughout the United States and in some Central and South American nations.
“We cannot forget to make it known that it’s not over,” said Paula Ramirez, another friend of Acuna’s. “It’s opened our eyes to such a big problem. Now it’s come to our attention and we’re so motivated to do something.”