After spending nearly a week in a maximum-security detention center in fear of being deported, the Germantown family that sparked a social media firestorm got the chance to speak for themselves.
“We couldn't even see the sunlight,” said Jorge Steven Acuña, who goes by Steve. “It was as if we were a threat to our own community. Instead, our own community's out here working for us."
Acuña, 19, and his parents, Blanca and Jorge Acuña, addressed a crowd of supporters at Rockville Town Square on Wednesday, not even having spent a full day free from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody.
The Acuñas were released from an Eastern Shore detention center Tuesday night. They had been at the facility since March 7.
On Wednesday, the family thanked the community for their efforts and said it gave them hope while they were behind bars. They hope to use the experience to raise awareness.
"Èl no es un criminal,” Acuña’s mother Blanca told the crowd in Spanish. “Èl no es un criminal."
She said that her son was not a criminal.
What happened to the Acuña family
The family came to the United States from Colombia when Acuña was a child in order to escape political persecution. But the family’s application for asylum was denied.
“As a matter of procedure, when the asylum application got denied it triggered a final order for deportation,” said Gustavo Andrade, organizational director for CASA de Maryland, an immigrants’ rights organization.
Word spread rapidly about the Acuñas’ situation via #JSA-tagged tweets, Facebook fans and an online petition drive, eventually catching the attention of the Montgomery County Council and U.S. Rep. Chris VanHollen (D-Md.).
CASA de Maryland is providing the family free legal representation and is working with congressman Van Hollen’s office to help the family through the legal process.
Acuña and his parents were released from the Eastern Shore facility because they were granted a one-year reprieve, as part of a process known prosecutorial discretion.
“Steven and his family are poster children for prosecutorial discretion,” Andrade said.
A dream deferred?
But politically, not every one agrees with the outcome.
"I don't have a problem with it. It's the law," Md. Del. Pat McDonough (R-Baltimore County) told the Captial News Service, in reference to Acuña’s potential deportation.
McDonough is a vocal opponent of Maryland’s Dream Act, which would grant in-state tuition to illegal immigrants at state schools under certain conditions. He was among the anti-illegal immigration lawmakers to gain enough signatures to send the law to referendum vote.
On Wednesday, community leaders used the rally to make the pitch for Dream Act — Montgomery County Council Vice-President Nancy Navarro (D-Dist. 4) and Councilwoman Valerie Ervin (D-Dist. 5) spoke of its need.
“I'm really sorry for the Acuña family had to go through this, but sometimes God has certain plans for us,” Navarro said. “I hope this is a catalyst that makes us go forward as a bloc come November to say yes to the Dream act.”
A representative from congressman Van Hollen’s office spoke at the rally. Councilman Craig Rice (D-Dist. 2), of Germantown, attended but did not address the crowd.
Acuña feels more motivated, has new sense of obligation
Acuña graduated from Northwest High School with a 3.8 GPA. He was enrolled at Montgomery College and was covering his tuition costs by working internships. His friends said he aspired to become a surgeon.
"You're brought to this country by your parents and all you're willing to do here is get an education, have a dream, set some goals up,” Acuña said.
After the rally, Acuña said he left the detention center feeling even more motivated. Because of the effort of his friends and the support of the community, Acuña said he feels obligated to help others.
“I'm willing to take it on for the rest of my life if it's possible just because I don't want people to be living through what I had to live through with my family," Acuña said.