The Washington region’s robust Central American community has taken in a relatively large percentage of the tens of thousands of children who have been detained at the U.S.-Mexico border this year, federal statistics show.
Since January, about 4,600 children have been sent to live temporarily with family or guardians in Virginia, Maryland and the District, amid a historic wave of illegal immigration from Central America.
In all, 30,340 children from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras have been placed with sponsors nationwide while their deportation cases are pending — part of an effort to manage what has become a political crisis that includes a last-ditch effort in Congress to pass new legislation on border security before the summer recess.
Several thousand more Central American minors who have no relatives or potential guardians in the United States have been sent to shelters inside military installations and centers operated by nonprofit groups.
Residents of Virginia and Maryland have taken in more children than any state except California, Texas, Florida and New York, according to data released late Thursday by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
A total of 2,234 children were placed in Virginia and 2,205 in Maryland. An additional 211 went to the District. The region is home to about 420,000 Central Americans, Census Bureau estimates show, second in the country after Los Angeles.
“We’re getting an increasing number of calls from families who’ve been informed recently that their children are being held in detention,” said Sheena Wadhawan, legal program manager at Casa of Maryland, which is preparing asylum applications for children who have fled violence in their homelands.
“More than anything, what’s overwhelming is the nature of the stories we hear,” Wadhawan said.
“How dire the circumstance are that the children are running from and how difficult it is to understand that the U.S. government’s position is to try to deport them as quickly as possible. It’s not enough time to give them due process and give them the assistance they need,” she added.
The effort to deal with what President Obama has called a humanitarian crisis at the border has tapped into already politically raw emotions over illegal immigration,
In Maryland, Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) drew ire from the White House when he publicly chastised the Obama administration’s efforts to accelerate deportation proceedings.
After the White House responded by revealing that the governor argued against using a facility in Carroll County to house some of the children, O’Malley met with religious leaders to explore ways to better assist the affected families.
In Virginia, news that one nonprofit organization is housing some of the children in Prince William County moved the Board of Supervisors there to demand that the federal government provide an accounting of how local services might be affected over the long term.
“The whole thing has been handled by the federal government in such a haphazard, secretive way that we just have no confidence at all in what they’re doing,” said Corey Stewart, the board’s chairman.
HHS, which gives unaccompanied minors counseling and medical care before referring them to family members, says it anticipates working with 60,000 children during the 12-month period that ends in October.
The agency said that most of the children who are crossing the border are from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, countries that are increasingly being consumed by gang and drug cartel violence.
Among them are Marlen and Mircy Rac Roque, teenage sisters from Guatemala. They were put on a bus headed for the Texas border shortly after their father, who lives in Alexandria, received a text message in Alexandria from someone who identified himself as a member of the Zetas drug cartel.
“We’re going to kill your whole family,” the message to Angel Rac Roque read, in misspelled Spanish. “Your daughters will fall.”
Rac Roque said he had reason to believe the threat, because his brother had been killed by the same Mexico-based cartel in Guatemala when he refused access to his tire repair shop.
After the girls made it to the border, they were apprehended by U.S. authorities. At their family’s expense, they were eventually put on a plane for Reagan National Airport, where their father was waiting.
Their deportation case is pending. Their attorney, Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg, plans to ask for U.S. asylum.
In the meantime, they are living in Alexandria and have checked out the neighborhood schools they hope to attend in the fall. Marlen, 15, wants to be a doctor in the United States. Mircy, 13, hopes to become a teacher.
“It’s like putting something on a scale, and hanging in the balance was their lives,” Angel Rac Roque said, explaining the risk he chose by quickly making arrangements for his daughters to travel alone.
“When I met them at the airport, yes, of course, I cried,” he said, as his daughters smiled at him.