(Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

The teenagers accused of raping a ninth-grader at Rockville High School last week were among tens of thousands of young people who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally in 2016.

Jose Montano was searching for his uncle; Henry Sanchez Milian, for his dad.

Traveling separately, each was apprehended by federal border agents and targeted for deportation proceedings.

But after a stint in federal custody, they were allowed to join their relatives in Maryland, two more individuals in a backlogged, secretive immigration system who would put down roots in this country long before their first day in court.

Last Thursday, Montano, 17, and Sanchez Milian, 18, allegedly took turns raping a 14-year-old girl in a high school bathroom. They have become the public face of an immigration debate raging in this country, fueled by President Trump’s rhetoric about ­“rapists” and “bad hombres.”

Police leave the Montgomery County, Md., home of a 17-year-old suspected of raping a younger student at Rockville High School. He is one of two teens charged in the attack. (Arelis Hernandez/TWP)

Critics have sharply questioned why the United States has admitted more than 150,000 unaccompanied minors, mostly from Central America, in the past three years, crowding immigration courts and public schools. This week, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) called it a “kind of amnesty.”

But the Montgomery County schools superintendent and advocates said that politicians should not judge immigrant children seeking a better life for themselves by one disturbing case.

“The unaccompanied minors are overwhelmingly young people who are coming here fleeing horrific circumstances of violence in their countries,” said Kim Propeack, political director at Casa, the group formerly known as Casa de Maryland but which now operates in that state, Virginia and Pennsylvania.

A variety of U.S. government agencies have had contact with Montano and Sanchez Milian. Border agents held them first, and then, as the law requires, turned them over to an office at the Department of Health and Human Services, which sheltered them and apparently released them to their guardians in Maryland. The teens enrolled in public schools, which are required by federal law to admit them.

Border agents had given the teens notices to appear in immigration court. But U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which initiates deportation proceedings in immigration courts, never filed charges against Sanchez Milian. ICE officials said Wednesday that the teen was not a priority for deportation because he had no criminal record and “no known gang affiliations.”

ICE officials would not comment on Montano’s deportation case because he is a minor, even though he has been charged as an adult in the rape case.

The teens have not entered a plea in the case. But Sanchez Milian’s defense attorney, Andrew Jezic, said Wednesday that he was not guilty and called the encounter “consensual.” Sanchez Milian had fled gang violence in Guatemala and was seeking a better life in the United States, Jezic said.

Henry E. Sanchez Milian, also known as Henry E. Sanchez, age 18, is charged with raping a juvenile female Rockville High School student. (Montgomery County Police)

On Wednesday, a woman who lives in the house Montano shares with his uncle said she could not imagine the teen she knows by the nickname “Chepe” committing such a crime. She said she has rented the room next to Montano’s bedroom for about two months and described him as a “moto” — Spanish for orphan, abandoned by his parents in El Salvador. He calls his uncle, ­Orlando Montano, “Papa.”

The elder Montano confirmed Tuesday that he is Jose Montano’s guardian but would not answer other questions.

Wednesday afternoon, police arrived to search the small cottage. Officers took photos and left after about 15 minutes, handing Orlando Montano a piece of paper.

Jose Montano is being represented by Ron Gottlieb, an experienced lawyer in the public defender’s office in Montgomery. Allen Wolf, the head of that office, declined to comment.

Montano, who is from El Salvador, was apprehended in April 2016, five months after his 16th birthday. Sanchez Milian, from Guatemala, was caught in August of that year, days before he turned 18.

Border Patrol officials stopped both teens near McAllen, Tex., and detained them for less than the legal limit of 72 hours, then handed them over to HHS’s Office for Refugee Resettlement, according to a federal official with direct knowledge of the case.

Under federal law, unaccompanied minors from Central America must be turned over to HHS for processing, which is meant to protect them from human trafficking and other dangers. HHS officials did not respond to repeated questions about the teens.

Jezic said he was told by Sanchez Milian’s father that the teen was held in Texas for about 18 days. The father said he paid for his son’s flight to Maryland and picked him up at Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport, Jezic said.

Montano enrolled at Rockville High in August. Sanchez Milian followed one month later. The public defender who first represented the teens in court said Friday that Montano reads and writes in Spanish and had gone as far as seventh grade in El Salvador.

At Rockville High, both teens were in a special program for non-English speakers, school officials said this week. They were not in classes with the alleged victim, who prosecutors say was forced into a boys’ bathroom and raped as she cried out in pain and repeatedly told them to stop.

Police said that until Thursday’s arrests, they had never heard of the suspects.

Sanchez Milian and Montano are being held without bond. Each is charged with one count of first-degree rape and two counts of first-degree sex offense.

Jezic said that Sanchez Milian was “fleeing from gang threats and gang violence” in his home country and spent about four weeks traveling to the United States. He would like to seek asylum in this country.

Matthew Bourke, a spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the Homeland Security Department, initially said that Sanchez Milian was issued a notice to appear in front of an immigration judge and that it was “waiting to be scheduled.”

But Kathryn Mattingly, a spokeswoman for the immigration courts, which report to the Justice Department, said they had no record that ICE had filed a deportation claim.

Later, Bourke acknowledged that the agency had not, noting that there are “500 other cases ICE is responsible for in the Baltimore Area of Responsibility.”

“He was a noncriminal alien who had been released from detention with no known gang affiliations,” Bourke said in a statement. “The priority to prompt immigration court to review a case has been whether the alien has a criminal conviction or if they’re in detention.”

He also noted that “had Sanchez Milian appeared in immigration court prior to his criminal arrest, it is significantly unlikely a judge would have made any decision that would have allowed for his immediate removal.”

Immigration officials now are pursuing Sanchez Milian’s deportation and say they have asked local authorities to alert them if he were to make bond.

They sought to deport Montano before the rape allegations, filing a case in November, Mattingly said. The Baltimore Immigration Court scheduled Montano for an initial hearing on Jan. 24. That day, the court moved his hearing to Dec. 11. Mattingly declined to provide an explanation, saying the courts do not comment on an immigration judge’s decisions.

Bourke would not comment on Montano’s case because he is a minor.

Jezic said the public should keep in mind that defendants are innocent until proven guilty. “There has been a rush to judgment,” the lawyer said.

Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.