Sharon Murphy comforts Jennifer, who is among the largest wave of recent undocumented immigrants from Central America arriving in the D.C. metro area.
Oscar, right, and his friend Mathew play with some toys at Mary's House. (Armando Trull/WAMU)
More than 4,000 unaccompanied children from Central America have been released to sponsors in the metro D.C. area as of July. But there is another group arriving in increasing numbers. Single mothers with small children — the majority from Honduras — are now the fastest growing group detained at the border, with around 25,000 of these families so far this year.
Oscar, 6, and his 5-year-old friend Mathew are rolling toy cars on the floor of a shelter in Northeast Washington. Mathew imitates a race car, while Oscar the sound he is most familiar with: "Choo choo choo!"
Three weeks ago, Oscar and his 20-year-old mother Jennifer spent three terrifying days on the iron roof of La Bestia — the Beast. That’s the nickname of the cargo trains that many Central Americans use to cross Mexico. Jennifer’s trip began in Puerto Cortes, on Honduras' Caribbean coast. The single mother decided to leave soon after getting threatening messages.
“I was paralyzed with fear and started to cry. The callers said they were from the 18th street gang," Jennifer says. "'If you don't send us money we're going to your house right now and kill everyone in your family.'"
“Basically, it turns out to be a process of intimidation," says Dr. Manuel Orozco, a fellow at Inter-American Dialogue — a D.C.-based think tank. He’s spent the past decade investigating migration from Central America. The intimidation targets small businesses, people who may be getting money from relatives abroad, even random victims such as Jennifer.
“These extortion networks are made up of small groupings, but there might be hundreds of them in places like El Salvador and Honduras," he says.
A changing climate for immigrants
Orozco says that in addition to these small-time gangs, four major and very violent drug cartels are currently operating in Honduras. The government’s inability to curtail criminals has made death a way of life in Honduras, where there were 7,000 murders last year and over a thousand of the victims were under the age of 23.
To bring this closer to home, for the District’s murder rate to equal that of San Pedro Zula, Honduras' deadliest city, the 103 homicides committed in D.C. last year would need to swell to more than 1,100.
"A lot of death, only death, death, death. That’s all you see and hear," Jennifer says.
After being processed in Texas, Jennifer and Oscar were released with a final warning from immigration authorities.
“Don’t think you’ll be here long — you aren't getting a permit to stay here. Don’t think the president will help you," Jennifer says.
Jennifer and Oscar narrowly escaped immediate deportation. A few days after being released and ordered to appear before immigration authorities at a later date, the White House authorized expedited hearings for single mothers with their kids. Most of those family units detained now are quickly deported.
Many conservatives, such as Frederick County Sheriff Chuck Jenkins, support expedited deportations. Jenkins, a Republican, is an outspoken advocate of strong measures against undocumented immigrants. He recognizes the plight of these mothers and children, but says a line must be drawn.
“Listen, I feel for it I really do, as a father and as a human being," Jenkins says. "The problem is at what point do we say we can't accommodate any more, and that’s where this is going without anything being done.”
Outside the White House, advocates protest every week, demanding an end to deportations and immigration reform. But the White House and Congress are deadlocked and the fate of tens of thousands of these immigrant is unclear.
Jennifer wears an ICE electronic ankle monitor she says it makes her feel like the criminals she fled. (Armando Trull/WAMU)
Local groups try and keep families afloat
Jennifer wears an electronic ankle bracelet placed on her by immigration authorities in Virginia. She reported to them on the advice of immigration advocates. It’s the only way she'll be able to plead her case for refugee status in front of an immigration court, but it’s not at all certain she'll get to stay.
"We suffered so much to get here and almost died in the desert, all to be sent back to be killed by the gangs," Jennifer says.
Young Oscar comforts his mother, giving her a kiss. Her soft-spoken "thank you, son" belies the uncertainty her small family faces. The pair crash at overcrowded homes for a few days until they overstay their welcome and move on. Just as she was running out of places to go, Jennifer met Sharon Murphy.
“You need help, we have a place, come home," says Murphy.
Murphy founded Mary House, a non-profit that homes distressed families. She sheltered her first family in her own home 30 years ago.
“That really opened our eyes for the first time to this invisible community that no one was responding to," she says.
She’s helped families from Mexico, El Salvador, Bosnia and Iraq.
There are no units for Jennifer and Oscar, so Murphy gives them food to use in lieu of rent money, so they don't get kicked out. Other local organizations in the District are weaving together a safety net for Jennifer and Oscar, providing clothing, health care, immigration advice, education and emotional support.
“They are all angels, that God put in my path," Jennifer says.
Throughout the metro D.C. region, local human services organizations are struggling to weave similar safety nets for the undetermined number of single mother families and unaccompanied children who continue to arrive here on a daily basis.
“D.C. has already been responding before the detention centers became visible it makes sense that we collectively find a way to respond rather than react," Murphy says.
Meanwhile, Jennifer sits and waits for the government’s response, wearing an ankle bracelet that she says makes her feel like the criminals that drove her and her son to flee from their home.