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Schools, Social Services Feel the Heat Amid Influx Of Central American Children

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Three kids join immigration rights groups and interfaith leaders at a protest outside the White House. They called for an end to deportations.
Armando Trull/WAMU
Three kids join immigration rights groups and interfaith leaders at a protest outside the White House. They called for an end to deportations.

For the last few weeks, we've been hearing a lot lately about children and the border crisis. These issues are playing out on the national stage, but also have a huge impact on the D.C. area itself.

Many people are working what exactly is it that’s driving so many more kids to leave their homes in Central America and come here? And why now? Well, this flow of children across the border has actually been going on for the past three or four years mostly because of the violence that has consumed Central America. Honduras, a country dominated by gangs, is the most violent country in the world.

The Washington, D.C. metro region has the third-largest concentration of Central Americans in the United States and many come here to join that population where they feel safe or they may have family already here.

The government has released data that said 2,200 children have been processed and released to sponsors in Virginia, about the same number to sponsors in Maryland, and a couple of hundred in the District. Some of these are being placed with sponsors, usually parents or relatives. Many of them are going to local organizations to access social services.

“First of all, I think the first thing that we're seeing is just the tremendous trauma that these kids are coming with that we haven't seen in a while," says Maria Gomez, the head of Mary’s Center, one of the groups that’s on the front line of this humanitarian crisis. Even in one case, the other day, an 11-year old that we had to deal with who was pregnant with an understanding that she had been obviously abused many many times. But now our pediatricians are testing children as young as nine years of age for HIV/AIDS,” Gomez said.

The single fastest growing segment of this humanitarian wave of people that are fleeing Central America are single mothers with small children. One such mother is Jennifer, she’s 20 years old. She had a very difficult border-crossing with her son Oscar who is six. And she is now wearing an ankle bracelet because that is the only way that immigration authorities would let her go until her case is heard.

“I almost died in the desert. And now if I get deported the gangs will kill me for sure. What’s going to happen to my son?” she said.

That question is the one that thousands of immigrant children and mothers are asking themselves. There is a little bit of ray of light. The Obama administration is considering giving some type of refugee status to people from Honduras because of the level of violence, but that is nowhere near a given.

The response of local officials has been all over the place. Frederick County Chuck Jenkins has been an outspoken supporter of strong measures against undocumented immigration. He recently visited the border.

“I go back to when I stepped back and look back and see what I experienced over that two day period on the ground down there. Just the magnitude of the problem, the humanitarian crisis involved with the children, with the families that are coming across. And the fact that we need to reach out to our elected officials, our Congress or our United States Senators, the administration and say ‘listen this needs to be resolved today, we can't wait,'" Jenkins said. "We can’t wait two months, six months or a year. It has to be resolved with at least a game plan at this point."

Jenkins was speaking about a federal game plan, which there isn't because you've got gridlock between the Republicans and the Democrats. The local officials are the ones who are taking the active role, because they are the ones that are actually dealing with the children now. For example, Montgomery County Schools saw 107 students last year. This month, they had 123 additional students enroll for summer school. There was a council meeting recently where Uma Ahluwalia, she is the head of Montgomery County’s Department of Health and Human Services, spoke about the services these children need.

“So what are the supports and services that these children will need? Education and health, for sure; mental health services, especially culturally based trauma informed treatments. These children have seen extraordinary trauma, violence, death. Housing, not just for the children but some of these children are going to be reunited into fairly at-risk situations. Immigration and legal support services are going to be needed, not just for the child, but also for the families,” Ahluwalia said.

Music: "Lorge" by El Ten Eleven from El Ten Eleven

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