Kara Andrade

Unaccompanied minors wait in limbo, dreading deportation

At Next Step charter school, recent migrants from Central America mix with older kids who made the journey before them

WASHINGTON, D.C. — It’s hard to separate Denis from the loud throng of high school teenagers in line for their after-school Frappuccinos at a Starbucks in the upscale neighborhood of Tenleytown in Washington. Except he sits alone at a corner table checking his cellphone, looking over his shoulder from time to time with a glance of uncertainty and a need for invisibility. When he stands, he is tall and thin, wearing skinny jeans and purple and gray Puma sneakers.

He is one of the estimated 45,000 unaccompanied immigrants living in the United States who arrived as minors. Four years ago, when he was 16, he set out alone on a 3,200-mile trek from his home in San Miguel, El Salvador, to reach his uncles in Washington, D.C. He arrived after many weeks on the road.

In November President Barack Obama unveiled an executive order that would extend temporary deportation relief for undocumented immigrants who arrived in the country before 2010. Still, that will exclude the tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors who crossed U.S. borders earlier this summer.

While the surge this summer of unaccompanied minors from Central America apprehended after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border grabbed headlines and became a political nightmare for Democrats ahead of the midterm elections, area social workers say they have been working with unaccompanied minors for years.

The Next Step Public Charter School has become an important resource for many of the unaccompanied minors who arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border during the summer.
Kara Andrade

“We have always dealt with this population. It’s nothing new to us. We have worked with [them] since the 1980s,” said Juan Carlos Martinez, the evening principal of the Next Step Public Charter School, which originated as a program for young parents developed by the Latin American Youth Center in D.C. “I myself am one of those people who came here in the 1980s who spoke no English. I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life.”

It has been a growing issue that the school has continued to tackle despite lack of funding for pressing needs like mental health counseling, legal representation, gang prevention and school services for minors who are reunited with families. But years after their arrival, many minors remain in a holding pattern as political gridlock delays comprehensive immigration reform.

Denis, who asked to be identified by his first name only, is considered a success story at Next Step, where he studied English, prepared for his GED and applied for community college and scholarships. But it is a haunting memory from his migration that pushes him today toward getting his degree in nursing at Montgomery College.

Along the way to the U.S., he met a young woman, also a minor, emigrating from Peru. During the last stretch, she got heat exhaustion after days of walking. “It wouldn’t have helped her if I stayed. We would have both died,” Denis explained. “It hurt me a lot because it’s terrible to see someone fainting and asking you not to leave.” 

Today Denis lives with foster parents in Silver Springs, Maryland. He is enrolled in a transitional 18-month program that allows him to work and get his associate’s degree in nursing, and he is learning how to better help people in need. It’s what he promised his friend. He dreams of attending Princeton, but his future is uncertain, and the fear of deportation always near.

Without legal status or a Social Security number, he has to pay out-of-state tuition — nearly double what in-state students pay. Each month he sends $300 to his family in El Salvador, which he saves from his part-time job with a catering company.

“I always think of one day seeing my family, even if it’s in 10, 15, 20 years,” Denis said.

‘I can’t be fixated on something that I don’t know will or won’t happen. If I get deported, I can take my education with me back to my country.’


unaccompanied minor from El Salvador

When he turns 21, Denis will be on his own, again. He doubts he will ever be considered for asylum, since he didn’t leave El Salvador fleeing gangs or abuse. He emigrated because he wanted to go to college, he said, and his parents were too poor to pay for school.

Martinez estimated that about half the 360 students attending day and night classes at Next Step are students who arrived in the U.S. from Central America as unaccompanied minors.

The school, which opened in 1996, is one of the first public charter schools in Washington. It is in the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood, home to a large population of Spanish-speaking immigrants. Its halls are brimming with young students even late in the afternoon as they head to evening classes to prepare for GED tests, learn English or work on math and reading skills.

Next Step is an important resource for dozens of the unaccompanied minors who arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border this summer and have been processed through the Office of Refugee Resettlement. Washington, Maryland and Virginia received 6,929 children, roughly 15 percent of this year’s resettled unaccompanied minors. From Jan. 1 to Sept. 20, 1,177 unaccompanied minors with a parent or legal guardian in the U.S. were placed in Fairfax County, Virginia, and another 1,114 in nearby Prince George’s County, Maryland.

The increase in immigrant students in Prince George’s County has created funding challenges, according to Carolyn Boston, vice chairwoman of the county public school system.

“They are coming more and more now, and schools are trying to put the resources together to assist those kids, especially those who have been here less than two years who do not speak English,” she said.

She has backed additional support for incoming immigrant students and is waiting to hear back on $3 million from Casa de Maryland and the Carnegie Foundation; she hopes these funds will be allocated to the central part of the county, where there is a higher population of immigrants and families going through the reunification process. Her focus is getting the new students ready for high school so they can graduate and attend college.

The biggest challenge, according to Kate Reen, a program supervisor at Northern Virginia Family Service, isn’t just the legal process; it is also helping recently reunited families adjust to being together again and supporting the minors after the trauma of significant violence they experienced back home and during their journeys to the U.S.

For this reason, college is often the last thing recently arrived students at Next Step have on their minds.

“The person that I saw killed is something that I will never forget, because I saw it with my eyes,” said Yonatan, a 20-year-old student who emigrated from Guatemala when he was 16. His full name is being withheld for security concerns. After witnessing a murder on the way to school, he said, gang members threatened him. He stopped going to school and avoided even leaving his house.

“The person they killed was decapitated. They took his entire neck and flayed him like an animal,” he said. “They told me that if I talked that myself or someone in my family would be found this way.”

With $800 in his pocket from a plot of land his father had sold, Yonatan headed north alone, walking for three months, without a coyote, with no friends or family in the U.S. He arrived in Washington with other migrants he met along the way.

He studies English at Next Step, works nights at a cleaning company and sends money home to his family. His mother died while he was making the journey. It’s just a matter of time before he gets sent back, so he works as much as he can until that happens.

Jonathan Portillo, 18, fled gang violence in his native El Salvador. He studies English at the Next Step school and works with his father in construction while awaiting his next asylum hearing.
Kara Andrade

The story is similar for Jonathan Portillo, 18, who arrived from El Salvador in September 2013. In his country, he said, gang members and corrupt police officers beat him up. Teachers at his school were part of the gangs. “Once they killed my friend, I didn’t see any hope,” he said. “The next one will be me.” His father in Washington sent him money to pay for a coyote, and Portillo left quickly.  

There was a future for him in this country, said his father, Tito, who was surprised to be reunited with his son so quickly after the Border Patrol found him. “There’s more possibility of him surviving that journey here than the daily risk back home,” he said.

In October, Portillo went to a court hearing with his father to apply for asylum. His next hearing is set for 2018, and he lives in constant fear of deportation.

“I view deportation not just in terms of leaving. I think death,” he said. “If someone says, ‘We’re going to deport you,’ the first thing I think is I will die back there.” 

Between now and his court date, he plans to work with his father who is a contractor and take evening English classes at Next Step.

Josué Torres, who has taught Spanish language arts and ESL reading classes at Next Step for 10 years, said he has seen an increase in the number of incoming students over the past year and said new students continue to arrive. He teaches three classes to 55 students — most from El Salvador, Mexico, Nicaragua and Guatemala, with a few from Colombia. Students in his classes write about their journeys to the U.S., an exercise he said they find challenging but moving.

Looking back on his first weeks at Next Step, Denis remembers how he felt helpless and afraid of being deported, which kept him from making plans for his life. He didn’t care about his GED, he said — he just wanted to learn English, work and send money to his family. With the help of a Next Step counselor, he changed his outlook. “I can’t be fixated on something that I don’t know will or won’t happen,” he said.

“If I get deported, I can take my education with me back to my country,” he added. “In five years I can have a degree or not, and no one can take that from me.” 

With additional reporting by Olga Khrustaleva and Ryan Schuette

Below is a poem by a Next Step Charter School student describing his migration to the U.S.

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