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