RSS Feeds

In Fairfax County, an influx of immigrants has wide-ranging effects

Tuesday - 9/2/2014, 8:50pm  ET

'They face really dire situations at home'

WTOP's Andrew Mollenbeck reports.


'The gangs there were threatening me'

WTOP's Andrew Mollenbeck reports.


'Sometimes they actually stop going to school'

WTOP's Andrew Mollenbeck reports.


'...they were so far away. I couldn't do anything'

WTOP's Andrew Mollenbeck reports.


FALLS CHURCH, Va. Margodilia and her daughter, Claudia, said goodbye eight years ago. Mother moved to Virginia. Daughter stayed in Guatemala. The two would not see each other again until the summer of 2014, when the teenager arrived in the United States.

Their story of years and thousands of miles of separation followed by a reunification has become a familiar narrative this year, as tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors have crossed the southern U.S. border.

Most are from Central America. They're fleeing gang violence, domestic abuse and a difficult economy.

Many land in Virginia.

According to the The Office of Refugee Resettlement, 1,023 unaccompanied minors were released to sponsors in Fairfax County during the first seven months of the year, one of the highest figures in the country.

Hundreds of others arrived in Alexandria (205), Arlington County (133), Loudoun County (210) and Prince William County (361).

The Commonwealth as a whole is easily among the top ten states for the placement of newly-arrived children.

"Most of these kids, as they're getting placed, are getting placed with family members," says Mark Rosenbloom, deputy director of the U.S. Immigration Program at the Migration Policy Institute. "Naturally, they're ending up in communities that have Central American populations."

This summer, President Barack Obama called the surge of immigrant children crossing the border an "urgent humanitarian situation."

Margodilia, top right, stands with three of her children in Virginia. After right years apart, her daughter, Claudia, arrived this summer. Two of her sons were born in the United States. (WTOP/Andrew Mollenbeck)

Immigration reform and even an executive order have been the subject of parlor conversations, yet so far Washington hasn't acted.

Meanwhile, schools in Virginia opened for the year on Tuesday, with a yet- uncertain number of Central American children heading to class for the first time here.

The families

Elizabeth moved from San Alejo, El Salvador to Falls Church, Virginia in 2005. She left behind three children, ages 8, 4 and 7 months.

They would not be reunited for eight years.

"Sometimes when I walked in the stores I used to see other parents with their children," she says. "I wanted to be with mine, but I couldn't because they were so far away."

Like many parents, her reason for coming to the United States and separating from her children is complicated.

She fled from domestic abuse, the threat of gang violence and few opportunities.

In the time apart from her kids, she sent back movies, shoes, photos and other items from the United States. The family spoke regularly on the phone.

But when Elizabeth's father died in 2011 and her mother became sick around the same time, the feasibility of the children remaining there turned.

There were also threats.

Elizabeth, right, stands with her children in Falls Church. She left El Salvador for Virginia in 2006. In the last year, all have been reunited the United States. (WTOP/Andrew Mollenbeck)

"The gangs there were threatening me that if I didn't give them an amount of money they would kidnap my kids," she says. "They kidnap people and when someone doesn't pay the ransom they kill them."

That was enough.

On Dec. 22, 2013, her daughter, Yesenia, arrived as a perfect Christmas present. At 16 years old, she was part of the changing face of Central American immigrants crossing the border -- younger and female.

"I thought we were going to have to cross the [Rio Grande] swimming," she says with a laugh, mentioning one of her fears about the long trip.

Elizabeth called it a "dream come true" that she could have her children together again. However, their ability to remain in the United States is uncertain.

"We hope so," she says. "I'm with my kids. May God's will be."

Changing face, growing needs

Since the beginning of 2014, tens of thousands of unaccompanied children have arrived in the United States.

At the peak of the wave, the White House requested $3.7 billion in emergency funds to support more detention centers, border patrols and immigration judges.

Margodilia and her three kids now living in the United States walk into the Ayuda office, which provides legal and social services. She still has two other children in Guatemala. (WTOP/Andrew Mollenbeck)

"We're definitely seeing a lot of Central American children," says Madeline Taylor Diaz, an Equal Justice Works fellow at Ayuda in Falls Church. The nonprofit is a legal and social services provider that works with low income immigrants in the Washington area.

"Sort of the prototypical case is a male teenager, but we're starting to see more girls as well as younger children coming over the border."

Since the surge, Taylor Diaz has been carrying 50-100 children's cases at a time.

"I think the violence that is all over the media is, in fact, real, and I hear it every day in stories from my clients," she says. "They're facing pretty horrific threats by gangs, by other forces in the society where they live."

Although the uncertain journey to the United States may be horrible, she says, the lives they're leaving in their home countries are worse.

Back to school

Although the Office of Refugee Resettlement reports about 2,000 unaccompanied children have been released in Northern Virginia this year, the impact to local schools is unclear.

Fairfax County, which has the greatest number of newly-arrived children, already handles 160 language groups in its public schools.

Local school districts haven't given concrete numbers of new students who just arrived from Central America.

Loudoun County Public Schools expected up to 60 refugee students to attend classes this fall. Prince William County Public Schools' spokesman Phil Kavits says the number wasn't large enough to impact the system already in place.

The challenges, however, are consistent.

"Many of the kids have a gap in their education," says Robin Hamby, a family partnership specialist working with FCPS. "Oftentimes if they hear that they'll be migrating in a year or two years, sometimes they actually stop going to school in their home country."

That leaves them not only in a language deficit but also an instructional one upon arriving in the United States.

It's about the kids... and the parents

After spending years apart, reuniting would presumably be a joyous occasion, and it is.

But following the hugs and tears of joy, school teachers have picked up on some negative long term effects.

What parents originally imagined to be a short separation instead turned into an extended one, leading to some emotional struggles for the children.

Like mother like daughter. Margodilia and Claudia sport the same footwear. (WTOP/Andrew Mollenbeck)

"Over time that begins to show itself in the classroom," Hamby says. "It's hard to concentrate when you're in a new family where you really don't know them, and there's a new step dad, and there are siblings who speak English and you feel as though you just don't fit in."

After three years of looking at the issues surrounding this, Hamby says they developed a curriculum targeting the parents' emotions and helping them understand their own children's perspective about the separation.

Prominent questions these children have: Did you leave me to start a new family? Why did it take you so long?

Hamby realized those conversations never happened after parents reunited with their children, and so she helped develop a six-hour course for FCPS parents to address the needs.

One of the key findings was that children need an apology after a feeling of abandonment. Parents, often, never felt as though they had done anything wrong.

The course helps them identify their children's emotions after years of separation.

Hamby says they offered about 20 classes in the community and in the schools last year, and now school districts across the country have asked for the curriculum.

Related Stories:

*Editor's note: The immigrant families spoke on the condition only their first names would be used.

WTOP's special reports are examining the reasons some risk death and deportation to come to the U.S. and how their survival impacts the area.

Follow @WTOP on Twitter and WTOP on Facebook.

© 2014 WTOP. All Rights Reserved.