As the United States faces another wave of unaccompanied children fleeing violence in their home countries and seeking asylum in the U.S., Montgomery County is preparing to receive hundreds of children.
Since the beginning of the year, 104 unaccompanied minors have been connected with sponsors in Montgomery County as they go through the asylum process, according to County Council Vice President Gabe Albornoz. Between 60% and 70% have sponsors who are family members or friends.
That number might be outdated since information from the federal government is two months old, Albornoz said at a media briefing on Monday.
The number also doesn’t take into account minors who might have entered the county without being noticed by federal officials, he said.
Albornoz said the country is expecting a 20-year high in the number of unaccompanied migrant children seeking asylum. As of January, 34,000 children have been processed at the border and transported to sponsors across the country.
The county’s Department of Health and Human Services, Montgomery County Public Schools, and other partners are working on having infrastructure to support the children as they arrive and settle in the county.
Most of the children entering the country — 48% — are from Guatemala, according to Albornoz. Another 25% are from Honduras and 14% are from El Salvador.
About 72% are older than 14 and 68% are boys. The majority of the children are seeking to reunite with family members, Albornoz said.
Albornoz said the Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., region is among the top 10 in the entire country for unaccompanied minors “because of the large percentage of Central Americans that reside and work and live and contribute to our community.”
As many as 3,000 children are expected to be released to the care of sponsors in the DMV area this year.
Albornoz said a significant percentage of the minors coming from Guatemala are of indigenous backgrounds. In some instances within Mayan culture, there are more than 30 dialects of indigenous languages spoken among them, he said.
“Here, we don’t just believe it’s a moral responsibility for us to support these children and youth who are fleeing violence, who are fleeing climate disaster. Who are fleeing extreme poverty and economic challenges,” he said. “But they’re coming in large part to sponsors who are here — county residents. … They are our neighbors. They are our residents and constituents who are just trying to reunify with their children or family members.”
The county will be working with other jurisdictions in Maryland, the District and Virginia on a coordinated response and efforts to provide services to the children and their sponsors.
Dr. Raymond Crowel, director of the county’s Department of Health and Human Services, said at the briefing that officials are working to have a “strong team in place to deal with what we expect will be a high number of young people coming into the county.”
“We still do not have a good sense of how many young people have managed to elude border patrols and are on their way to Montgomery County,” he said. “We expect those numbers to be high this year.”
The county will work on providing services to help minors acclimate to life in the county, prepare for education in the fall, and seek help with trauma they experienced in their country or on their journey to the U.S.
Crowel said the county will provide any needed health assessments or COVID-19 testing and vaccinations.
The International Mayan Alliance will assist the county with translation and consultation with appropriate ways to interact with the indigenous minors. This will ensure that officials do not cause any cultural offense and also consider “unique circumstances” of their community.
Albornoz said he did not know how long the asylum process would take for the sponsored minors in the county.
“There’s a lengthy amount of time before our federal immigration system is able to catch up to the backlog of cases from previous waves that have come forward, but we don’t have a specific timeframe,” he said.
Briana Adhikusuma can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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