March-April 2022 | Parenting

How these teen immigrants are acclimating to life in Montgomery County

For an influx of teen immigrants to the county, adjustment takes time and support. Agencies and officials are trying to keep up with their needs.

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Senior Roger Espinal, a Honduran immigrant, at Watkins Mill High School in Gaithersburg. Photo by Liz Lynch

The first thing he spotted were the green jackets—the ones the border patrol agents wear. Mateo caught glimpses of them on their patrol boats: agents waiting to grab him and other migrants as they waded across the Rio Grande from Mexico into Texas. His coyote, or smuggler, saw the jackets, too, and decided to send Mateo ahead while he watched from the southern shore. Above the din of the current, he yelled to Mateo, then 16, that he was now responsible for the safe passage of the two others: a 17-year-old Guatemalan girl and an 8-year-old boy from Honduras.

“¡Alto ahí!” a border agent yelled through a bullhorn. Stop there. But Mateo and the girl ignored the order and continued slogging through the chest-deep water. As they crossed, Mateo held the 8-year-old high in his arms so the boy didn’t drown as the waves ebbed and flowed. The coyote had warned Mateo that they’d be hauled back to Mexico if they were stopped before they reached land. But if they could make it to the far shore before being arrested, they’d be on U.S. soil and would be granted asylum. Shaking and scared, they kept going.

That was in April 2021. But Mateo—whose name has been changed to protect his privacy—still remembers the chill of being led by border guards into a van and then into an over-air-conditioned detention center dripping wet in his clothes. And the relief he felt when he reached into his pocket for his birth certificate—secured in a Ziploc bag—and saw that it was still dry. It was one of the only things he brought with him when he began the trip from Guatemala weeks earlier.

He’ll also never forget how nervous he was when the officers at the border called his father in Montgomery County to tell him his son had been captured. His dad didn’t know he was making the trek—they’d had an argument the year before, when Mateo called to ask for money for a new phone and his dad said no. They’d barely spoken since, Mateo says.

Over the next two months, Mateo was bounced from one immigration detention center to another while his case was reviewed. His first stop was the hielera, or cooler, he’d been warned about by others who’d already made the journey—a bitterly cold warehouse space where he slept on a mat on the floor and was given nothing for warmth but a Mylar blanket, similar to a large piece of aluminum foil. After a few days, he was bused to another center hours away, where at least he was given a warm blanket. He lost all track of the little boy and teenage girl he’d helped across the water.

One morning in June, when his paperwork cleared, Mateo was awakened before dawn and flown here, courtesy of the U.S. government. Now he lives with his dad, his dad’s new wife and her son, and their newborn baby, in a three-bedroom apartment in Gaithersburg. The rest of his family—his grandparents, his mother and his siblings—are still in Guatemala. They didn’t want him to leave. He made the decision, he says, because he knew he could provide for them better in the U.S.

In August, when Mateo started at Watkins Mill High School in Gaithersburg, he knew no English, couldn’t work his locker and kept getting lost in the long corridors. He’s since learned his way around and made about 20 friends. Most are new to the country, too, and when they walk down the hall together they laugh about how they have no idea what the other kids are saying. It feels better to know they have that in common.

His biggest fear now is that he’ll be deported at any moment. “I didn’t come all this way and risk so much for this to be a vacation,” he says in Spanish. “I came here to live.”

Student Roger Espinal on the football team at Watkins Mill, when he was a 6-foot-tall, 280-pound freshman. Photo courtesy of Roger Espinal

Since early 2021, a record number of migrant children and teenagers, like Mateo, have been recorded arriving at the U.S.-Mexican border. Nearly 147,000 encounters with unaccompanied minors were reported in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and the following month marked the highest tally of encounters with unaccompanied minors at the southern border than any November in history, according to national news reports.

Many of these young people are fleeing poverty, gang violence and political and civil unrest in their home countries—and reuniting with others who fled the same conditions years earlier. Some encountered drug cartels and human traffickers as they made their way here. Or inhumane treatment at border facilities. Or had no access to medical care for injuries they sustained along the way. Others have moved into living situations in this country just as traumatizing as what they left behind.

Some of these young people say it was an intentional decision to come to the United States before they turned 18, to take advantage of U.S. immigration policies favorable toward unaccompanied minors and other young migrants. Others say a devastating 2020 hurricane season across much of Central America and the pent-up migration demand due to pandemic lockdowns are just as responsible for the 2021 surge.

Most of these young people processed at the border are eventually released to the care and custody of “sponsors” living somewhere in the country. A sponsor agrees to give them shelter, enroll them in school, keep them safe from gang recruitment and human trafficking, and make sure that they show up in court on the assigned date for their deportation hearings—even though these dates can be changed and delayed several times, sometimes by more than a year.

As one of the U.S. counties with the highest numbers of unaccompanied minors released to sponsors, according to federal data, Montgomery County has become home to many migrant youths. But since early last year, the influx has been greater than past surges: In the 10 months from February through November, 1,407 children and teenagers under 18—most from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador—were released to sponsors in the county, according to data from the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), the federal agency tasked with the care of unaccompanied minors until their sponsors are approved. That’s more than in the fiscal years that ended Sept. 30, 2019, and Sept. 30, 2020, combined. It even tops the 1,117 unaccompanied minors released to sponsors in the fiscal year that ended September 2014, which is considered by many to be the previous record, though comparable data from earlier years isn’t available.

As more and more of these children and teenagers are enrolling in public school, they are prompting a greater investment in school and community resources. In July 2021, the Montgomery County Council approved $5.4 million in supplemental funds to support “newly arriving migrant and asylum-seeking children, youth, and families.” Asylum seekers are those fleeing persecution or extreme levels of poverty in their home countries, according to Amnesty International; migrants are those who have come to find work or join family, but whose lives were not necessarily in peril. County officials say the goal is to ensure that no matter how any of them find their way into the system, they will be connected to the resources they need.

Among other things, the money has gone toward the hiring of more ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) transition counselors, expanding community outreach efforts, increasing mental health services, and adding sports and performing arts programs for newly arriving youths. A portion was also set aside for legal aid providers to help more of these young migrants and asylum seekers settle here permanently. “If they don’t have legal status or permission to stay, that really is step one,” says Diane Vy Nguyen-Vu, director of the county’s Office of Community Partnerships (OCP). “We can invest all the time and resources and energy in supporting folks while they’re here, but if they are not going to be able to stay here, we’re failing.”

Many times, a sponsor is a parent already living here, but that person can be an older sibling or other relative, or even a family friend. Sometimes sponsors are undocumented immigrants themselves—the ORR says their legal status is not a disqualifying factor. Since the pandemic began, many sponsors have lacked the financial security they had before, but will agree to take in unaccompanied minors out of compassion, says Mónica Martin, senior administrator of Child/Adolescent School & Community-Based Services for the county Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). “To say no to somebody who you know is suffering from constant chronic trauma and violence…whose sibling or parent has just been shot…you are going to say yes because, you know, you came from that.”

Lisette Dardon is site manager of the Watkins Mill High School Wellness Center, which supports students lacking English proficiency. Photo by Liz Lynch

But even the homes of sponsors aren’t always safe: Two years ago, Lisette Dardon, site manager of the Watkins Mill High School Wellness Center, called Child Welfare Services after learning that a migrant teenager who’d recently reunited with her mom might have been sexually assaulted by the mom’s “male friend.” Dardon says 95% of the students who come to the wellness center have experienced some sort of trauma—either before they got here or after they arrived. “They think that coming here is the land of opportunity,” she says, but that’s not always the case.

“When welcomed appropriately, we know that immigrants can be a huge contribution to a community,” says Wendy Stickle, senior lecturer and director of the University of Maryland Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the Universities at Shady Grove, echoing the views of many who work with the immigrant community.

But some residents argue that more oversight is needed over the agencies and organizations that receive funding. Others question why the county is spending millions of taxpayer dollars supporting those who arrived here illegally. “Make no mistake, Republicans are wholeheartedly PRO immigrant,” says Reardon “Sully” Sullivan, chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Central Committee, by email. But “those entering the US illegally and those who encourage or support illegal immigration into the US are breaking the law.”

County resident and activist Michelle Ortega, who is disabled and a dual citizen of Nicaragua and the United States, says it’s harder for those here legally, like her, to get services than it is for those who are undocumented. “For all these programs that we’re trying to support, we’re not supporting our U.S. citizens, we’re not supporting our women in crisis…we have kids with special needs,” while those who arrive here undocumented are being given free housing, furniture, even cash, she says.

Montgomery County Public Schools’ (MCPS) policy prohibits asking students about their immigration status. But its data shows that from July 2021 through January 2022, 1,005 new Office of Refugee Resettlement students enrolled in public school here. This includes students who arrived in the county alone as well as those who came with family. In previous school years, the numbers were much smaller—only 58 ORR students enrolled for the entire 2020-21 school year—but until the 2021-22 school year, MCPS only tracked ORR students who arrived unaccompanied, says Margarita Bohórquez, MCPS’s acting director of Student, Family & School Services for International Admissions and Enrollments. Now, she says, “We’re trying to support all the families that are coming through that office.”

“We just know the numbers are going to continue to come…[and] we don’t want folks to get lost going from one agency or service to the other,” adds Nguyen-Vu. “We created a stronger infrastructure…being very intentional instead of building the plane while we are trying to fly it.”

Principal Carol Goddard says that on the first day of the 2021-22 school year, more than 70 new students with limited or no English had enrolled at Watkins Mill—a “significant” number—and more have been arriving every week. Many haven’t been to school in years, she says; some are illiterate even in their own language.

“We try to get them acclimated,” Goddard says, “finding their peers and feeling like they are in a community that wants them.”

Roger Espinal knows how these kids feel. In September 2018, he was 17—and starting at Watkins Mill as a freshman. He spent his entire first year worried that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, more commonly known as ICE, would barge into one of his classrooms and cart him away, he says. Now he’s 21, more than halfway through his senior year. He has a part-time job at a restaurant and is saving for college to study construction management.

When he sees new students at the school who don’t speak English and look lost and scared, he brings them to the wellness center—the place he says helped him adjust to his new life. It’s a facility within the school that’s run by the Gaithersburg-based nonprofit Identity, whose mission is to help Latino and other historically underserved youths realize their potential, regardless of immigration status. The wellness center offers social and emotional support, and programs on self-advocacy and good decision-making. There are five high school-based wellness centers in the county, and Identity runs three of them.

Espinal came here four years ago, shortly after his mother and a few other relatives fled their native Honduras for Spain. The plan was that he’d come to Gaithersburg to live with his dad, who had left for the U.S. when Espinal was 4. Espinal traveled to Texas with an uncle who was turned away at the border, but Espinal was cleared after three months to come to Montgomery County and reunite with his father. He flew here with an Office of Refugee Resettlement representative and a few other unaccompanied minors who were also being released to sponsors. He’ll never forget seeing his dad at the airport—he wanted to jump the line to hug him, but the agency representative held him back until the crowds had thinned.

In his home country, Espinal dropped out of school after sixth grade and worked odd jobs to support his family. He figured he’d go straight to work when he got to the U.S. But the immigration lawyer his dad hired told him to go back to school. At 6 feet tall and 280 pounds, Espinal was quickly recruited by the Watkins Mill High School varsity football team. He’d never played the sport, and the only English he knew was “hello.”

“He was quiet; no one realized he didn’t speak English,” recalls Watkins Mill English teacher Jamaly Allen, an assistant football coach at the time. Allen asked a couple of Latina girls who often ate lunch outside his classroom to serve as translators so he could teach Espinal the techniques and the plays. “Whether it was the drills, whether it was being first to volunteer to say ‘I’m going to be on the scout team,’ he always wanted to learn—he was a sponge,” Allen says.

At 19 and just finishing his sophomore year, Espinal became ineligible to play (MCPS requires students to be 18 or younger). Then the pandemic began, and Identity was looking for students to be trained as “safety ambassadors” to help the local Latino community. He volunteered right away.

“I had extra time,” he says, “and I like helping people.”

A hard worker and a strong student (his GPA is 3.79), Espinal completed 40 hours of training in COVID-19 protocols, handed out food at distribution centers, and was soon tasked with reaching out to the Spanish-speaking community with information about financial assistance, vaccines and more. Soon he was selected to speak at a virtual Black and Brown Coalition for Educational Equity and Excellence forum, hosted by Identity and the NAACP Parents’ Council, in October 2020. More than 1,200 families had signed up, and Espinal gave his speech in English. “I practiced really hard for that,” he says.

Now he helps at Watkins Mill’s wellness center, and on orientation day he’s a role model for the new arrivals. “I watch him interact with kids not from the United States; he’ll take them around the school and show them where to go so they don’t feel lost,” says paraeducator Michael Brown, who was the head football coach while Espinal was playing. “He’s introduced me to a couple kids, and you know, their eyes are big because they are new to the school and probably to the country…he’s like an ambassador to our school, pretty much.”

Most of the kids Espinal brings to the wellness center are Spanish speakers, but he’s also brought new students from Cameroon and Ghana—anyone who looks lost. On the first day of school this past August, Espinal spotted Mateo wandering the halls. “Have you heard of the wellness center?” he asked the nervous freshman. “Let’s get lunch and I’ll show you.”

“Wolverine Time” at the Watkins Mill High School Wellness Center—named in honor of the school mascot—begins when classes let out for the day. Many of the school’s new ESOL students sign up for the program, which runs from October through June. They go on field trips, get math and English tutoring in Spanish, and hang out with their peers. Ever since Espinal brought him to the wellness center for the first time, Mateo has been a Wolverine Time regular.

In Guatemala, Mateo left school when he was 14 to work with his grandparents on the farm where he was raised, so in addition to learning a new language and culture, he’s also confronting a full schedule of academics he’s never encountered before. It was at the wellness center that he first learned about SSL (Student Service Learning) hours—the community-service hours Maryland high schoolers must perform to graduate—and now he’s trying to earn even more than what’s required, so he can get a special tassel at graduation.

“You can just imagine, like, a new student coming into the country and being connected into this group, essentially like a support group—you just see them blossom,” says the wellness center’s Dardon, a program manager for Identity Inc. On a mid-December afternoon, she’s serving as translator so a few of the new ESOL kids, including Mateo, can share their stories.

Mateo is sitting in one of the center’s small offices chatting with his friend Tomas (whose name also has been changed). Tomas, 16, had only been to school from ages 10 to 15 in his native Honduras. On his first day at Watkins Mill, in August, he says he felt ahuevado. When he typed the word into the Google Translate app on his cellphone, the robotic computer voice proclaimed that it meant “hollowed out.”

Compared with many of the newly arrived students at Watkins Mill, Tomas is among the lucky ones. He has his own bedroom in the basement apartment he shares with his sponsor and her partner in Damascus. She’s a family friend who came from Honduras with a work visa, so she’s living here legally and paying for Tomas’ immigration attorney. According to the OCP, 73% of unaccompanied minors who are represented in court by an attorney are granted permission to stay in the U.S., compared with 15% of those who are unrepresented.

Tomas’ parents are still in Honduras, but they saved enough to pay the coyote fee, so he doesn’t have to work to repay the debt. His family had been saving for years; the World Bank estimates that rural Hondurans, like Tomas’ family, earn as little as $1.90 a day. And coyote fees from Central America to the U.S. border typically run as high as $10,000.

Tomas is in a program at Watkins Mill called METS (Multi-disciplinary Education and Training Support), which was first introduced in the county a few decades ago to meet the linguistic and academic needs of students who came here with very little schooling or none at all. Currently, 22 middle schools and high schools in Montgomery County offer the program, in which classes are small, and math, English and reading are taught by ESOL teachers. Since the school year began, Goddard says two to 10 new students have been added to the METS program at Watkins Mill each week. “The gate [is] kind of…open right now,” she says.

In some cases, getting migrant children and teenagers to enroll in school is a challenge. In this most recent wave, a large but unknown number are native Mayans from Guatemala who speak one of 22 indigenous languages but not Spanish or English. The language barrier has left many of them isolated—and made it difficult for organizations that traditionally serve the Hispanic and Latino communities to reach them.

Seventeen-year-old Elena (not her real name) and her family speak a language called Chuj that’s used by about 40,000 indigenous people in western Guatemala. She, her mom and her younger brothers came to Montgomery County more than a year ago, she says. Two of her siblings started school shortly after they arrived but she and one brother didn’t reach out to the International Admissions and Enrollments office to begin the enrollment process for themselves until late this past fall. When asked why they waited so long, Elena offers only a sheepish smile.

The family fled their home country two years ago, after Elena’s dad died and money stopped coming in. They eluded authorities at the border and spent a year hiding out in Tennessee, where one of Elena’s uncles lives. When a neighbor called the police, they fled here.

It’s a weekday in mid-November, and she, her mom, and her 15-year-old brother are sitting in the subterranean living room of their makeshift apartment in Damascus. The family lives on the lower level of a 1,500-square-foot ranch house on a street lined with dozens of similar looking homes. Two other families share the main level, where the lights are off and the shades are drawn, and the floor is covered with mattresses. Elena’s mom is trying to explain in her native language that despite being unable to bring much from their homeland, she did pack some ornate and brightly colored traje—traditional clothing—to keep her children’s memories of their culture alive.

Elena is the only one in her family who speaks any Spanish. With her limited vocabulary, she’s turning her mom’s long narratives into short sentences and phrases. A translator has been brought along to convert Elena’s broken Spanish into English. It feels much like “the telephone game” that children play with groups of friends, and it’s easy to see how language constraints make their interactions with outsiders difficult.

Elena’s mom works nights cleaning office buildings and daycare centers; the women she works with helped the family access food and furniture. Since they’ve been here, Elena and her brothers have spent most of their time watching American television, even though they don’t comprehend most of it. They didn’t make any friends or meet any other families during their first year in Montgomery County, but they did discover McDonald’s.

Indigenous Mayans may be hesitant to self-disclose because their experience is one of deeper and greater persecution than even other migrant communities, says the health department’s Mónica Martin. Many lost their homes to make way for large-production farms in Guatemala, and there have been several reports over the past few years of Mayan children dying in U.S. custody at border facilities, according to the Washington, D.C.-based International Mayan League (IML). In January 2021, two trucks carrying migrants—most from a village in Guatemala where the indigenous Mam language was spoken—were found charred on the side of a road 20 miles from the U.S. border. Nineteen migrants, most believed to be indigenous Mayans, had been shot and were burned beyond recognition. Two months later, a dozen Mexican state police officers were charged in the killings, according to news reports.

Jenny Santos is program manager and care coordinator for the Kennedy “Cluster Project”—one of the three DHHS Cluster Projects that focus on maintaining and increasing family stability for MCPS students whose families are in crisis or in need of support. She says she recently worked with a young Mayan child who arrived here with severe burns that were inflicted on him by bullies at his school in Guatemala. The incident spurred his mother’s decision to get her three children out of the country before anything worse happened.

The International Mayan League is working with county schools and the health department to help support newly arrived Mayan youths and families, but neighboring Prince George’s and Fairfax counties have also seen large influxes of indigenous people, and they too have turned to the IML for assistance. Now, says IML Executive Director Juanita Cabrera Lopez, their small staff has been “inundated with requests.”

The language barrier is particularly troubling when it comes to deportation, says Laurie Ball Cooper, legal director of Ayuda, a legal service provider in the county. At an online meeting of county leaders in September 2021, Cooper made a plea for more Mayan translators as well as others skilled in working with trauma survivors and hearing impaired people: “We need to be able to provide access across the board…so we’re not relying on… friends and family to interpret in the legal setting.”

An even bigger hurdle for Ayuda and other legal service providers is that they are already at capacity. The county’s additional funding last summer included $250,000 to increase migrant kids’ access to legal services, but that’s not enough to meet the current demand, says the OCP’s Nguyen-Vu.

One problem is that there aren’t enough attorneys willing to take on a case pro bono, explains Jacqueline Rishty, director of the Immigration Legal Services Program (ILS) at Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington. Attorneys are in such short supply across the region that she’s started asking around at her child’s softball games to see if anyone’s mom or dad is a lawyer. (They don’t have to be immigration lawyers, Rishty says; her organization offers training and mentorship programs to all attorneys.)

Jim Feroli, ILS’s pro bono senior managing attorney, says many young people he places with attorneys are candidates for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, or SIJS, an immigrant classification available to undocumented youths under 21 in Maryland (under 18 in Washington, D.C.) who have been abused, neglected or abandoned by one or both parents in their home countries. In many instances, the dad is out of the picture, the mother has fled here, and the child is being raised by a grandparent, Feroli says. Around age 13, the minor becomes the focus of gang attention and chooses to flee to the U.S. rather than be forced to join up.

In December 2021, Feroli was trying to find an attorney to represent a teenage girl from El Salvador who fled here after being stalked by a gang member in his late 20s or 30s. The gang member harassed her so much on her way to and from school that she stopped going to class. Then he came after her at her home. She was raised by a grandmother but came to the U.S. unaccompanied to reunite with her mother, who is living here undocumented. The girl, Feroli says, “felt like she had to flee or she was going to suffer sexual assault.”

Today, nearly 60% of Watkins Mill students identify as Hispanic or Latino, Principal Goddard says. A decade ago, it was 35%, according to MCPS. Twelve years ago, Jamaly Allen, the English teacher and former Watkins Mill assistant football coach, developed a morning news show called “Wake Up Watkins Mill,” where students in his TV production class sit like anchors behind a desk and read the morning announcements; the program is recorded and broadcast throughout the school. Starting with the 2021-22 school year, the students hosting the show read the announcements in Spanish two days a week. “Despierta Watkins Mill!”—Wake Up Watkins Mill!—they begin. Before, Allen says, “we just cut off a whole section of kids that [didn’t] know what’s going on and they [couldn’t] be involved.” And being involved, he says, is “the quickest way the kids will stay out of the streets, not join gangs, not get pregnant, [and] not drop out.”

But things aren’t always so simple: Many migrant teens would rather earn money to send to family in their home countries than go to school, making truancy a big problem. “Sometimes you have to tell them, ‘Your job is school and let me tell you why,’ ” Goddard says, “and sometimes that’s a hard sell because the family needs the money.”

Financial pressures can also leave those teens vulnerable to employers exploiting them for cheap labor, gangs trying to recruit them, and sex traffickers who often prey on underage girls, says Jodi Finkelstein, executive director of the Montgomery County Commission for Women and the Montgomery County Human Trafficking Prevention Committee (HTPC). She says the HTPC partners with the University of Maryland SAFE Center, a College Park-based nonprofit, to train school officials to look for a pattern of red flags: kids routinely missing days of school each week, teenagers who aren’t in possession of their birth certificate or other papers, or newfound displays of wealth. “A kid…getting free or reduced-price lunch all of a sudden is carrying around a Louis Vuitton bag or [comes to school with] acrylic nails or highlighted hair,” she says.

Sometimes, young migrants trade sex for food or a place to live, especially if the relationship with their sponsor falters. “We’ve seen kids not want to go home and stay with their parents and try to find somewhere else to live,” Goddard says. “You may have 20 boys in one room in one apartment, and that’s when it gets bad, because they are finding an outlet that’s not really helpful or supportive, but they think it is.”

Identity offers six-week reunification programs to young people and their families struggling to adjust to their new situations. The program is offered by invitation only. “These families have never really talked about, like, ‘Why did you leave me for so long?’ or ‘You had more children but didn’t leave them,’—those abandonment feelings,” Dardon says. Mateo and his family participated in one at Watkins Mill just before winter break. The two-hour-a-week program may not turn around a fractured relationship, Dardon says, but “it’s planting a seed.”

One nice thing for Mateo: It turns out that he and Espinal are neighbors. They didn’t know it on the first day of school, but they ride the same bus and often sit only rows apart. Sometimes Mateo will ask Espinal questions on the ride home: How hard was it to learn English? How hard was it to adjust to school?

Early in the school year, Espinal saw Mateo sitting on the bus staring at a sheet of paper that was ragged and crinkled from overuse—his class schedule. “You don’t need the paper,” Espinal told him. Instead, he took out his phone and showed Mateo how to download the app StudentVUE, then type in Watkins Mill High School and his student ID. There, he could access everything from his class schedule to his grades and counselor information from the screen on his phone. Espinal showed the freshman each of the links and tabs, so Mateo would know where to look in the app for things he needed. “He was so happy he didn’t need the paper,” Espinal recalls.

“It felt good to know that I could reach out to someone,” Mateo says in Spanish, thinking back on that day—and smiling. “It’s good to know there is someone around to help.”

Amy Halpern is a journalist who has worked in print and television news. She lives in Potomac.