WASHINGTON — Kids and teenagers who have crossed illegally into the United States on their own have been coming to Maryland and Montgomery County steadily over the last year. And in a briefing before the Montgomery County Council, school officials explained that a total of 107 unaccompanied minors, most of them of high school age, were enrolled in Montgomery County schools.
So what does next year look like?
“You know, we’re waiting to hear at this point; we don’t know what the numbers will be for the next school year,” Montgomery County Public Schools’ Spokesman Dana Tofig said after the briefing.
He added that the school system is preparing to help new arrivals address a host of issues.
“These kids are going to have a lot of services that they need,” Tofig said, adding that they include services that will deal with social and emotional needs of kids who may have suffered abuse or been targets of human trafficking.
After Carroll County officials rejected a plan to house unaccompanied minors in their community, Gov. Martin O’Malley made it clear that his approach to housing children and teens who’ve crossed into the U.S. would focus on a plan to work with state and local agencies as well as non-profits, to house the kids in foster care.
But would there still be the need for a federal facility to hold the minors until their asylum status was clear or until placement could be made? Director of Montgomery County Health and Human Services Uma Ahluwalia told WTOP Tuesday that “there is no identified center in Montgomery County.”
County Council member Nancy Navarro called for Tuesday’s briefing, saying it was important for county governments to know what obligations they may be facing as the U.S. deals with the influx of up to 60,000 unaccompanied minors at the Mexican border. Most of the immigrants have come from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Many don’t speak Spanish, but a Mayan language: Mam.
Council member George Leventhal asked about plans to assist the children and teens who’ve come to Montgomery County, adding, “I just want to say that I’ve only heard from constituents that want to help.”
Council member Cherri Branson, who is winding up her term, prodded officials who had mentioned there was information on a website on ways people could assist.
“Come on now; don’t make it hard! Just give up the number; how can they contact you?”
But not everyone is so eager to devote state and county resources to people — even children — who have come to the country illegally. Council President Craig Rice said during the briefing that he was hearing messages from some constituents via Twitter objecting to spending taxpayer dollars to meet the needs of unaccompanied minors.
Executive director of the group Help Save Maryland, Brad Botwin, also says he has issues with the way state and county officials are dealing with the influx of immigrants.
“To find out yesterday that they have over 100 so-called unaccompanied minors already in the public school system was kind of a shock to those of us who follow this issue,” he said.
Botwin argues that the county school system is already dealing with crowding, and adding students with greater needs — social and emotional as well as educational — puts too much of a strain on the county.
“There are other ways to handle this issue — we need to repatriate and reunite families back in their home countries,” Botwin said.
O’Malley, who is weighing a bid for president in 2016, has made clear that the latest influx of unaccompanied minors should be treated as refuge-seekers, not illegal immigrants. State and county officials appear to be following his lead.
“Look, we’ve been a humanitarian country for a very long time, and been very welcoming to people that are fleeing areas of violence. That’s kind of the way we’ve evolved as a country,” Rice said.