Montgomery County hosted a session Monday to train lawyers to represent the growing number of unaccompanied minors flocking to the county fleeing violence in their home countries.
“We have approximately 1,200 young people who are caught in this web,”County Executive Isaiah Leggett said. “We want to move them through the legal process, hopefully to obtain a Green Card, but in order to do that, they need to legal representation.”
Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington is providing all the help it can, but it can't keep up with the need.
“Most of all, we need volunteer attorneys, pro-bono lawyers,” explained Monsignor John Enzler, president of Catholic Charities. “We have over 20 lawyers that we pay at Catholic Charities, but because we have 85 open cases right now of young people who want to stay here, who want legal status…if we had more help, we could do a much better job.”
The lawyers who attended Monday’s session are prepared to answer that call. Many said the pro-bono nature of their work was inconsequential; if they can change the life of even one child, it’s worth it.
“It’s certainly a rewarding experience,” observed Lauren Wyatt, an attorney volunteering to work with the minors. “These kids are coming from the most horrible conditions imaginable. They're coming from gang violence, sexual violence, sexual trafficking.”
“[These children] are leaving their countries because of violence and threats,” said Leggett. “They are here in the county, so we have to educate them in our school system.”
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Providing an education for 1,200 immigrant children is a challenge. That challenge was made even more difficult last week when Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan proposed a budget that cut the amount of education funding available to Montgomery and Prince George’s counties in half. Prince George’s county hosts over a thousand young immigrants.
“There should not have been a penny cut,” asserted State Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez said. “We know that we are underfunded right now for education, and particularly in Montgomery County.”
Roeli Lopez is one student who has benefited from successes in the face of these challenges. Roeli came to the U.S. alone; his parents are still in Guatemala. With the help of Catholic Charities, he now has legal status and a bright future. He’s in school and working at a restaurant, both to achieve his dream of becoming a chef.
“Many people wish to be right here in the United States, he said.
“But thank God, now I [have] a Green Card. It's... better, you know? For that, I’m happy.”