Undocumented Children Fuel New Tension on Immigration in Virginia

Stress on schools, social services is making city of Manassas a battleground once again.

Rocio Martinez-Lopez sits with her son Flavio in her sister's Manassas, Virginia, apartment, where numerous school certificates are displayed on the wall.

MANASSAS, Virginia—Rebecca Apple's Latino students at Osbourn High School call her "Miss Manzana," the Spanish word for "apple." A floating teacher last year, Apple would pile her nine English-Spanish dictionaries and other supplies into a cart and travel down halls thronged with students.

She's one of hundreds of public school teachers in Manassas, in Prince William County outside Washington, D.C., who've struggled to adjust to the arrival of scores of new Hispanic students; a fresh onslaught is expected when school opens in a few weeks' time. Last year, Apple's class size for her beginner English for Speakers of Other Languages course grew so quickly that she was receiving one or two new immigrant students every day for a month.

Matilde Rosa Jimenez taught as many as 37 kids in her eighth-grade English class at Metz Middle School, from gifted students to kids struggling with basic reading comprehension to immigrants who spoke little or no English. Some of her students had trouble reading in their native language. And in one county public elementary school, 60 different languages are spoken.

Educating immigrant children has tested the capacity of the county's schools in other ways as well. Hundreds of trailers have been turned into makeshift classrooms to handle the overflow.

With 50,000 unaccompanied children flooding into the United States this summer, many towns and cities are expecting apprehended minors to be moved to their communities, at least temporarily. The national reaction has run the gamut from cautious willingness to open hostility. In the middle-class suburbs of Washington, D.C., where waves of immigrants have long been a source of cultural tension, the potential for a new influx has sparked angry debate and calls for immediate deportations.

Manassas has a main street that is traditional Americana, with red brick buildings and hanging flower baskets. But Hispanic influence in the city is growing, and many services and businesses cater to Spanish speakers. According to predictions from the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, a think tank at the University of Virginia, the county's Hispanic population will rise nearly 50 percent, from 81,460 in 2010 to 118,748 in 2020. (At the start of 2013, its total population was estimated at 431,000.)

In Manassas, the Hispanic community has doubled within the last decade and now makes up a third of the population. The small city, with a population of around 28,000, has become a battleground just as surely as it was during the Civil War.

Celia Maria Llanes gives bottles of milk to her daughters and the children she babysits in her Manassas home.

Coming to America

Between October 2011 and September 2012, some 13,000 minors trickled across the U.S. border illegally. By October 2014, that number is estimated to reach 90,000, and few agencies are ready for the flood.

To make it here, children as young as five hide in trains, paddle in boats, or come on foot. One girl lived on peppermint candy for eight days. Another carried her two-month-old baby over her head as she crossed the Rio Grande.

They come to find family in the U.S. and to be a part of the American Dream. They come with the belief that the Obama Administration's Deferred Action program, meant to help young undocumented immigrants who've lived in the U.S. since 2007, will also offer them a reprieve. They come to escape gangs, drug cartels, and persecution in their native countries. A recent UN High Commissioner for Refugees study found that 48 percent of these minors experienced violence or threats in their home countries, mostly Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.

Along their secret journey, they may be trafficked, robbed, or raped.

"They would rather risk their lives in trying to get to a better situation than stay in their current situation," says immigration attorney Susannah Nichols of Livesay & Myers. She adds that child immigrants don't have the right to an attorney in the U.S. as a suspect in a criminal case would.

"What kind of country are we going to be at the end of the day?" she says. "If you had to look at the face of a child, and you knew that the kid would be killed or harmed, would you send him or her back?"

Waiting 484 Days

When the children, often malnourished and confused, are caught at the border, federal law requires that they go through a deportation process. But the deluge has overwhelmed the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which lacks the resources to place and process the children. In Virginia, the average wait time for a court hearing is 484 days.

The long wait is a source of panic and indignation. "All some people hear is, 'These are Latino children coming in, everyone should do whatever it takes to take care of them.' How many, at what cost, and what do we give up to do that? Is that a trade-off we're willing to make?" asks Help Save Manassas president Greg Letiecq. Given that the organization has attracted up to 2,500 members, it's clear that many people in the community share his position.

A Shelter for Children

A 13-minute drive from Osbourn High School, behind a manicured lawn in the town of Bristow, Youth for Tomorrow takes in undocumented children caught at the U.S. border, under a contract with the federal government. An American flag, a Virginia flag, and a YFT flag billow in the wind beside each other, and plastic water bottles clutter a table by a basketball court.

Many locals wonder what happens once the children walk through the facility's doors. They ask whether the children will receive inoculations so that they can't spread disease. They don't know where the children will be sent as they wait for their court hearings or how the relocations will affect their community. They fear that the children will try to run away. Some are even skeptical that the immigrants sent there are truly minors, because without documents, they can claim to be any age.

YFT, founded by former Redskins head coach Joe Gibbs, has not answered these public concerns, arguing that the organization must give its full attention to the children. That's made some locals call their behavior secretive and suspicious, adding further fuel to the heated debate. Says electrician Dennis Durham: "We don't know the health diseases coming across the border. There have been reports of MRSA, scabies, and now there are fears of Ebola."

Makeup artist JoAnn Abbott says she's already wary, since three years ago a drunk undocumented immigrant hit her car; within three months, she says, her husband and son were in their own car accidents with undocumented immigrants. Now she worries that YFT's kids will flee "and get into trouble in the local community. What is to stop the illegals, and probably gang members, from escaping once they are up here and setting up their illegal businesses? Why are my tax dollars going to help ship in and set up more gangs?"

Sources who asked not to be named say the community has little to worry about from a resource or health perspective. The YFT program for the undocumented children is funded strictly by federal dollars, and an additional program for troubled local youth operates with state and local dollars.

In addition, within 36 hours, YFT's new arrivals are inoculated and receive a medical exam. They stay about 40 days at the private institution and receive private schooling before transitioning to a sponsor home. None have run away.

In July 2007, Sara Castelan (center front) sits with her children and husband, listening as the Prince William County Board of Supervisors discusses measures that could deny undocumented immigrants public services such as education and medical care.

Few Local Placements

What's more, less than 2 percent of YFT's children are placed locally, amounting so far to less than a dozen kids. The Migration Policy Institute estimates that 90 percent of the unaccompanied children are placed with parents, relatives, or family friends.

But city council member Andrew Harrover says the lack of information about the center has been harmful. "A lot more transparency and a lot less evasion would help people understand the problem. The federal government shouldn't round up kids, then in the dark of night ship them off to other states. The citizens need to know and understand."

Most juveniles also choose to attend their court hearing. About 60 percent show up on their scheduled day, 93 percent when the children have a lawyer—which means they're less likely to vanish into the surrounding community indefinitely.

The Lure of Construction Jobs

Immigrants were first drawn to Prince William County around 2000 by a booming construction industry and a cheap housing market. The Hispanic newcomers worked in drywall installation and painting, then in the sheet metal and electrical trades—and quickly got a leg up over existing service businesses by charging less per hour.

Residential overcrowding soon became a lightning rod issue. It was not uncommon for a two-bedroom town house to be filled with a dozen migrant workers—neighbors who were often unwelcome on streets lined with nuclear families. "Manassas was ground zero for a lot of the immigration problems, and I was elected shortly after all of the fun and games started," says Harrover, who came into office in 2006. "Nobody knew what the hell they were doing."

Meetings at city hall sometimes ran until 11 p.m., with fervid residents offering three-minute diatribes. Harrover stopped going to his regular restaurant, City Tavern Grille, for lunch, since voluble townspeople would turn a simple lunch break into a referendum on immigration.

Anti-immigrant Backlash

Some locals expressed their opposition by forming a grassroots organization. "These border crashers have contributed to rising crime rates, increasing burdens on our schools, hospitals, and public services, and the very destruction of our American culture," Help Save Manassas wrote in a 2007 newsletter.

When Corey Stewart was elected chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors that year, the board put into place a plan to purge the county of undocumented immigrants. The new law allowed local law enforcement to ask people their citizenship status, even if they were not suspected of wrongdoing. Prince William County was catapulted into national headlines.

A year later the county amended the law. A person would need to be arrested before state and local law enforcement officers could enforce federal immigration law. That meant deputized officers could pull people over for driving violations, interrogate and arrest them, and investigate their immigration status. Thousands of immigrants were turned over to customs officials by local authorities, and thousands more fled the possibility by choice.

Now the new battle cry in Manassas is to keep the undocumented children from settling in the county. "We should deport illegal immigrants who are in violation of our laws, because it is the law and because that discourages other potential illegal immigrants," says Letiecq. "There is a legal process for legitimate immigration, and it starts at an embassy or consulate, not with the Border Patrol tens or hundreds of miles inside the U.S."

Immigration supporters react to news that the Prince William supervisors passed the July 2007 measures targeting undocumented immigrants.

"An Act of War Upon Our People"

Shane Long, vice chairman of the Maryland chapter of the League of the South, takes a more radical position. Child or adult, legal or illegal—it doesn't matter, he says. He asserts that "a large amount" of native Virginians and Marylanders share his belief that all of the above intrude on Southerners' right to exist as a distinct people. "Any act or nonaction by the federal government to bring about such large influxes of non-Southern peoples is genocide and is viewed as [that] by native Southerners," he says. "It is, in effect, an act of war upon our people."

"They Don't Want to See Brown-Skinned People Here"

Given the intensity of feeling, many Hispanics live in fear, says Prince William County resident Wendy Jimenez, a community organizer for Casa de Virginia. They hear the anger echo in government meetings and feel it around the corner on many streets. She says Hispanics are more likely to get into trouble than a white person for the same act; she cites a Latino friend who was recently ticketed for jaywalking when he rushed to catch his bus.

She claims locals don't differentiate between people who come here legally and those who don't—to them, all Hispanics look undocumented. "They don't want to see brown-skinned people here," she says. "That's the real problem."

But Letiecq says he does distinguish between legal and undocumented immigrants. He adds that he believes that the latter get what they can and then go back to their own countries without contributing to the community. "They aren't buying the American dream like an American would," he says. "They're renting it."

Still, Hispanics feel power in their growing numbers. Jimenez says more Hispanics from Prince William County and Manassas participate in the organization's rallies, demonstrations, and protests than Hispanics from the surrounding areas. "We're gonna fight, help keep the community together, share stories, and raise our voices," she says. "We are not going to stop."

The Schools Gear Up

Handling the influx of nonnative English students is not easy, but the public schools are managing even as budgets are slashed. Manassas teachers break big classes into groups, offer test-preparation sessions, and teach evening and Saturday classes. They also make themselves available to students as much as they can. Rebecca Apple recalls that one student read The Hunger Games aloud in English to another teacher even though he didn't yet understand the words.

"Everything we think of to better improve opportunities for ESOL students is benefiting other students," says Matilde Rosa Jimenez. The scores of both ESOL and mainstream students have risen.

Locals argue that if public school teachers can't handle the exploding student population, it will be reflected in test scores and will ultimately diminish the community's reputation as a desirable place to live. But the better test scores reflect a more hopeful scenario.

In Prince William County's public schools, SAT scores have improved, matching or surpassing the national average in two of three areas. Black students outperformed the state and national average, and Hispanic students made enough progress in critical reading to pass the national average. Now teachers like Apple and Rosa Jimenez just want more teachers and a better screening process to address the needs of ESOL kids.

Do they know the legal status of their students? "To me, that's not a priority," says Rosa Jimenez. "They need to be educated. They are children."

"I don't ask," says Apple. "I don't want to know."