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As Montgomery County expects wave of unaccompanied minors, local nonprofit works to expand capacity

Community leaders are working to make sure undocumented children have a stable environment to prevent them from gang involvement.

GAITHERSBURG, Md. — The latest wave of unaccompanied minors entering Montgomery County has both government officials and local organizations and nonprofits working together to better handle the transition and provide services they need. 

There have been at least 104 undocumented migrant children resettled with family or sponsors in Montgomery County since October, according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement. However, the latest data is from February which likely means many more children have already relocated to the county. 

As of late April, Montgomery County Public Schools recorded 70 students are believed to be unaccompanied minors. Officials expect 3,000 undocumented children to reach the county by this year or as early as summer. 

The Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services (MCHHS) is partnered with eight organizations: Identity, Inc., Family Services, Inc., CASA, Mary's Center, Impact Silver Spring, Catholic Charities, LAYC (Latin American Youth Council) and Ayuda. 

Diego Uriburu, the founder of Identity, Inc., said compared to the last influx several years ago, officials are more prepared and have a better plan that consists of a multi-partnership approach.

"Montgomery County is doing things in a way that it didn't do before and that gives me hope," Uriburu told WUSA9. 

Uriburu founded his organization more than 20 years ago to serve Latino and historically underserved youth in the community. Some of the first few people he helped were undocumented children who came to the country from countries such as El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

His mission focuses on social and emotional support, workforce and employment services and education. Uriburu is trying to work with the county and federal government to receive more funding to help expand his services which he admits will be a challenge. 

Preparing in his organization will include beefing up staff, increasing capacity and adding more recreational activities for all of the services. 

"We're quite overstretched because of COVID so we're trying to work right now with the county," he said. "We're trying to see what it would take to increase our capacity to absorb the need we know is coming."

The county had planned to call FEMA and the Office of Refugee Resettlement for federal funding since it's one of the top 10 receiving sites for asylum-seeking children. 

"The call took place but there were no commitments from FEMA about funding," a MCHHS spokesperson said.

One of the major concerns to avoid is the involvement of gangs. Community leaders know gangs are preparing themselves to recruit many of the young people as members offer what could seem like a family environment. 

Uriburu said gangs are one example of why organizations that work closely with children need more support to help create a stable environment for anyone dealing with a tough time resettling. 

A Montgomery County police spokesperson said the department is working with the Department of Health and Human Services to address gang preventative measures for all undocumented minors.

Tito Martinez, an undocumented immigrant, said when he first arrived in Montgomery County when he was 23 years old more than a decade ago, a gang attacked him. Martinez said he was comfortable enough to call the police and chose to avoid gangs.

Gangs were the reason why he left El Salvador and walked all the way to the border in Mexico. He managed to reach Montgomery County where there was at least one family member.

He urged the children arriving to stay out of trouble and stay focused because there are many opportunities in the country. 

In Virginia, there have been 119 resettlements in Fairfax County. 

The sponsors who help happen at the federal level. The Office of Refugee Resettlement works with organizations such as Bethany Christian Services & Lutheran Immigration & Refugee Services on sponsoring children. These organizations previously are certified and licensed at the federal level. 

If people are interested, they can click here or by calling 1-800-BETHANY.

RELATED: Montgomery County leaders prepare for a surge of migrant children as border crisis intensifies

RELATED: FEMA to help manage unaccompanied minors at US-Mexico border

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