Williams Guevara Martinez just wanted to escape. His daily walks to school were filled with guns, violence and a threat to his life.
At 16, the now-Baltimore resident packed up and made the journey from El Salvador to the United States.
He was alone.
“I took all the transportation you could think of,” he said. “I wanted a better life.”
Now 18, Martinez has successfully gone through the immigration process to live in the states. He’s enrolled in school and lives with his brother. He testified before the Maryland General Assembly on immigration rights.
Martinez can also relate to the thousands of unaccompanied children from South America potentially coming to Maryland since he used to be one of them.
“It troubles me,” he said. “I hope the resources are there to help them, like they were for me.”
As the federal government looks for ways to house the number of children coming to the states, local immigration nonprofits saw the influx coming more than a year ago.
Val Twanmoh, Director of Esperanza Center anticipated the increase last year, when her center received a grant from Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services to become the second site in the state to assist immigrants with fingerprinting and the family unification process.
“We would be an overflow site for the original Rockville site,” Twanmoh said. “They were inundated with folks- that’s when I saw the number of people we were serving really start to grow.”
When they first started the process last August, the center saw between 30-45 people a month.
In the last three months, that number rose from 93 to 105.
“In July we will exceed that,” she said.
The center’s health clinic has also started setting up specific days to help cater to children who need physicals and medical attention for the start of the school year.
“Yesterday we had close to 40 kids who needed boosters and other vaccinations for entry into school,” she said.
To ensure the center can keep up with the demand, Twanmoh said they are recruiting more volunteers, applying for more grant funding and asking lawyers to assist with the backlog of immigration cases on their docket.
An estimated 57,000 children have entered the United States illegally since October — more than double the total for the same period in the previous year. Officials expect the number to reach 90,000 by the end of September amid continuing violence in Central America.
Gov. Martin O’Malley met with religious leaders on Monday to discuss how the state could house a portion of those children. Catholic Charities has also expressed interest in housing up to 50 children.
Reaction to the news has left some political leaders to take their own action to protect taxpayer money.
Del. Pat McDonough, a Baltimore County Republican, said the influx of immigrants to Maryland has to be maintained and that the governor isn’t doing enough to prevent it.
“If you’re coming to the states illegally, it would be stupid not to come here,” he said. “It’s a free for all in this state.”
McDonough plans to address the immigrant issue by asking the attorney general’s office to issue an opinion as to whether the governor has the right to become involved in what he considers a federal matter.
The delegate also wants to form a commission that will review how nonprofits like Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services handle funds.
“Our leaders have turned our state into a Disneyland for lawbreakers,” he said. “I am obligated to look into the matter since no one else is.”
Martinez says the stereotypes among some people are hurtful to hear, but he knows that the opportunity to thrive in the U.S. is now plausible.
“My hope is to work with computers,” he said. “I’m good with them.”
Adonia Simpson, managing attorney for immigration legal services at the Esperanza Center, worked with Martinez during his legal and reunification process.
She says he an example of what this country can do to help unaccompanied minors achieve their dreams.
“He’s worked so hard and great things are in store for him” she said. “We just need the resources to be able to help all those coming here, looking for a stable life.”
As the Esperanza Center looks to help fill the need for the growing number of unoccupied minors coming to Maryland, they anticipate moving to a bigger space in the future.
For now, they plan to keep up with the demand one day at a time.