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Almost 60,000 unaccompanied minors from Central America now live in the United States. Most are awaiting court hearings to determine whether they can stay. Many are also going to school and trying to settle into new families and new communities. Last summer, we heard from one teenager who fled his home country and entered the U.S. illegally to live with his aunt in suburban Maryland near Washington, D.C. NPR's Pam Fessler has an update.
PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: We agreed not to use 17-year-old Jose's full name or to say which Central American country he came from. That's because his parents were murdered there in 2012 for not cooperating with a local gang. And he's very worried about his three younger siblings who still live back home. And since we last spoke, there's been another tragedy. Jose's aunt Marta says that her brother, Jose's uncle, was brutally murdered this past November by the same gang.
MARTA: (Through interpreter) He was kidnapped. He was coming back from shopping, and he was picked up. They tortured him and then brought him back and dumped his body near the house.
FESSLER: Marta fears that the killing was in retaliation for her efforts to bring Jose to the U.S. and out of the gang's reach.
MARTA: (Through interpreter) It worries me if Jose has to go back because I know Jose will have the same luck.
FESSLER: But the boy's future here is very much up in the air. Like tens of thousands of other unaccompanied minors who came to the U.S. last year, he's awaiting a court hearing to find out whether or not he can stay. And while he waits, he's trying to adjust to a new life. In September, he started 9th grade at the local high school, a challenge because back home, he only made it through the third grade.
JOSE: (Trough interpreter) The hardest is learning English. I've never had English in my country.
FESSLER: Jose says otherwise, he's been doing pretty well. We're sitting in the living room of his aunt's small apartment in Hyattsville, Md. And as we talk, Jose peeks frequently at a game he's playing on a smartphone. Jose says he's got lots of new friends. He plays soccer and basketball. He says he misses his siblings back home but feels a lot safer here.
JOSE: (Through interpreter) I like how there is respect for the law here. You're not afraid that something bad's going to happen to you, except maybe if you go out at night. But who wants to go out at night?
FESSLER: Jose is among the luckier unaccompanied immigrant youths. His Aunt's been able to get lots of help from local churches and social service agencies. And most important, he has a lawyer, which most do not.
JAMES MONTANA: We try to do triage and sort through the cases to pick the ones where we have the best chance of making a difference. But we're nowhere close to meeting the demand.
FESSLER: James Montana is an attorney with Catholic Charities of Washington, D.C. His group represents Jose as well as dozens of other immigrant youths. But Montana says there's a desperate need for more volunteer attorneys.
MONTANA: These kids are facing exile and in some cases death. It's also very hard to represent yourself pro se when you're a 10-year-old in a new country. You don't speak the language.
FESSLER: And social service providers here say young immigrants are facing a lot of stress beyond the uncertainty of their futures in the U.S. JoAnne Barnes oversees Children, Youth and Family Services for Montgomery County, Md., where more than 1,300 unaccompanied minors have settled over the past year. She says many of them have been through terrible traumas back home and during their journeys north.
JOANNE BARNES: A lot of that trauma surfaces in their behaviors once they get here in incidences of violence. And they definitely need mental health support.
FESSLER: So the county has hired social workers to go into the Latino community to make sure that those who need help can get it. Barnes says it's not only the minors but their entire families that are under stress. And Jose's aunt Marta admits that things are more difficult now, trying to raise her own two small children. She had to quit her full-time cleaning job because of all the legal and other appointments she has to go to, trying to help her nephew stay in the U.S. She now does odd jobs, cleaning and babysitting.
MARTA: (Through interpreter) In my case, it's been very difficult for me because I don't have a full-time, stable job. Sometimes, I feel boxed in.
FESSLER: On the other hand, Marta says, she's watched Jose become happier and more relaxed and more outspoken. She says she reminds her nephew he's now in a country where he has a voice. Pam Fessler, NPR News.
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