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Unaccompanied Minor Immigrants Pose Dilemma for Arlington

APS Walk and Bike to School DayAcross the country, the boom in unaccompanied minors emigrating from Central America has caused federal authorities to devote more resources to border protection and enforce stricter deportation policies.

While one Arlington official is calling the growth in this population a “crisis,” most say we’re not there yet. Nonetheless, the county is monitoring the situation and making preparations before such immigrants start to have an impact.

Last week, the Sun Gazette reported that School Board member Emma Violand-Sanchez and County Board member Walter Tejada met with representatives from the Guatemalan Consulate to discuss the trend of unaccompanied minor immigrants, and, after the meeting, Violand-Sanchez told the School Board it was a “crisis situation.”

Tejada told ARLnow.com this morning that, while he wouldn’t characterize Arlington’s current population of unaccompanied minors as a crisis, the county is taking steps to prepare in case the population grows substantially.

“We’re organizing right now and saying, ‘how do we deal with this, what issues are we confronting?'” Tejada said. “The most important question is the welfare of the kids. How do we protect the children from being taken advantage of and falling into the wrong world? It’s a very complicated situation.”

According to Arlington Public Schools spokeswoman Linda Erdos, there were only 10 students identified as “homeless/unaccompanied youth” in the last school year. There were also 83 students in APS’ “Accelerated Literacy Support” program as of June, for older students new to the country who need additional literary support. That number increased from 22 students in June 2012.

“Because we are currently on summer break, we may not know the full impact on APS of the immigration of youth from Central America until the end of August and/or later in the 2014-15 school year,” Erdos said in an email. “We know that we need to be prepared to address this, given the reports in the media, and the response from the President and the federal government. We are also watching the situation closely because we know this may have a major impact on our operating budget.”

Arlington’s Department of Human Services hasn’t seen an increase in unaccompanied minors, according to department spokesman Kurt Larrick. There are always a few who come to the county every year, Larrick said, and those “tend to be older, they tend to have had a rough life at home.”

“I don’t think we’re at a crisis now by any means,” Larrick said. “We’re a long way from the Central American border so I don’t think it’s as acute locally as in other parts of the country.”

Both Larrick and Erdos said Arlington is an appealing destination for many of these immigrants because of its reputation for being welcoming, which dates back to accepting Vietnamese refugees during and after the Vietnam War in the 1970s.

Tejada said it’s impossible to know if the immigrants will eventually come to Arlington in large numbers, but instead of “being reactionary” as the county has been in the past to similar issues, this time the county is being proactive. Tejada said the county plans to organize “mobile Consulates” from different countries with populations in Arlington, such as El Salvador and Guatemala, in August.

“We’re alerting our partners to stand by,” Tejada said. “There will be a call to action at some point, but we have to be careful not to put out a false call when there is no need.”

Morgan Fecto contributed to this report

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