It's being called a crisis at the U.S. border. The latest figures show that U.S. Border Patrol agents have stopped more than 66,000 unaccompanied children from Central America since October 2013. Many of them are now connected with relatives here in Maryland.
ABC2's Trang Do sat down with a young man who was one of these children two years ago. He said that though the trip was full of uncertainty and danger, it was a risk he was willing to take for the chance at a better life. Later this week, he could get his green card.
Parkville High School junior Williams Guevara Martinez is learning the history of the United States, where he hopes to one day become a citizen.
His story will also become a part of U.S. history, as one of the tens of thousands of unaccompanied children from Central America who've crossed the southern border into the United States. The vast majority come from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Williams was just 16 when he left his native El Salvador with a coyote or human smuggler to take the more than 2000 mile journey two years ago.
"I was nervous because I have to travel, I had to make this trip, but I was more sad because I had to leave everything," Williams said. "My family, my friends."
The trip to the border took about a week. It began on foot and included several cars, a bus and a ride on La Bestia, a network of freight trains that migrants ride atop through Mexico in the hopes of reaching the U.S. Travel on the train is extremely dangerous. Many travelers are seriously hurt or killed falling from the train cars.
"We had to be awake all night because there were holes in the street and with the train run over the holes, the box jumped and we can't sleep through that," Williams said.
Migrants are also targets for criminals and gangs along the way, something Williams himself witnessed.
"Someone yell, that was a woman and someone said that, 'Give me your money or all you have!' and we said, 'What's going on over there?'" he said. "We were really afraid because we didn't know what will happen."
Once Williams crossed the border, he was immediately caught by border patrol agents.
He spent 24 days in a Texas shelter before being reunited with two brothers and a sister in Maryland.
"At that moment, I think, everything will be fine right now," he said. "And it's that. Everything is fine."
But Williams' journey and those of thousands like him, is far from finished. In the first seven months of this year, 2,800 unaccompanied children were released to family members in Maryland. Two hundred sixty-four to Baltimore city alone. When they arrive, many of them turn to Catholic Charities' Esperanza Center for help.
"You hear horrible stories of abuse, of kids being abandoned by parents," said Adonia Simpson, managing attorney for Immigration Legal Services at the Esperanza Center. "You hear horrible stories about the gang violence, about rape. You hear horrible stories about their journeys to come here to the United States. It's so treacherous to make it, you have to wonder, how bad things were to push them to go through that."
The Esperanza Center is essentially a one-stop shop for immigrant needs. Since 2009, Simpson and her colleagues have helped hundreds of undocumented children navigate immigration court proceedings.
"To meet these kids and to know these kids, is to realize that they're really in danger and they really are seeking a safe place here with us," Simpson said. "You don't want to re-traumatize these kids. I'm an attorney, I'm not a mental health professional. I think it's a very delicate line that you walk to get the information that you need to represent them without causing more damage."
Through a scar on his wrist, Williams bears a permanent reminder of the abuse he suffered at the hands of his father. In February, he revealed that painful part of his past in testimony before the Maryland General Assembly in support of House Bill 315.
"He beat me several times each week," he said. "He used rods, belts and machetes. I still have the scars on my hand and limbs. My mother could not stop him."
The bill, which was passed in April, raises the age limit from 18 to 21 for immigrants eligible for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS). The designation allows undocumented minors who have been abused, neglected or abandoned by a parent to become lawful U.S. residents. Williams is one of them. With the help of pro bono attorney Scott Rose, Williams was able to prove that it is in his best interest to stay in the United States.
"I cannot wait to be a full citizen," he said in his House Bill 315 hearing testimony. "I love this country and the opportunities that it gives me and I love my brothers, who keeps me safe."
Williams shows just how resilient these children can be. He has learned English quickly and is on track to graduate on time. He hopes to one day become an engineer and ultimately bring his mother to the United States. But one accomplishment he can already take off his list is sharing his story and helping to pass a new law that will help others like him.
"I think I want to, I can help somebody else and that was correct," he said. "I had a friend in the school who didn't have any option to stay here and under the new law, I gave the option to him. So that was really good."
Williams has a court hearing later this week, where he is hoping to secure his green card. Meanwhile, the Maryland law that he helped to pass, which expands Special Immigrant Juvenile Status to those 21 and under, goes into effect Oct. 1.
Catholic Charities is hoping to expand its services to undocumented children. The organization has applied for a federal grant that would allow it to house up to 50 children at St. Vincent's Villa in Timonium. The children would be sheltered there until they can be reunited with a family member. A decision is expected sometime this month.
The Esperanza Center is always looking for donations of school supplies, clothes for these children or monetary donations. People can also volunteer their time as Spanish interpreters and English teachers. A huge need right now is for pro bono attorneys to take on these children's immigration cases. The center has a waitlist of 35 children at the moment who need representation.