Virginia is more than 1,500 miles from the Rio Grande Valley of south Texas, epicenter of the border crisis.
And it is the home state of Rep. Eric Cantor, who was defeated by a tea party novice who attacked the former House majority leader for being open to “amnesty” for at least some immigrants in the country illegally.
But Yesenia, 16, and her brother, Herson, 12, are here.
Junior, 14, is in Virginia too. So is Claudia, 13.
The Washington, D.C., region is drawing a number of the children caught illegally crossing the border because it is home to an estimated 165,000 Salvadoran immigrants, the nation’s second-largest population after the Los Angeles area’s 275,000, according to the Migration Policy Institute. The capital region had 42,000 immigrants from Guatemala and 30,000 from Honduras.
The Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families reports that 2,234 unaccompanied minors were released to sponsors in Virginia between Jan. 1 and July 7, ranking the state fifth after Texas, New York, Florida and California.
As a measure of the influx of young immigrants into Virginia, when the legal aid organization Ayuda began taking new appointments at its Falls Church office, it received more than 300 calls within an hour, said attorney Rebecca J. Walters.
Central American populations took root in the Washington area when political turmoil racked their homelands in the 1980s. Fear of violence, this time from gangs, often drives the current migration.
“This is something that no parent wants their kid to go through,” Arminda said of her children’s journey to the United States. But in El Salvador, she said, “it’s just a matter of time before they’re going to die.”
Arminda, like a number of others interviewed, spoke through an interpreter and on the condition that only first names be used. She entered the United States illegally about nine years ago, leaving behind her three children.
Arminda, who cleans offices for a living, paid a coyote $7,000 to bring Yesenia and Herson to the United States. Their father had abandoned the children. They were being cared for by their grandmother, who became ill.
Her youngest son, 9-year-old Milton, followed his siblings six months later; she needed time to save the additional $5,000 to pay a coyote for him.
Yesenia and Herson brought only what they could carry in backpacks and traveled by bus and car, and sometimes by foot. They say they were often hungry.
Yesenia said that when she grew tired of walking, one member of her group warned her that unless she continued, she would be killed. They crossed the Rio Grande on a raft and were immediately apprehended by the Border Patrol.
Arminda said she received a call from immigration authorities about 1 a.m. alerting her that her children were safe and in custody. They were flown — in their first airplane ride — to Washington and reunited with their mother.
The children are attending school while they seek to remain in the country. No hearing date has been set, but the hearing is expected to be in Los Angeles as immigration authorities try to find available courtrooms and judges. Milton, apprehended later, is in a detention facility in New York.
Her children had to leave El Salvador, she said, to “get away from a place where gangs kill people and chop them up.”
“One day a boy — they robbed him, took his things and chopped him up,” she said. “I don’t want this to happen — I don’t want these children to grow up in this crime-ridden place. Because the gang members, when the girls are older, they force them to join their gang and they force them to be their women.”
Junior’s journey began in Honduras. “I felt alone,” said Junior, the last of his family to come to the United States. “I wanted to be with my mom.”
His mother, three brothers and two sisters were already in the United States. His father had left the family. And his grandfather, who was caring for him, was sick.
Junior was caught within minutes of crossing the Rio Grande and assumed he would be deported right away. But he ended up spending about two weeks in custody in Texas, Arizona and Los Angeles, before he was flown to reunite with his family in Virginia.
Now he is back with the mother he hadn’t seen since he was 6. And he is embracing his new home, wearing a T-shirt in the University of Virginia’s orange and navy blue.
Claudia’s journey, which lasted about a month, began in Guatemala. Her mother, Margot, had entered the country illegally eight years ago, leaving a son and two daughters. She has two U.S.-born sons, ages 5 and 7.
Margot wanted Claudia, 13, to come to the United States because she feared she would be forced into marriage like her 14-year-old sister, who remains in Guatemala.
Asked about the public furor over the surge of young immigrants crossing the border, Margot said: “Consider what life is like in their shoes. ... They can’t survive where they are.”
Yasmine, who cleans houses for a living, started saving from the day she arrived to raise money to pay a coyote to bring her daughter Marbeli, 15, and son Manuel, 12, to the U.S. from El Salvador. But she still needed help from her father-in-law to cover the $16,000 bill.
She had entered the country illegally two years ago, joining her husband, who had already found work here.
Marbeli said that while the journey was difficult — sometimes she and her brother went days without eating — she said she trusted in God. When she began her journey she carried only a backpack and a Bible.
Marbeli and Manuel got separated at the U.S.-Mexico border. Marbeli was apprehended by the Border Patrol shortly after she crossed the Rio Grande on an inner tube. She has already been granted special juvenile immigrant status.
Manuel was never caught but made it to Los Angeles and then, like many others, to Virginia.