WYANDANCH - Thousands of undocumented immigrant children are living on Long Island, and the number continues to grow as more children and teens make the dangerous journey alone.
According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, more than 3,000 unaccompanied children were released to sponsors on Long Island in 2014, including about 1,600 in Suffolk County and 1,446 in Nassau. More children were released on Long Island than to the rest of New York state combined.
Victoria Campos, an immigration attorney based in Huntington Station, says dangerous conditions in countries like El Salvador and Honduras leave the children and their families with little choice.
"There's a big problem in Central America with the gangs," Campos says. "So most of the kids can't even go to school, because they are afraid they will be recruited, or they are in danger of being kidnapped, and in the case of girls and boys, raped."
News 12 Long Island spoke with a pair of teen sisters who made the dangerous journey from El Salvador all the way to Wyandanch. Madelyn Bermudez, 15, and her 14-year-old sister Elsy now seem like typical Long Island children: smart, athletic, creative girls who go to class and do their homework. But they arrived here illegally two years ago, and they left behind a life that wasn't easy.
The girls' mother was not around, and News 12 is told that their father was murdered. They were left in the care of an abusive aunt, who eventually sent them away to the United States in the hands of strangers.
The girls’ trip was grueling, both physically and emotionally. They say they were very scared, especially as they walked dark streets at night. Sometimes they did not have enough to eat.
Journeys like theirs are not uncommon. Thousands of unaccompanied children have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border, and customs agents eventually place them with relatives, many of whom live on Long Island.
The Bermudez girls have been reunited here with their mother, Maria, whom they had not seen since they were toddlers. Maria told News 12 that she left to escape a violent ex-husband who battered her for years. She says she always wanted to bring the girls north, but without a legal avenue to do so, she left them with her sister. The girls say they are happy to be in the country with their mom.
In Part Two of this special series, News 12 examines the effect of unaccompanied children on local school districts. Watch tomorrow, only on News 12 Long Island.