D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said Thursday she is seeking to have 150 National Guard troops deployed to the city to help with the thousands of migrants arriving on chartered buses from Texas and Arizona, a politics-driven influx from those border states that has overwhelmed local aid groups.
“We need space, and we need the federal government to be involved,” Bowser said at the end of a news conference on a separate topic, calling the busloads of migrants seeking U.S. asylum who have been arriving at Union Station “a humanitarian crisis that we expect to escalate.”
Several aid groups assisting the migrants denounced the request as seeking to “militarize” a problem that should provoke a more humanitarian response in a region increasingly made up of immigrants.
Bowser, who also has been facing calls by some members of the D.C. Council to do more to assist the migrants, formally made the request to the Defense Department last week.
A spokesman for Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin declined to comment on the request Thursday, saying it is still being evaluated. “The Secretary takes this request for assistance very seriously. He and his team are working through the details, and will respond to the mayor’s office as soon as a decision has been reached,” the spokesman said in a statement.
Bowser’s request comes amid an ongoing surge of migrants — many from Venezuela, Cuba or Central Africa — at the U.S.-Mexico border as the Biden administration seeks to end Title 42, a pandemic-related policy that paused nearly all asylum proceedings at the border.
With the Trump-era “Remain in Mexico” program also ending, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) accused Biden of being too lax on border enforcement.
In April, Abbott launched a program to send migrants who arrived in his state to the District so “the Biden administration will be able to more immediately address the needs of the people that they are allowing to come across our border.” A month later, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) followed suit with his own voluntary program busing migrants to D.C.
The burden of assisting the more than 4,000 migrants who have come to D.C. since then has fallen on local aid groups — many of them staffed by volunteers — who have met the migrants at Union Station and helped them find temporary shelter or assisted them with plans to reach their final destinations in other parts of the country as they await asylum court dates.
SAMU First Response — a group based in Spain that has been among those assisting the migrants — is looking to lease space near Union Station that would serve as a “respite center” providing temporary lodging and other basic needs, part of a Federal Emergency Management Agency grant of at least $1 million it has to help those arriving.
With a similar facility in Montgomery County near capacity and the region’s social services network already strained as Texas and Arizona continue their programs, Bowser said, the situation has reached “a tipping point” that requires a more robust response from the Biden administration.
In a July 19 letter to the Defense Department, her administration proposed creating a temporary processing center at the D.C. Armory, the Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling military installation or the Fort Lesley J. McNair post — all of which are short drives from Union Station.
Under the proposal, the National Guard troops would shuttle newly arrived migrants to that location, where they could stay and find help in reaching other destinations, a setup that would be similar to the federal government’s response to the arrival of thousands of Afghan refugees last summer.
“We need to make sure that there is a national response,” Bowser said Tuesday. “Not an ad hoc city-by-city, state-by-state response.”
Aid groups said Bowser’s effort to get the U.S. military involved echoes the xenophobia displayed by Abbott and Ducey when, through their busing programs, they chose to use migrants arriving in desperate need of help as political pawns.
“It’s shameful,” said Amy Fischer, a volunteer with the Sanctuary DMV aid group that has been assisting the migrants as part of a larger Migrant Solidarity Mutual Aid Network of locally based organizations.
That network and other immigrant advocates have been pushing for more city funding to help get those migrants settled — akin to the approach taken in San Antonio, which runs a migrant shelter with FEMA’s aid and, at its airport, features informational booths for newly arrived migrants seeking assistance.
“The D.C. community has communicated loudly and clearly since April that we welcome the people that are being bused here,” Fischer said.