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Feds deny Bowser’s request for National Guard to help with Texas migrants

Members of the Texas National Guard direct migrants from a Texas Department of Criminal Justice bus at the Eagle Pass Commercial Port of Entry in Eagle Pass, Tex., on July 28. (Paul Ratje/Bloomberg)

The Biden administration on Friday denied D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s request for assistance from the National Guard to help the city process the busloads of migrants that Republican governors in Texas and Arizona have been sending to the nation’s capital, leaving the District scrambling to accommodate them.

Bowser (D) expressed frustration at the federal decision, saying she would try again with a more narrowly tailored request for National Guard help with certain tasks related to the migrants’ arrival.

State governors can call up their National Guard troops without federal consent for a wide variety of tasks. But since D.C. is not a state, Bowser cannot activate the Guard without approval from the Department of Defense. She had sent a letter asking for the help last month.

“When the mayor of the District says she needs or he needs … the D.C. National Guard to support the safe operation of our city, we expect a fair consideration,” Bowser said on Friday shortly after learning the Defense Department had rejected the request she made July 19. The decision was first reported by NBC News.

D.C. aid groups overwhelmed by migrants arriving from Texas and Arizona

The Department of Defense issued a statement Friday on the decision.

“We have determined providing this support would negatively impact the readiness of the DCNG and have negative effects on the organization and members. We understand SAMU First Response has received grant funding through FEMA’s Emergency Food and Shelter Program, and has indicated that sufficient EFSP funds exist at this point to provide migrant assistance,” the statement read.

Bowser faulted both Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) and the Biden administration for treating the busing of thousands of migrants who have crossed the Mexican border as a political issue, rather than focusing on the pressing needs of the people getting off buses with no plans for where they will sleep.

“I have done — regardless of Republicans in Texas or Democrats on Pennsylvania Avenue — what I need to do to run the city. And when we have a growing humanitarian crisis that we expect, that the federal government expects, is going to only worsen, I have got to deploy the resources that I need to handle it. And we need our National Guard,” Bowser said. “If we were a state, I would have already done it. I would have deployed the National Guard.”

Abbott started sending migrants to D.C. by bus in April, as a way of highlighting his disagreements with Biden over immigration. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) then followed suit.

Volunteers who have been assisting each arriving bus for weeks, through mutual aid networks disapproved of Bowser’s proposal to activate the Guard, saying that what the migrants need is homeless services, not a military response.

Column: Immigrants looking for new lives are not a National Guard emergency

They have pushed the Bowser administration to extend city services like beds in family shelters to the arriving families. Members of the D.C. Council have questioned whether the mayor is doing enough with local D.C. resources to help.

While the federal government has provided a grant to a nonprofit organization to assist the migrants, volunteers say far more support is needed. The nonprofit, SAMU First Response, has said it can only assist about half of the 15 weekly busloads of arrivals, and the shelter it has set up in Maryland for arriving families with children can only hold about 50 people who can only stay for three days.

At times, helpers have been stretched so thin that arriving migrants have had nowhere to go and slept at D.C.'s Union Station upon getting off the bus.

Madhvi Vahl, an organizer in the Migrant Solidarity Mutual Aid Network, said that the group’s 250 to 300 volunteers are spending thousands of dollars a day in donations to respond to the migrants’ immediate needs, from shoes to medicines to Uber rides to hospitals. Volunteers greet each bus, help migrants find their way to shelters or hotels where the city pays for their lodging, and sometimes put migrants up in their own homes.

“The city should not rely on the labor and the funds of D.C. residents and volunteers to support folks and welcome folks," Vahl said, urging Bowser to pursue more extensive FEMA grants to cover the costs of housing and help for migrants. “We’re not case managers, you know? We of course have been doing our best and will continue doing it as long as we’re able. But the city needs to make a decision to actually be the sanctuary city that we claim to be.”

Peter Hermann and Vanessa G. Sánchez contributed to this report.