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Aid for arriving migrants strained amid dispute over who should help them

U.S. Border Patrol agents speak with migrants at the Eagle Pass Commercial Port of Entry in Eagle Pass, Texas, in July before they board a bus to D.C. (Paul Ratje/Bloomberg News)

It’s been nearly four months since migrants seeking U.S. asylum began arriving in D.C. by the hundreds on buses from Texas and Arizona, a situation created when the governors of the two border states began providing free rides to the nation’s capital as a way to criticize the Biden administration’s border policy.

With some of those people sleeping outside or at Union Station as volunteers scramble to find them food, clothing and temporary shelter, neither the city nor the federal government has been willing to play a direct role in addressing what immigrant advocates say is a building humanitarian crisis.

City officials have been encouraging nonprofit groups to seek additional federal aid, rather than funding from the D.C. government, after the Department of Defense last week denied Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s request for the National Guard to take command of a more centralized form of assistance to the migrants.

Bowser (D), who has not devoted local government resources to the matter, said last week that she plans to renew her request for National Guard assistance. Guard officials “appear to say a more specified request would help them understand our needs,” Bowser said at a news conference Friday. The Defense Department declined to comment Tuesday on Bowser’s plan to renew her request.

When asked about the situation Tuesday, Bowser’s office released a statement that was a transcript of comments the mayor made at Friday’s news conference.

“When we have a growing humanitarian crisis that we expect — and that the federal government expects — is going to only worsen, I have got to deploy the resources that I need to handle it,” Bowser said. “And we need our National Guard. If we were a state, I would have already done it — I would have deployed the National Guard. We also need a federal site. If there is going to be ongoing busloads of people who are stopping here on their way to where they’re going, which is not here, we need a site that the NGOs can use to make that … stop as humane as possible for people who are fleeing horrendous circumstances. In many cases, those people are boarding buses having been lied to about what’s going to be on the other end, and then they’re still not where they want to be. So we really need federal coordination.”

Immigrant advocates, who were against deploying the National Guard over concerns it would be militarizing the issue, argue the problem requires a coordinated local government response.

“The mayor is sitting on millions of dollars within the D.C. budget,” said Ashley Tjhung, an organizer with the Migrant Solidarity Mutual Aid Network, a collection of mostly volunteer groups that have been greeting the migrants as they arrive and giving them rides to nearby hotels or churches that have served as temporary lodging.

So far, more than 7,000 migrants have arrived, according to estimates provided by the volunteers. Though many have left for other parts of the country, an increasing number have chosen to settle in the area, making their presence a longer-term challenge, Tjhung said.

“Services need to be expanded to help people find housing, to help people enroll their children in schools, to provide legal services so they can successfully seek asylum here,” she said, arguing that the District would could more easily secure aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The aid available to the migrants is increasingly stretched thin.

A 50-person “respite center” in Montgomery County that is meant to provide temporary shelter and other assistance to the migrants is often full, leaving the aid groups to search for alternative lodging. Scott Peterson, spokesman for Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D), said the county is “committed to supporting the regional effort to assist these new arrivals” but is running out of resources.

“Montgomery County has been assisting the migrants since they have arrived but we are nearing capacity with the resources we are currently providing to these individuals,” Peterson said. “It is unfortunate that these migrants are being used as political pawns by the Governors of Texas and Arizona. Furthermore, immigration and interstate issues are a responsibility of the federal government. We hope the federal government will intervene, assist, and work with us to handle this unprecedented situation.”

FEMA has given a $1 million grant to SAMU First Response, a Spain-based group, for its aid to the migrants. Tatiana Laborde, operations director for the organization, said it has not been able to find a suitable building closer to Union Station that would make assisting the migrants easier.

The neighborhood surrounding the station is one of the city’s priciest real estate markets and is home to federal government buildings already in use, Laborde said.

Available buildings that are affordable don’t have the amenities required under the FEMA grant to temporarily house the migrants, such as bathrooms or a kitchen, she said.

“We are just continuing to try to be creative on where to have this space,” Laborde said. “We have specific conditions that we need to meet to welcome these migrants, and, unfortunately, near Union Station that’s very, very challenging.”

Bowser’s office has not allocated local resources toward the aid effort, despite being able to apply to FEMA for reimbursement. In the past, the District has had trouble getting the reimbursement it sought from federal agencies after other major expenses, such as President Donald Trump’s inauguration.

In the meantime, several of the migrants have been housed at a hotel in Northeast Washington along a stretch of industrial buildings, hotels and fast-food joints near the Maryland border.

On Tuesday, a few chairs and blankets in a parking lot outside one of the hotel’s buildings revealed where some of the migrants had slept for the night.

Families on the buses have received higher priority for aid — including lodging — which sometimes means the single men who’ve arrived alongside them must fend for themselves, immigrant advocates said.

In other cases, buses have arrived with no one available to meet them, causing those passengers to also sleep outside, with some knowing to travel to the hotels where migrants are staying and where they feel safety in numbers, advocates said.

Cristián José Jimenez and Yranyelín Landaeta Aguirre were among those who had a hotel room.

The couple from Venezuela arrived in D.C. by way of Texas about a week ago, with Aguirre three months pregnant.

They described a four-month journey from Venezuela by foot, walking with others through the jungles of Central America and evading kidnappers and other predators near Mexico’s border with Texas.

Their plan is to settle in the District and try to find stability for their child while waiting to hear from Immigration and Customs Enforcement about their asylum applications, Jimenez said.

“There is nothing for us in Venezuela,” he said in Spanish. “Society as we knew it no longer exists. I want to find work and begin a new life here.”

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