The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

D.C. Council approves new office to aid migrants arriving on buses

Johan, 24, a migrant from Venezuela, talks with a humanitarian volunteer in Washington on Thursday. (Craig Hudson/For the Washington Post)
5 min

The D.C. Council on Tuesday voted to create a government office that lawmakers say will offer immediate support to the thousands of asylum seekers being bused to the District at the direction of GOP governors from states on the southern border, despite concerns from advocates about some of the bill’s provisions.

The bill to create an Office of Migrant Services was written by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), who this month declared a public emergency over the situation. In a letter to council members Tuesday encouraging them to approve the action, Bowser estimated that at least 9,400 people have arrived in D.C. since April through busing programs created by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) — which she called a “humanitarian crisis.”

Bowser’s public emergency declaration permits her to use $10 million from the city’s contingency funds to establish the office; she plans to seek reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Bowser’s emergency bill enables the Office of Migrant Services to provide asylum seekers who are in the city temporarily with short-term support including food, clothing, legal services and shelter, helping relieve the burden on local nonprofit organizations that have thus far handled most of the response.

The council voted 12-0 to approve the bill. Council member Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4) voted “present,” citing her desire to ensure that the measure strikes the right balance.

In a statement applauding the council’s vote, Bowser called on President Biden and Congress to do more to support the migrants and the cities hosting them.

“As I have said before, what our country needs is for Congress to fix the immigration system,” Bowser wrote. “We also encourage the [Biden] Administration to fulfill the requests of cities and states that are receiving buses and planes with no coordination or notification from those sending them.”

Photos: What’s behind governors busing migrants from the border to other states

In recent days, advocates for the homeless in D.C. have warned that the bill’s language is too broad and places migrants in a lower tier of city services — stripping them of some protections that are guaranteed to people experiencing homelessness in D.C. through the city’s Homeless Services Reform Act.

That law mandates that families be placed in private rooms with their own bathroom facilities instead of in congregate settings — a safeguard against potential predatory behavior, especially against children. Bowser’s bill allows contractors to house people in congregate settings, including single adults.

“Some of these revisions wouldn’t be necessary if [the bill] was really only targeting temporary migrants passing through,” said Rachel Rintelmann, interim co-executive director of the nonprofit Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia, which was among dozens of local groups to request changes to the measure.

Council member Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2) tried to address the advocates’ concerns through amendments that would instruct the Office of Migrant Services to prioritize non-congregate shelters for families with children and would require anyone who is denied services from the new office to receive written and oral notice, as well as the chance for an appeal.

She also wanted to strike a clause from Bowser’s version of the bill that denies HSRA eligibility to immigrants who are awaiting hearings outside the District — noting that D.C. lacks an immigration court. That means migrants who live in D.C. and are awaiting an immigration interview or hearing would become ineligible for HSRA protections, which include eviction prevention services.

While several lawmakers said that Pinto’s proposed changes had merit, they voted 9-4 against her amendment.

Emergency bills require nine votes to pass and remain in effect for 90 days. Council member Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1), who introduced the bill Tuesday, said her committee will hold a hearing on a permanent version of the bill next month, a process that she and other members said will allow the council to better address some of the advocates’ concerns.

“Right now, the idea is let’s get the office stood up, let’s support folks as they’re arriving,” Nadeau said.

The council vote comes as the scene in D.C. is shifting. In recent days, busloads of migrants from Texas have arrived at the Naval Observatory — near Vice President Harris’s official residence — rather than the initial drop-off site near Union Station in Northeast Washington, sharpening national focus on the situation. Buses coming from Arizona are still stopping near Union Station, immigrant advocates say.

Ashley Tjhung, an organizer with the Migrant Solidarity Mutual Aid Network, a coalition of groups assisting the migrants, said the increased publicity surrounding the drop-off site near Harris’s residence has coincided with a surge in social media threats.

“We don’t think anything is a very present concern,” she said. “Still, the uptick in anonymous threats is very concerning.”

Bowser, who was rejected twice by the Pentagon when she asked for National Guard support to help with the migrant arrivals, said in her letter that she expects the busing to continue. She opposed any changes to the emergency bill, which she said could “divert valuable personnel and operational resources away from individuals in need of services.”

D.C. may end right on red for cars, let cyclists yield at stop signs

In its first legislative meeting after the summer recess, the council tackled dozens of other measures, including key proposals related to cars and transit.

One bill, introduced by D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) and other lawmakers, allows people on bicycles and scooters to treat a stop sign as a yield sign, also known as an Idaho stop, and also bans right-on-red turns at all traffic lights beginning in January 2025, except at intersections where the District’s Department of Transportation determines it would “improve safety” to allow them.

The council voted 13-0 to approve Cheh’s bill, which will require a second vote to pass before it heads to Bowser’s desk.