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Federal court border ruling may increase migrant buses to D.C. area, advocates say

The arrival of the buses has slowed, but advocates helping migrants build new lives are preparing for a potential increase

Alejandra Pinto, 32, center, and her husband, David Hernandez, 28, stand in the doorway of the Days Inn hotel room they share with their two children. Hotels in the Washington region have become a new home for migrants after Texas and Arizona began offering thousands of them free bus rides from the border to D.C. in the spring. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

After slowing to a trickle in recent weeks, the arrival to the Washington region of migrants on buses from Texas and Arizona is poised to accelerate again after a federal court ruling effectively restored asylum seekers’ access to the country’s borders, local immigrant advocates say.

Additionally, more people who were bused to other cities, such as New York or Chicago, are coming to the region after finding that those areas are too expensive or too cold, said Tatiana Laborde, managing director of SAMU First Response, the nonprofit group that has helped place those migrants in temporary shelters.

During a meeting last week among organizations supporting the migrants, the consensus was: “Okay, we’ve got to get ready,'” Laborde said about the possibility of a spike in arrivals.

“We think we have a better infrastructure now,” she added, referring to a network of support — including through an Office of Migrant Services created by D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) — that has been installed since the region was initially overwhelmed by the bus programs meant to criticize Biden administration border policies.

About 11,000 migrants, mostly from Venezuela or Colombia, have been dropped off in the District — either at Union Station or outside the grounds of the National Observatory, the site of Vice President Harris’s official residence — after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) launched his state’s program in April. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) followed suit a few weeks later.

Most of those people have since moved on to other areas, though about 700 — many of them children — remain in local hotels and shelters, advocates say. Most are inside two hotels in D.C., while about 50 people are in a hotel in Montgomery County, according to local nonprofit groups.

A federal judge’s order last week to vacate Title 42 — the Trump-era policy that allowed U.S. border officials to quickly expel migrants because of the coronavirus pandemic — may lead to a surge in border crossings that will, in turn, mean more buses sent to the Washington region, immigrant advocates say.

But with the order stayed through late December to allow the Biden administration time to send more resources to the border and coordinate with local governments and aid groups, it’s unclear how large that surge will be.

From border town to `border town,' bused migrants seek new lives in Washington D.C.

Abbott, who was reelected this month and is a potential presidential candidate, has said he intends to keep his state’s busing program going. He has raised $400,000 in private donations to fund the effort, which has been expanded to include other cities as destinations, most recently Philadelphia.

Arizona’s incoming governor, Democrat Katie Hobbs, has said she will halt her state’s busing program, which has accounted for nearly 2,580 migrants transported to the District.

“We’re really not sure what’s going to happen,” said Sharlet Ann Wagner, director of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington’s Newcomer Network, which has handled the bulk of legal assistance and other long-term services for the migrants staying at the three hotels.

With the order to vacate Title 42 on hold, “it’s good to have that breathing space to do some planning,” Wagner said.

Border crossings overall have gone down after the Biden administration launched a program last month to admit 24,000 Venezuelans who have a U.S. sponsor able to house them and support them financially, provided those applicants crossed legally through Panama and Mexico.

That and the fact that other cities have become destinations led to a drop in buses arriving in D.C., to a manageable three busloads of migrants per week, Laborde said.

For those who have decided to stay in the area, the challenges of settling into one of the most expensive regions in the country are just beginning.

Most were admitted into the country after indicating they want to pursue asylum but do not have federal work permits during that process, which can take several years amid a backlog of cases.

That has forced them into an underground labor market already filled with immigrants, making it harder to land jobs.

“We want to work,” Betsy Marquez, who traveled from Venezuela, mostly by foot, in the late summer and is now staying in one of the hotels, said in Spanish. “They won’t let us work. Everyone asks if we have permission.”

Many of the migrants arrived in the region without identification after surrendering those documents to federal agents at the border.

Others were given immigration court appointments in different parts of the country. Still more were unaware they even had to appear in immigration court after notices meant for them were mailed to the offices of nonprofits in the region that have not had contact with those migrants.

The Department of Homeland Security said those situations have been resolved. The mailing mix-ups involved cases where the migrants had no address for a U.S. contact or a nonprofit able to help them in their destination of choice, the department said.

In those cases, Border Patrol agents filled in the addresses of nonprofits on release paperwork based on information given by the migrants.

The agents have been instructed to no longer do that and, instead, list the name of the city and state where the migrants plan to reside on the release forms if no other information is available, DHS said. The migrants are given a form to update their addresses once they reach their destinations and, in many cases, mobile devices with which they can check in with immigration authorities, the department said.

Even so, the situation has caused some fear and confusion, local attorneys said.

Julia Rigal, an attorney at Ayuda, a D.C.-based immigrant advocacy group, said her organization has been urging migrants to monitor their hearing dates online.

“If you don’t show up [to that initial hearing], the judge will issue an in absentia removal order, which, then, obviously complicates your case a lot,” she said.

Biden prepares asylum overhaul at the border but court challenges loom

Meanwhile, the migrant families at the hotels have settled into a routine. In the D.C. hotels, that includes security gates and guards restricting access to those sites by visitors.

At a Days Inn in Northeast Washington, young mothers walk outside the gates in the mornings, pushing baby strollers while ushering their older children to school.

Men wait outside the hotel in their donated winter coats for rides that will take them to temporary jobs they’ve landed at construction sites or in restaurants.

Each day, the families are given three meals cooked by a city contractor, according to Bowser’s office.

The free food is appreciated, though not always ideal, some of the migrants said.

“It smells rotten,” Alejandra Pinto, who arrived with her family from Venezuela during the summer, said in Spanish. “It’s not something you’d buy fresh from the store. But one can’t say anything because we don’t feel we have the right to reject it.”

Volunteer groups working with the migrants say the security perimeter at the hotels in D.C. has made it more challenging to provide extra help.

“We have to call the families individually and have them come meet us outside of the hotel grounds,” said Mariel Vallano, an organizer with the Migrant Solidarity Mutual Aid Network, a coalition of groups that have been greeting the migrants when they arrive.

Bowser’s office said the security includes background checks for anyone working there and a restriction against case workers meeting with the migrants inside their rooms.

Wagner, with Catholic Charities, said the security is necessary, but residents are free to come and go as they please.

“Our primary concern has to be the safety and security of the residents; it’s a vulnerable population,” she said.

With the expected increase of migrant arrivals, Laborde said her organization, which is based in D.C., is searching for a second temporary shelter close to Union Station with enough space to accept a larger number of migrants, a quest hampered by the pricey real estate market in the surrounding Capitol Hill neighborhood.

Bowser’s declaration of the issue as a public emergency in September allowed the city to release $10 million in funds to aid the migrants, with plans to seek reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

FEMA awarded SAMU First Response nearly $2 million to operate its temporary shelter in Montgomery County, which has space for 50 people at a time.

Montgomery County, which provided that space, also offers migrants help with health care, long-term housing and school enrollment.

Providing long-term support to the migrants arriving on the buses would be easier with help from other localities in the region, Laborde said. But, so far, no other jurisdiction in the region has dedicated local resources toward the effort.

Fairfax County spokesman Tony Castrilli said the county already has a program that helps refugees, including migrants, resettle in the area.

“While that does not include formally accepting buses from other parts of the country, Fairfax County is committed to treating all who make their way here with dignity and respect,” Castrilli said in a statement.

Arlington County said it is monitoring the situation to see if any extra resources are needed for migrants who end up in its community, beyond what the county offers to anyone in need of food and temporary shelter. A Prince George’s County spokesman said officials there are working with community groups that offer aid to bused migrants but did not provide details.

Pinto, whose family fled Venezuela after her husband, an ex-government soldier, disobeyed orders to roust another family, said she and other migrants understand that their path to economic stability will be long.

In a region full of immigrants, “everyone else started the same way, with a lot of hardship,” she said. “We just have to keep hoping.”