The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Mayor Bowser needs to take action on migrant buses coming to D.C.

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) at a news conference in Washington pn June 24. (Maansi Srivastava/The Washington Post)
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Since April, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, both Republicans, have bused more than 5,000 undocumented immigrants to the nation’s capital to score political points against the Biden administration’s immigration policies. The governors have bragged that giving Washington a taste of the problems border communities confront would unnerve “big city East Coast mayors.” But far from being overwhelmed, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has largely sat on her hands, arguing that the migrants are a federal issue. That inaction further victimizes vulnerable people and fuels the success of Mr. Abbott and Mr. Ducey’s political stunt. It’s time for Ms. Bowser to provide more concrete leadership.

For months, the Migrant Solidarity Mutual Aid Network — volunteers working for free outside of their day jobs — and a shifting patchwork of nonprofits have supported arriving migrants on their own initiative. But in recent weeks, The Post’s Vanessa G. Sánchez reported, the number of buses has increased, exhausting the ability of the mutual aid network and nonprofits to support the arrivals. When volunteers, their limited capacity stretched even thinner by coronavirus exposures, didn’t show up two weeks ago to greet the buses at Union Station for the first time since the buses started arriving, there was a flurry of media attention and calls by D.C. Council members to use city contingency funds, among other requests. The mayor doubled down on her stance that this is “a federal issue that demands a federal response.”

Ms. Bowser is not wrong in arguing that federal help is needed, and the District gets credit for facilitating a conversation between the Federal Emergency Management Agency and SAMU First Response, an international humanitarian nonprofit, that resulted in a grant to support about half of the arriving migrants. But even with federal assistance, the D.C. government needs to play a role. Volunteers estimate that 10 to 15 percent of migrants arriving in D.C. stay in the area; the rest leave within a few days to their intended destination. Brownsville, Tex., is an example of how another city serves as a migrant way station: The municipal government there runs a migrant processing center, partners with local nonprofits for staffing and material needs and uses FEMA funding to cover operations.

Ms. Bowser’s administration could replicate that approach. It could direct D.C. staff to assist the organizations already supporting migrants. It could apply for FEMA funding, while considering calls by council members to draw from the city’s $500 million budget surplus for fiscal 2022. It could find a place close to Union Station as a respite center for arriving migrants, along with providing coronavirus testing, masks and isolation spaces. Since April, Ms. Bowser has been relying on unpaid labor and donations from local residents to help arriving migrants. They can’t — and shouldn’t — continue to do government’s job.

Mr. Abbott has said he is busing migrants to D.C. because he wants “to take the border to Joe Biden.” Mr. Abbott and Mr. Ducey hope to cause trouble, to make it seem as though migrants inevitably lead to chaos and thus compel the federal government to pass more draconian border policies. The District government’s inaction, and local aid groups being overwhelmed as a result, threatens to create a narrative of crisis that plays into the hand of the Republican governors. But it doesn’t have to be like this: By implementing humane and effective programs, D.C. could model immigration solutions. The city should waste no time in acting.

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