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Stunt or Not, Activists Tell D.C. Mayor That Busloads of Migrants Need Help

Migrants turn themselves in to U.S. Border Patrol agents May 20, 2022, in El Paso, Texas, to request asylum in the United States. (Photo: CNS/Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters)

PROSPECT HEIGHTS — In response to Washington D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s claim that migrants were “tricked” onto buses that shipped them from Texas to the nation’s capital, activist Abel Nuñez counters: “Whether they were tricked or not, they’re in your city, so what are you going to do about it?”

The organization Nuñez leads, the Central American Resource Center (CARECEN), alongside Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of Washington, received the migrants when the buses started arriving in April. Simultaneously, the groups cautioned Bowser and the federal government that their efforts weren’t sustainable through the entire summer.

Those warnings went unheard, and both organizations stopped meeting buses weeks ago. Nuñez said after CARECEN spent about $195,000, the organization’s resources were tapped out. Catholic Charities declined to comment, other than to say they’re no longer involved.

Since then, the work with the arriving migrants has been left to the international humanitarian organization SAMU First Response which is operating a 50-family shelter in neighboring Montgomery County through a FEMA grant, along with a small mutual aid group. They, too, are saying they have become overwhelmed, to the point that there were buses that couldn’t be met, which left migrants in the Union Station bus depot without direction.

Now, as the situation worsens, Nuñez is calling for both the city and federal governments to take responsibility and provide more resources to care for the migrants arriving on their doorstep, specifically by building the infrastructure necessary to meet the need.

“Give us a shelter. Provide a space where we can hold them that has the ability for beds at night and showers, some funding that we can help them get to their next destinations, and it’s that simple,” Nuñez said, adding that ideally, the shelter would be near Union Station.

“It’s not going to be the best, but at least we can create a process rather than this ad hoc creating it every day,” Nuñez continued. “We want to standardize it so we can provide a minimum level of service. It’s not going to be everything. We want the immigrants to know that resources are limited, and we can give you an orientation, a couple of meals, a place to shower, but then in three days, you need to figure out what your next move is.”

Tatiana Labore, director of operations for SAMU First Response, told The Tablet that at their shelter, migrants are provided hygiene kits, given food through a partnership with World Central Kitchen, and guidance on how to get to their final destinations, noting that 85% of the migrants who arrive in D.C. aren’t looking to stay there.

However, SAMU is now facing its own set of challenges. Labore said that lately, a higher frequency of buses has arrived on a daily basis, so they’re working to hire two or three new employees “in order to have enough boots on the ground.” 

Labore added that another challenge is restrictions on the FEMA grant that allows SAMU to only purchase tickets for a certain number of migrants, meaning some are prevented from that extra support. 

“Our 50-person shelter in Montgomery County is constantly at the top capacity,” she said.

‘A Political Stunt’ Illuminating A Broader Issue

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott began sending busloads of migrants to Washington D.C. in response to the burgeoning number of migrants entering the country at the Texas-Mexico border, an influx he attributed to President Joe Biden’s border policies. To date, there have been over 5,100 migrants bused to the nation’s capital on more than 135 buses, according to Abbott’s press office, and in recent weeks three to four buses have made the trip each day.

Migrants board the buses voluntarily after they are processed by U.S. immigration officials. In response to Bowser’s claim that migrants are “tricked,” Abbott’s spokesman put the onus back on Biden and the federal government.

“The only lie is the Biden administration telling the American people that our border is closed,” Renae Eze, Abbott’s press secretary, told The Tablet in a statement. “With our nation’s capital now experiencing a fraction of the disaster created by President Biden’s reckless open border policies that our state faces every single day, maybe [now] he’ll finally do his job and secure the border.”

Nuñez said the migrants aren’t tricked onto the buses and are being told honestly that this is what puts them closer to their next destination. Labore said SAMU is working to figure out exactly what message migrants are given before they board.

Regardless, Nuñez and other immigration activists highlight that the political back and forth illustrates that migrants are used for political gain and that government entities — federal, state, and local on the interior — are unprepared and leave faith-based and secular non-governmental organizations on an island to receive and care for migrants.

Nuñez called Abbott’s move to send migrants to Washington a “political stunt,” but noted that there’s a lesson for the country in the way the nation’s capital wasn’t prepared to handle it.

“To a certain extent, Abbott has really shown us that this is what it’s going to look like, so we better prepare,” Nuñez continued. “The federal government needs to put up some real resources that build infrastructure, and cities, you’re not exempt from this. If you do not do this, [migrants] will still become your problem.”

Marisa Limón Garza, the senior director for advocacy and programming for the faith-based Hope Border Institute in El Paso, told The Tablet that Abbott’s move is the latest example “where the most vulnerable in our midst end up being pawns in other people’s [political] games.” 

Garza said that the real story in Washington D.C. is that once again, faith communities, religious groups and organizations, and mutual aid and civil society groups have overcome real limitations to meet the needs of migrants absent of virtually any government assistance.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Department of Migrant and Refugee Services has been monitoring the migrant situation in Washington D.C. but has not been in direct contact with federal or state authorities about it, according to conference spokesperson Chieko Noguchi.

Noguchi told The Tablet that Auxiliary Bishop Mario Dorsonville of Washington, the USCCB migration chair, has “consistently called for the federal government to work in close coordination with border communities and society across the country” on migration.