Officials in New York and Washington, D.C. are struggling to cope with an influx of migrants that have been specifically bused to their cities on orders from the Republican leaders of Texas and Arizona.
More than 7,000 migrants have been bused from Texas to the U.S. capital since April, part of an initiative by Gov. Greg Abbott to put pressure on Democratic President Joe Biden over border policies.
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey has sent about 1,500 from his state to Washington, D.C.
More recently, Abbott also began busing migrants to New York City. Abbott is seeking a third term asTexas governor in the November midterm elections, and is trying to motivate Republican voters with decisive actions on immigration.
Around 85 to 90 per cent of migrants arriving in D.C. on the buses continue to other U.S. destinations within hours or days, according to volunteers who assist them.
Some of the arrivals crossed the U.S.-Mexico border with no U.S. family or destination, alarming the Democratic mayors of Washington and New York as the migrants turn to city resources and volunteers for essential services.
“If there isn’t a solution that comes up permanently, these families are going to be stuck in limbo,” said Ashley Tjhung, a volunteer aiding the migrants in Washington.
The U.S. Border Patrol has made more than 1.8 million arrests of migrants crossing into the U.S. illegally in fiscal year 2022, which began Oct. 1, 2021 — the highest number on record, though it includes some who have crossed repeatedly.
COVID-19 policy still in effect at border
Donald Trump’s administration invoked a rarely used health order in March 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic began to rage. The Title 42 authority denies migrants a chance to seek asylum and be funnelled into the refugee system, which Democrats say encourages repeat attempts to enter the U.S., even if migrants have been sent back before.
Most Mexicans and Central Americans are returned quickly to Mexico under the COVID restrictions in place at the border but hundreds of thousands of migrants — including many from Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua and Colombia — have been allowed into the country in part because Mexico refuses to accept returns of certain nationalities.
The Biden administration made plans to end Title 42 beginning in June but a federal judge, in response to legal action launched by 24 states, mostly led by Republican governors, blocked the plan.
Gov. Abbott has said other cities far from the border should share the burden of receiving migrants and blames President Biden’s policies for encouraging crossers. Both Texas and Arizona have spent several million dollars on the busing efforts, according to news reports and data from Arizona.
Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has asked the Pentagon twice in the past two months to deploy military troops to aid the migrants, but was denied both times.
In response on Monday to Bowser’s second request, the Pentagon said the District of Columbia National Guard did not have the relevant training and that non-profit organizations appeared to have the capacity to manage the situation.
Mayor Bowser’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
New York City officials in recent weeks have also grappled with new migrant arrivals, including some who moved on from Washington, and is seeking to rent thousands of hotel rooms for future arrivals, according to the Department of Social Services.
Officials in both cities are struggling to address the myriad issues the new arrivals face, from shelter and health care to schooling for children.
Concerns about the months ahead
Since arriving in late July, Colombian couple Noralis Zuniga and Juan Camilo Mendoza ave been staying at a Hampton Inn, one of two hotels being used by the nation’s capital to house about 50 migrant families. The families, many of whom come from Venezuela, receive three meals a day and crucial shelter.
Zuniga and Mendoza, who are with their one-year-old daughter, want to consult with an immigration lawyer before deciding whether to apply for U.S. asylum. They told Reuters they are deeply grateful for the opportunity to stay in the hotel rooms, but have also run into challenges, from the lack of information about how long the temporary shelter will last to basic tasks like setting up a cell phone.
On Wednesday, the chancellor of D.C. public schools said the migrant children would be allowed to enrol in city schools. On Thursday, public school staff visited the hotels to sign them up, a school system spokesperson said.
The efforts to welcome migrants in Washington have largely fallen to an ad-hoc coalition of volunteers and one non-profit organization that is receiving federal funding from Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
The volunteers currently greet the buses arriving from Texas, bring migrants to local churches, conduct medical screenings and help book travel to other parts of the United States, including New York City.
But some advocates say they need longer-term solutions, particularly as colder months approach and concerns rise that migrants could end up sleeping on the street.