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NEW YORK – Catholic Charities DC is trying to give a “welcoming, Christ-like response” to migrants arriving in the nation’s capital on buses from Texas, but the head of the organization says there are concerns about a lack of leadership and assistance from the government, and what will happen if the buses arrive through the summer.
The eighth bus of migrants from Texas arrived in Washington, D.C. on April 20. The first bus arrived a week prior, on April 13. The operation is at the direction of Texas Gov. Gregg Abbott, who has not indicated how long it will last.
“If this stops in a week or two then we’re fine, but if this goes all summer long then we’re going to have a hard time being able to meet the needs of the people that come, and I don’t want to turn my back on anyone who comes, so we need to make sure we’ve got partners who say ‘we’re going to be a part of your efforts and make a difference,’” Msgr. John Enzler, the president/CEO of Catholic Charities DC told Crux.
Enzler said Catholic Charities DC met the buses that arrived on April 13, 14 and 15 that brought about 75 people in total. The migrants volunteer to take the cross-country trip and can only make the journey after they have been processed and released by the Department of Homeland Security. They must bring verifying documentation from DHS.
On days Catholic Charities DC provides humanitarian relief, Enzler said the migrants are met upon arrival by five to 10 people from the organization – Spanish-speaking leadership, case workers, social workers, volunteers – who ask a basic question: “How can we help you?”
Enzler noted that the needs vary. They provide food, an opportunity to shower, and gift cards for migrants to spend at their discretion. They also bought toys for a family with young children, and have helped migrants with bus tickets to continue their journey. It’s split fairly evenly between migrants who are met by family or friends and stay in Washington, D.C., and those who have plans to travel elsewhere in the country, he said.
“Each person is different,” Enzler said. “Each need is different, and we’re just trying to be a welcoming Christ-like response to people coming our way.”
Enzler does, however, have concerns about where things could possibly be headed.
He described the operation as “unorganized,” and highlighted that the city government has asked Catholic Charities to take over meeting every bus when it arrives.
“We’re worried about there being a sense that Catholic Charities is going to take over this thing, and they’ve asked us to take over and we’re afraid to take over because we don’t know the real details about how many buses are coming,” Enzler said. “It’s just not an organized attempt. We don’t want to be in a situation where we can’t manage it.”
“We want to help, but we realize we don’t want to be the main agent doing this,” Enzler added.
“To be very honest, I think the city and the federal government haven’t turned their backs, but they don’t want to get involved, which we feel is their responsibility.”
When Abbott announced the order to bus migrants from Texas to Washington, D.C. on April 6, he said the decision was in response to the Biden Administration’s decision to end Title 42 – a March 2020 COVID-19 emergency health order that allowed the immediate expulsion of migrants, and limited their legal right to asylum. Title 42 will be terminated on May 23.
Abbott touted the move as a way to help local officials with migration surges, saying that “we are sending them to the United States capital where the Biden administration will be able to more immediately address the needs of the people that they are allowing to come across our border.”
The governor declined a request for comment from Crux on how long the order will last. The move also comes after a record 221,303 migrants crossed the U.S.-Mexico southwest land border in March, according to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection data, which is an increase of more than 50,000 people from February.
Antonio Fernandez, the president/CEO of Catholic Charities Archdiocese of San Antonio, Inc., told Crux in an email that the organization is “overwhelmed” helping thousands of people in San Antonio weekly. He declined to comment about the governor directly, but said, “we need to provide better services with respect and dignity to these people.”
Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso told Crux that his diocese hasn’t experienced a migration surge yet, though he expects an influx once Title 42 is terminated. Of Abbott’s order, Seitz expressed concern over the possibility that migrants are being used in a political battle between Abbott and the Biden administration. However, he also acknowledged that if states are willing to help, the practice of processing migrants at the border and moving them inland could be very helpful to alleviate some of the burden on border communities and agencies.
In the case of Washington, D.C., Enzler noted that the government would like to see nonprofits, like Catholic Charities DC, take over the process and not be heavily involved themselves. In response, the organization will meet the migrant buses one day a week going forward with a hope that six other nonprofits each take a day as well. The hope is to form a “coalition of volunteer organizations to see if we can’t all together make this work.”
“If things change we’re adaptable as well, but we just want to be careful that we don’t become the only agency in the Washington area who does this,” Enzler said. “We just don’t have the bandwidth to do that seven days a week 24/7 for weeks to come.”
Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg