NEW YORK – In response to July 17 comments alleging that migrants were “tricked” onto buses traveling from Texas to Washington D.C., Abel Nuñez has a question for Washington mayor Muriel Bowser: “Whether they were tricked or not doesn’t change the fact that 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 while simultaneously cautioning Bowser and the federal government that their efforts weren’t sustainable through the entire summer.
Those warnings went unheeded, and both organizations stopped meeting buses weeks ago. Nuñez said after CARECEN spent about $195,000, the organization’s resources were tapped. Catholic Charities declined to comment, other than saying they’re no longer involved.
Since then, the work 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 overwhelmed, to the point that there were buses that couldn’t be met, which left migrants in Union Station without direction.
Now, as the situation worsens, Nuñez is calling for both the city and federal government 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 destination, 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 and in those three days develop a plan.”
Tatiana Labore, director of operations for SAMU First Response, told Crux that at their shelter migrants are provided hygiene kits, provided food through a partnership with World Central Kitchen, and guidance on how to get to their final destinations, noting that 85 percent of the migrants aren’t looking to stay in Washington.
However, SAMU is now facing its own set of challenges. Labore said of late a higher frequency of buses has arrived on a daily basis, so they’re working to hire two or three new employees on a daily basis “in order to have enough boots on the ground.” She acknowledged that there were some buses that could not be met because “there was not enough human power.”
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. And, echoing Nuñez, she said that there is also a need for more space.
“Our 50-person shelter in Montgomery County is constantly at the top capacity,” Labore said.
‘A political stunt’ illuminating a broader issue
Texas governor Greg Abbott began sending the buses to D.C. in response to the burgeoning number of migrants entering the country at the Texas-Mexico border, which he attributes to President Joe Biden’s border policies. To date, there have been over 5,100 migrants bused to the nation’s capital on over 135 buses, according to Abbott’s press office, and in recent weeks about 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 press secretary 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 Crux 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 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 leaders highlight that the political back and forth shows the way that migrants are used for political gain, and the way government entities – federal, and state and local on the interior – are unprepared and leave faith-based and secular NGOs on an island to receive and care for migrants.
Nuñez called Abbott sending migrants to Washington, D.C. a “political stunt,” but noted that there’s a lesson for the country in the way the nation’s capital wasn’t prepared.
“We need to figure out a way that we make it orderly, that there’s sufficient resources, and then that infrastructure is built, not just in D.C., but we need to replicate this,” Nuñez said.
Marisa Limón Garza, the senior director for advocacy and programming for the faith-based Hope Border Institute in El Paso told Crux that Abbott’s move is the latest example “where the most vulnerable in our midst end up being pawns in other people’s games,” in this case politics.
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.
“These people that have the vocation, the mission, the commitment to not look away, to stand and walk with people, and yet there’s virtually – yes there’s FEMA funding, yes there’s some resources – but the way the bureaucracy works, it doesn’t keep pace with the real needs on the ground and so we don’t have an infrastructure anywhere that is functional that is not on the backs of these kinds of agencies,” Garza said.
“The real ask is to invest in a system of humanitarian support at the ports of entry at the southern border, and then in the interior.”
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Department of Migrant and Refugee Services has been monitoring the migrant situation in Washington, but has not been in direct contact with federal or state authorities about it, according to conference spokesperson Chieko Noguchi.
Noguchi told Crux that Auxiliary Bishop Mario Dorsonville of Washington, the USCCB’s migration chair, has “consistently called for the federal government to work in close coordination with border communities and society across the country” on migration.
Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg