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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

GOP governors cause havoc by busing migrants to East Coast

Migrants exiting a charter bus from Texas outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington in July.

By Miriam Jordan

Lever Alejos arrived in the nation’s capital last week on a bus with dozens of fellow Venezuelans who had journeyed more than 1,300 miles from their broken country to the United States. Most had braved poisonous plants and thugs as they trudged through dense jungle on the Colombian border and waded in water up to their chins to cross the Rio Grande into Texas, some clutching babies.

After being processed by U.S. border authorities, the migrants were released into South Texas, free to go where they wanted. Alejos, 28, said he was offered two options: a $50 bus ride to San Antonio or a free bus ride to Washington, D.C., paid for by the state of Texas. “I wanted San Antonio, but I had run out of money,” said Alejos, who has no family in the United States. “I boarded the bus to Washington.”

A few days later, he arrived in the nation’s capital, among a busload of weary migrants. He spent the first night in the plaza across from Union Station but eventually found a bed at Central Union Mission, where he hopes to stay until he can apply for asylum, get a work permit and find a job — a process that could take months.

A political tactic by the governors of Texas and Arizona to offload the problems caused by record levels of migration at the border is beginning to hit home in Washington, as hundreds of migrants arriving on the governors’ free bus rides each week increasingly tax the capital’s ability to provide emergency food and housing.

With no money and no family to receive them, the migrants are overwhelming immigrant nonprofits and other volunteer groups, with many ending up in homeless shelters or on park benches. Five buses arrived on a recent day, spilling young men and families with nowhere to go into the streets near the Capitol.

Since April, Texas has delivered more than 6,200 migrants to the nation’s capital, with Arizona dispatching an additional 1,000 since May. The influx has prompted Muriel E. Bowser, Washington’s Democratic mayor, to ask the Defense Department to send the National Guard in. The request has infuriated organizations that have been assisting the migrants without any city support.

A vast majority of recent bus riders are Venezuelans fleeing their crisis-ridden country, and many have also been arriving in New York, often via Washington. Eric Adams, mayor of New York City, announced emergency measures on Monday to enable the city to quickly build additional shelter capacity. The mayor, also a Democrat, said the city had received 4,000 asylum-seekers since May, fueling a 10% growth in the homeless population, with about 100 new arrivals each day.

Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas and Gov. Doug Ducey of Arizona, both Republicans, blame President Joe Biden for record numbers of migrants crossing the southern border.

Cities along the border in Texas and Arizona have at times been overwhelmed with a surge in unauthorized border crossings that peaked under the Biden administration, which has sought to unravel some of the harsh border restrictions imposed by former President Donald Trump.

While thousands of migrants have been swiftly expelled under a pandemic-related health order known as Title 42, thousands of others are being allowed into the country to pursue asylum claims because they cannot be returned to Mexico or their own countries.

State officials in Texas and Arizona have been greeting many of the migrants after their release from U.S. Border Patrol custody, offering them free bus rides to Washington in a bid to force the federal government to take responsibility for what they say is a failed immigration system.

After reaching their destinations, migrants may remain in the country for months or even years while they fight their deportation cases in court; they are allowed to work while they pursue asylum claims.

The situation has become acute in recent weeks with the arrival of so many Venezuelans, who cannot be expelled under Title 42 because Mexico will not take them and their own government does not have an agreement with the United States to accept deportation flights. And unlike most migrants from Mexico and Central America who have family and friends in the United States, Venezuelans often arrive with no money and nowhere to go.

Border Patrol encountered 110,467 Venezuelans along the southern border in the first nine months of this fiscal year, compared with 47,408 in the entire 2021 fiscal year. Overall unauthorized crossings have declined with the arrival of hot summer temperatures.

The situation has led to back-and-forth accusations with the Democratic mayors on the East Coast in recent weeks. In the latest salvo, on Monday, Abbott sent a letter to the mayors, Adams and Bowser, inviting them to tour the “dire situation” on the border with Mexico.

“Your recent interest in this historic and preventable crisis is a welcome development — especially as the president and his administration have shown no remorse for their actions nor desire to address the situation themselves,” Abbott wrote.

Fabien Levy, the New York mayor’s press secretary, had this statement: “Instead of a photo op at the border, we hope Gov. Abbott will focus his energy and resources on providing support and resources to asylum-seekers in Texas as we have been hard at work doing in New York City.”

The Texas governor and the mayors agree on one point: All three are calling on the federal government to act.

“The migrant crisis facing our city and our country through cruel political gamesmanship from the governors of Texas and Arizona must be dealt with at a federal level,” Bowser wrote in a letter to White House officials.

In requesting a processing center at the D.C. Armory and activation of the National Guard, she said that the number of migrants had reached a “tipping point” that had “overwhelmed” the district’s ability to handle them.

Bowser’s request drew rebuke from immigrant advocates who said she had ignored repeated requests for shelter space, a respite center and coronavirus rapid testing for the migrants, among other things.

“The last thing we want is a militarized response to a humanitarian crisis,” said Andrea Scherff, a core organizer with the Migrant Solidarity Mutual Aid Network, a coalition of grassroots groups.

Noting that Washington is a sanctuary city for immigrants, she said, “We should meet housing needs for everyone.”

On a recent night, migrants climbing down from three buses were greeted by volunteers and staff from SAMU First Response, an international aid organization that has received some funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and began operating in Washington in late June.

They were given water, pizza and granola bars, and some were provided tickets for onward travel. By 1 a.m., most had settled for the night on the marble floor of the East Hall of Union Station. Others, from earlier buses, were forced to sleep on the streets. It created an unusual tableau: unhoused Americans on one side of the plaza; on the other, migrants with their meager belongings splayed on the ground — all within sight of the Capitol.

Many Venezuelans have said they made the journey to the United States because they believed that the country’s doors were open.

“On TikTok we saw that people were easily getting into the United States,” said Yennifer Ortiz, who made the trip with her partner, Luis Moreno, and their 5-year-old daughter, Sofia.

Their trek to the United States lasted 45 days, including nine days traversing the perilous jungle on the border of Colombia and Panama known as the Darién Gap, Moreno said.

By the time they reached Texas, they had no money and were happy to board a free bus to Washington. “They told us that here, there would be people to receive us and help us,” Ortiz said.

When their bus pulled in around 8 a.m. on a recent day, volunteers directed them to a respite center run by a church, where they bathed and received a fresh change of clothes. They spent their first night on park benches, and since then have been bouncing between the homes of Americans, they said.

Juan Rojas, 22, said that when he and a friend arrived in Washington, they were sent to a city shelter housing mainly Americans, where they felt unwelcome.

“The guys were yelling at us, and we couldn’t understand a word,” he said. “It was clear they didn’t want us there.” The pair left after two nights and spent a week sleeping on the streets, he said.

In recent days, Rojas said, they have been hosted by a “woman who helps migrants” some nights and in hotels arranged by volunteers other nights. He said that he had not yet given up on America after his odyssey.

But he was not optimistic. “In Texas, they told us that here, we would get help with housing, work and everything else we needed,” he said. “It was all a lie.”

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