Court’s border ruling could increase migrant buses into DC area, supporters say

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After slowing to a trickle in recent weeks in the Washington-area, arrivals of migrants on buses from Texas and Arizona are poised to pick up speed again after a federal court ruling effectively restored asylum-seekers’ access to the country’s borders , say local immigrant advocates.

In addition, more people who have been bused to other cities, such as New York or Chicago, are coming to the region after realizing those areas are too expensive or too cold, said Tatiana Laborde, executive director of SAMU First Response nonprofit group that has helped house these migrants in shelters.

During a meeting between organizations supporting the migrants last week, the consensus was: “Okay, we have to prepare,” Laborde said of the possibility of a spike in arrivals.

“We believe we have better infrastructure now,” she added, citing a support network — including through a migrant services office set up by DC Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) — that has been in place since the region was initially overwhelmed by the bus programs designed to criticize the Biden administration’s border policies.

About 11,000 migrants, mostly from Venezuela or Colombia, were dropped off in the district — either at Union Station or at the National Observatory, which serves as Vice President Harris’ home — after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) announced in April that program launched by his state. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) followed a few weeks later.

Most of those people have since moved to other areas, although about 700 – many of them children – are staying in local hotels and shelters, supporters say. Most are at two DC hotels, while about 50 people are staying at a Montgomery County hotel, local nonprofits say.

A federal judge’s order last week to vacate Title 42 – the Trump-era policy that allowed US border officials to quickly expel migrants over the Covid-19 pandemic – could result in a surge in border crossings, which in turn means more buses will be sent to Washington area, pro-immigrant advocates say.

However, with the order remaining in place until late December to give the Biden administration time to send more resources to the border and coordinate with local governments and aid groups, it’s unclear how large that surge will be.

From border town to border town, migrants on buses seek a new life in Washington DC

Abbott, who was re-elected this month and is a potential presidential candidate, has said he intends to keep his state’s bus program going. He has raised $400,000 in private donations to fund the effort, which has expanded to other cities as destinations, most recently Philadelphia.

Arizona’s new governor, Democrat Katie Hobbs, has announced she will shut down her state’s bus program, which has transported nearly 2,580 migrants to the district.

“We’re really not sure what’s going to happen,” said Sharlet Ann Wagner, director of Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of Washington’s Newcomer Network, which has handled the bulk of legal aid, enrollment and other long-term services for the migrants staying with the three Hotels.

With the order to clear Track 42 on hold, “it’s good to have that breathing space to plan something,” Wagner said.

Border crossings have declined overall after the Biden administration launched a program last month to take in 24,000 Venezuelans who have a US sponsor who can house and financially support them, provided those applicants have legally traveled through Panama and Mexico.

That, along with other cities becoming targets, has led to a drop in buses arriving in DC to a manageable three busloads of migrants per week, Laborde said.

For those who have chosen to remain in the region, the challenges of settling in one of the country’s most expensive regions are just beginning.

Most were admitted to the US after indicating they wanted to apply for asylum, but did not have federal work permits during the process, which can take several years due to a backlog of cases.

That has pushed them into an underground labor market already filled with immigrants, making it harder to find jobs.

“We want to work,” said Betsy Marquez, who had mostly walked from Venezuela in late summer and is now staying in one of the hotels, in Spanish. “They won’t let us work. Everyone asks if we have permission.”

Many of the migrants entered the region without ID after handing them over to federal agents at the border.

Others have received appointments to immigration courts in various parts of the country. Even more were unaware that they even had to appear before an immigration court after notices destined for them were sent to the offices of non-profit organizations in the region who have not had contact with these migrants.

The Department of Homeland Security said those situations have been resolved. The mailing mix-ups involved cases where the migrants did not have an address for a US contact or nonprofit organization that could help them in their chosen destination, the department said.

In these cases, the border guards filled in the addresses of non-profit organizations based on the information provided by the migrants in the release documents.

Agents have been ordered to stop doing this and instead list the name of the city and state where the migrants plan to go staying on the release forms when no other information is available, DHS said. The migrants are given a form to update their addresses once they reach their destination and, in many cases, mobile devices they can use to check in with immigration officials, the department said.

Still, the situation has sparked some fear and confusion, local lawyers said.

Julia Rigal, an attorney at Ayuda, a DC-based immigrant advocacy group, said her organization has urged migrants to monitor their hearing dates online.

“If you don’t show up [to that initial hearing]the judge will issue a removal order in absentia, which of course makes your case very complicated,” she said.

Biden prepares asylum overhaul at border but court cases loom

In the meantime, the migrant families in the hotels have settled into a routine. In DC hotels, this includes security checkpoints and guards preventing visitors from entering these sites.

At a Days Inn in Northeast DC, young moms go out in the morning, Pushing strollers while taking their older children to school.

In front of the hotel, a group of men in their donated winter coats are waiting for a ride that will take them to temporary jobs they have landed on construction sites or in restaurants.

Every day the families get three cooked meals by a city contractor, according to Bowser’s office.

The free food is appreciated, if not always ideal, some of the migrants said.

“It smells rotten,” said Alejandra Pinto, who traveled with her family from Venezuela in the summer, in Spanish. “It’s not something you would buy fresh from the store. But you can’t say anything because we don’t think we have the right to say no.”

Volunteer groups working with the migrants say security perimeters at DC hotels have made it harder to provide additional assistance.

“We need to call the families one by one and get them to meet us outside the hotel premises,” said Mariel Vallano, an organizer with the Migrant Solidarity Mutual Aid Network, a coalition of groups that greet migrants upon arrival.

Bowser’s office said the security includes background checks on everyone working there and a restriction on caseworkers meeting with the migrants in their rooms.

Wagner of the Catholic Charities said security was necessary but residents could come and go as they pleased.

“Our primary concern must be the safety of residents; it’s a vulnerable population,” she said.

With the expected increase in migrants, Laborde said her DC-based organization is looking for a second temporary home near Union Station with enough space to accommodate larger numbers of migrants, a quest hampered by the expensive real estate market in the surrounding Capitol Hill neighborhood.

Bowser’s declaration of the issue as a public emergency in September allowed the city Release $10 million in funds to help the migrants, with plans to seek a refund from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

FEMA awarded SAMU First Response nearly $2 million to operate its temporary shelter in Montgomery County, which sleeps 50 people at a time.

Montgomery County, which provided this space, also offers migrants help with health care, long-term housing, and school enrollment.

Providing long-term support to migrants arriving by bus would be easier with help from other locations in the region, Laborde said. To date, however, no other jurisdiction in the region has committed local resources to this effort.

Fairfax County spokesman Tony Castrilli said the county already has a program to help refugees, including migrants, resettle in the area.

“While this does not include formally accepting buses from other parts of the country, Fairfax County is committed to treating all who make their way here with dignity and respect,” Castrilli said in a statement.

Arlington County said it is monitoring the situation to determine if additional resources are needed for migrants who end up in its community, beyond what the county is providing to anyone in need of food and temporary housing. A spokesman for Prince George’s County said officials there are working with community groups that offer assistance to migrants using buses, but didn’t give details.

Pinto, whose family fled Venezuela after her husband, a former government soldier, disobeyed orders to evict another family, said she and other migrants understand their road to economic stability will be long.

In a region full of immigrants, “everyone else started out the same way, with a lot of difficulties,” she said. “We just have to keep hoping.”

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