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Washington, D.C. mayor Muriel Bowser declared a public emergency Thursday as thousands of migrants have been sent to the nation's capital from Texas and Arizona over the last several months. Buses are going to New York City and Chicago as well. It's part of a battle between some Republican governors and the Biden administration over immigration policy. Amna Nawaz reports.
Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser declared a public emergency today, after thousands of migrants have been sent to the nation's capital from Texas and Arizona over the last several months.
Buses are going to New York City and to Chicago as well. It's part of a battle between some Republican governors and the Biden administration over immigration policy.
Amna Nawaz recently spent time with some of these migrants and asylum seekers arriving in D.C.
Before the sun is even up, the bus arrives near Washington, D.C.'s Union Station carrying dozens of migrants and asylum seekers who all crossed the U.S. Southern border into Texas.
Volunteers from a nonprofit greet them after this 36-hour trip. For some, the journey began months earlier. They carry with them everything they have left.
So it's just past 6:15. The group's basically been divided into a few subsections, people who have no contacts or family here in the United States. We're walking with them right now. They're going to be moved to a shelter facility here in the D.C. area. And then a smaller group of folks who say they do have some family or friends that they're looking to reconnect with here in the U.S. They have been taken to another area to see if they can make those connections.
For five months now, Republican Texas Governor Greg Abbott has been offering migrants arriving in his state free bus rides to Washington, D.C., a political message aimed at the president.
Gov. Greg Abbott (R-TX):
Joe Biden has refused to come to the border to see the chaos that he has created by his open border policies. So we're going to take the border to him.
Arizona Governor Doug Ducey followed suit in May, saying these bus trips are necessary because of — quote — "little action or assistance from the federal government."
The two governors argued their states have long borne the burden of rising numbers of people attempting to cross the Southern border, numbers now at record highs. U.S. officials reported more than 1.8 million apprehensions on that border in the first 10 months of the fiscal year through August of 2022. As in years past, people from four nations, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, make up most of the total.
And many are quickly turned back around under a pandemic-related border rule called Title 42. But officials are also seeing a sharp increase in migrants from Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. And because of strained diplomatic relations with those countries, migrants cannot be expelled from the U.S.
At Union Station, everyone we meet from the bus is Venezuelan, including 42-year-old Ramon Serrano-Medina, his wife, Yusvely, and their two children, Razel (ph) and Gayal (ph), 9 and 2.
Ramon Serrano-Medina, Migrant (through translator):
It's no secret what the situation in Venezuela is like, the lack of jobs, the lack of goods and things for our children. That's why I decided to come to the U.S. for a better future for our kids, for our family.
Their one bag holds a few kids clothes and diapers. Everything else, they say, was abandoned or stolen along the way.
Yusvely Marcano, Migrant (through translator):
It was very, very difficult. It was a two-month journey that I never really imagined would be this hard. You have to live it to know what it feels like.
Forty-one-year-old Yusvely says U.S. official separated their adult son on at the border. He's 23 with developmental disabilities and relies on her for care.
Yusvely Marcano (through translator):
My hope is to continue holding on to my faith in God. I will never let go of that. I'm scared because we're in a country that's not our own, where we don't know anyone.
Today, we learned the family got word their son was released and is now trying to reunite with him.
So, everyone here in this group is now going to be moved to what's called a respite center in a nearby Maryland city. They have got beds there, some food. They can take showers. And folks will stay there for two days while they figure out their next step.
Experts say, when offered a free bus ride to New York or D.C. from the border, many choose that option, even if they have no contacts in either city. Democratic Mayors Eric Adams of New York and Muriel Bowser of D.C. have slammed Abbott's busing program.
Eric Adams (D), Mayor of New York: You have a person who is using those who are seeking refuge in this country as almost political showmanship. He thinks that this is a theatrical performance. And it's not.
Muriel Bowser (D), Mayor of Washington, D.C.: I fear that they're being tricked into nationwide bus trips, when their final destinations are places all over the United States of America.
And Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas says the program makes his agency's border work more difficult.
Alejandro Mayorkas, U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security: It is problematic, however, when an official works, not in collaboration with us, but unilaterally. And that lack of coordination wreaks problems in our very efficient processing.
Perhaps an unintended consequence? Abbott's busing of migrants may be easing their asylum pathway. Data from Syracuse University shows that, in the last 10 months, judges in Houston approved only 17 percent of asylum seekers, in Dallas, only 33 percent.
But in the same time period, New York courts have approved over 80 percent of asylum relief applications. At a church in Northeast D.C., single men from the bus get a fresh sandwich, new shoes if needed, and a brief rest. Volunteers will try and find them a rare spot in city shelters.
Jessica Cisneros is a volunteer with a mutual aid group supporting migrants.
Jessica Cisneros, Volunteer:
I was at the shelters the other night with a group of about 20 men, and they weren't given entry. And, in the past, they have been able to sleep outside of the shelter. And now they're not allowed to. They were told the police will be called on them. And so there was literally nowhere for them to go.
Arizona officials, we're told, contracted with a company that sends ahead bus manifests with detailed passenger information and updated arrival times, so receiving groups can prepare.
Texas officials, organizers say, send no notification and no information about when buses will arrive, how many or who's on them.
A couple of nights ago, it was like 6:00 p.m., and we found out a bus was coming in two hours. And then we have to like rush to get food, rush to get volunteers, rush to get to space. So that's probably one of the most challenging parts is the unpredictability of knowing who's coming and how many people and what the needs are.
D.C. Mayor Bowser has twice requested National Guard support. Unlike state governors, D.C. needs federal sign-off. Bowser was denied both times.
D.C. City Council member Brianne Nadeau says the city has long welcomed immigrants, but needs help in supporting this influx.
Brianne Nadeau, D.C. City Council Member:
I think we're beginning to shift from the thinking that this is temporary to that the fact that it might continue. More people have been staying. And we need to ensure that we can meet their needs.
But it is not sustainable for us. We do not have unlimited resources.
Abel Nunez, Central American Resource Center:
Immigration is the realm of the federal government. But we have to understand that people do not live in the federal government. People live in communities.
Abel Nunez is the director of D.C.'s Central American Resource Center. His organization now helps support the 20 percent of migrants who choose to stay in D.C., including working towards more medium-term housing and a permanent welcome center in the city.
While he disagrees with how and why the buses started arriving, he says now other cities need to step up.
This is taking vulnerable communities, weaponizing them and aiming them at D.C. and now New York, right? So it's intentional
If you will also reach out to us, coordinate with us, we can do a much better — I would welcome conversations with the government of Texas, with the government of Arizona and saying, yes, how do we get people to their final destination? If we're a country of immigrants, then all of us need to play a role in ensuring that newcomers, immigrants have the best opportunity to integrate.
Back at Union Station, 33-year-old Yusvely is one of the lucky once. She chose to come to D.C. because her sister is here. She left her nine and 12-year-olds behind in Venezuela.
When I spoke to them yesterday, they asked me, how's it going? they're happy that I made it here.
After a month and three days of travel, she is with family once again, the next step on a long journey ahead.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Amna Nawaz in Washington, D.C.
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Amna Nawaz serves as PBS NewsHour's chief correspondent and primary substitute anchor.
Layla Quran is a general assignment producer for PBS NewsHour. She was previously a foreign affairs reporter and producer.
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