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Texas and Arizona are sending migrants to D.C. without formal support in place


At all hours a day, charter buses from the U.S.-Mexico border arrive at Washington D.C.'s Union Station, just a few blocks from the Capitol building. The states of Texas and Arizona are paying for them. The people aboard those buses are migrants and asylum-seekers. And when they disembark in D.C., they find neither the local nor federal government there to meet them. Amanda Michelle Gomez of WAMU joins us now. She's been reporting on the story. Amanda, when did these buses start arriving in front of D.C.'s Union Station?

AMANDA MICHELLE GOMEZ, BYLINE: It started in April, almost four months ago. Texas Governor Greg Abbott says he started sending the buses because the Biden administration attempted to lift a pandemic-era emergency order that allowed the U.S. to deny migrants entry. That order is still in effect after a federal court ruling. Critics called this, quote, "political theater," including some Republican state and local officials. Still, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey joined Texas and started busing migrants to the nation's capital in May.

MARTINEZ: How many people, Amanda, have arrived to D.C. this way?

GOMEZ: More than 6,100 migrants have been bused to D.C. from Texas alone, according to Governor Abbott's office. Buses arrive six days a week, as early as 6 a.m. and as late as 11 p.m. Local volunteers and nonprofit staff have greeted nearly every bus that's arrived at Union Station. I recently spoke to one couple from Venezuela who stayed at a local volunteer's home with their four children until their flight to Florida. Here's the husband, Ronald (ph).

RONALD: (Speaking Spanish).

GOMEZ: Ronald told me that he felt welcomed in Washington in a way he just didn't in Texas. He said that if he wasn't headed to meet family in Florida, he'd want to stay in D.C. And about 10 to 15% of those who are dropped off by these buses have decided to stay in the district indefinitely.

MARTINEZ: Now, I know D.C.'s mayor, Muriel Bowser, has had something to say about this. How has she responded?

GOMEZ: Mayor Bowser says this is a federal issue that demands a federal response. She and other local government officials secured a FEMA grant for an international nonprofit called SAMU to offer emergency services to migrants. Then, about two weeks ago, Bowser requested that the federal government deploy D.C.'s National Guard to support SAMU's few dozen staff. But so far, the feds have not responded to her request. I should add that some volunteers disagree with what they call a, quote, "militarized response" to the humanitarian crisis.

MARTINEZ: Amanda Michelle Gomez of WAMU. Amanda, thanks a lot.

GOMEZ: Thank you.

MARTINEZ: Abel Nunez is head of CARECEN, the Central American Resource Center.

ABEL NUNEZ: April 13 is when we got a call from, actually, the Mayor's Office on Latino Affairs that said they had gotten a tip that a bus was on its way. The first responders for the first three buses were Catholic Charities. And so we sort of started coming in on April 16. And it was really crazy because they were just leaving them on the street. And so we needed to just step in there and make sure that, you know, they understood where they were and kind of help them on their next steps.

MARTINEZ: Did you think that the governor of Texas was just kind of trying to be bombastic here? Did you actually think, it's not going to happen?

NUNEZ: Well, I felt that he truly wanted to get a media hit out of this and that eventually, two, three weeks later, he would stop doing it. I mean, he used to send a press release for every bus that left. And that went up to, like, bus 10 or 15. And then he just stopped doing it. And he went silent, but continued to send the buses. So, yes, I was hoping that this was a political stunt that was going to run its course.

MARTINEZ: So tell us about when you met your first bus. What was that like, to meet these people who maybe had no idea what was happening?

NUNEZ: Well, you know, it was interesting because this is not a coordinated effort. So basically, we get some intel from someone that works at a nonprofit at the border in Del Rio, Texas. But when we first came, we didn't know. So we were there since 5 in the morning, right? We knew it was on its way, and it didn't arrive in D.C. until 8 a.m. So we were there since 5, just waiting for them. You know, later, we realized that these people had just been let out of immigration detention at the border, spent, like, maybe less than a day at a shelter - not even a shelter, a nonprofit in Del Rio, Texas - and then got on this bus that was about 36 hours long in their journey.

So they really just looked shell-shocked, that they didn't know where they were going. And I think that they saw us. And at that moment, there was a lot of media around. So they saw cameras put in their face and us, you know, kind of shouting at them saying, if you need help, come with us. And it was just about getting them situated.

MARTINEZ: And how aware were these people of what was happening to them?

NUNEZ: Well, for them, it was just a free ride. You know, they were there. They didn't really have any other options. And being offered a bus to the East Coast - Washington, D.C. - which some of them understood that it was closer to their final destination. So in one way, they were happy that that was offered to them. But I think that they were confused as to the disorder that they found once they got to D.C.

MARTINEZ: And where were some of their final destinations?

NUNEZ: Some of them were going to New York, Miami. We have to recognize that the immigrants coming in are primarily from Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba. We have some folks from Central Africa - from Angola and the Congo. Some we've even had to send back to California or even Texas - right? - because the bus is not authorized to stop anywhere in Texas - is wherever they have, really, family or friends that can receive them.

MARTINEZ: Your organization started to try to accommodate them. What did you try to do?

NUNEZ: The governor of Texas has pushed the respite work up to D.C., right? We're not a border town, so we are not used to doing this type of work. So what we began doing was just basic respite work. You know, we gave them a meal because we know that they've gotten, like, MREs - that's the food that are given to soldiers when they're on the field, right? I mean, I guess it meets nutritional standards, but I don't know how good of it it is for folks that are in a bus. Some people haven't even showered since, you know, they were in Mexico. So we give them some clothes, some hygiene kits when we have them. And then what we did, and we continue to do, is to help them get to their final destination.

MARTINEZ: How much help can you give? Are you still able to provide it or are you tapped out already?

NUNEZ: We have switched what we have been doing. So we were there at the buses receiving them. Now for close to three weeks, we have stepped back because we have identified SAMU First Response, who has received some funding from FEMA. And we're helping them just create the infrastructure, right? We have to develop our own infrastructure here in Washington, D.C. - in, I would say, the metropolitan area - to be able to receive these immigrants.

Like, receiving them at Union Station or receiving them at whatever church can open up their doors is not sustainable, right? We need a place where we can give them a meal and actually help them plan their next step. And if that means helping them buying a ticket - we need time. We need somewhere they can come in, rest, be safe for two or three days so they can take their next step, even if that means staying in the D.C. area.

MARTINEZ: Well, you called what Texas Governor Greg Abbott has done as a stunt. Ultimately, though, Abel, did Greg Abbott's stunt work?

NUNEZ: Well, I say at this moment, no. I think this is an example where the local community rose up and said, no, we are not going to have chaos in our city. We are going to be in solidarity with the people that are on the buses and help them to the best of our ability. Now, we're reaching our limit on that. But if we would be able to get some resources from the city, resources from the federal government and other municipalities around, I think we can do an amazing job of demonstrating to this nation what it is to really integrate newcomers into our communities.

MARTINEZ: Abel Nunez leads the Central American Resource Center, also known as CARECEN. Abel, thanks a lot.

NUNEZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.