M. Felix has taken in at least seven refugee families since Texas Governor Greg Abbott started busing migrants to the US Capitol in the spring. The Washington, DC, resident, who chose to remain partially anonymous, part of the volunteer response to the city’s recent influx of people apprehended on America’s southern border, says they have helped mothers who arrived after being assaulted in front of their children, fathers with broken ribs, families that had been “dumped on the side of the road in front of Union Station”—sometimes in the middle of the night. Felix has slept on their couch while a family of seven sheltered in their home. They have accompanied migrants to medical appointments. They have helped arrivals to DC arrange travel to their final destinations.
Felix has been happy to do it; they fled to the United States from the Philippines in the 1970s, they say, and want these new refugees to be similarly welcomed. “We need to provide that to them,” Felix says. “If we don’t, we just push the responsibility elsewhere.” But the work has also taken a toll on Felix and other volunteer responders, who say the local and federal government have treated the situation as a “political hot potato” while abdicating their responsibility to address the issue, leaving a network of overworked mutual aid volunteers and small, overwhelmed organizations on their own to assist the nearly 5,000 migrants that have arrived in the city since the busing programs began in April.
“There is just no support,” he says Bianca Vazquez, a leader in the mutual aid response. “We’re crowdfunding a resettlement effort.”
The busing program is part of Abbott’s controversial Operation Lone Star border mission, which is reportedly under investigation by the Department of Justice for potential civil rights violations. It was implemented in April as a kind of protest against what the Texas governor called the “Biden border disaster.” It’s a volunteer policy—migrants processed by the Department of Homeland Security must choose to board the buses—but some migrants have reported they were promised there would be support and resources waiting for them in Washington, and DC Mayor Muriel Bowser suggested in July that some migrants had been “tricked” into participating. (Abbott and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, who instituted a similar program in May, have denied misleading asylum-seekers.) In any case, the GOP governors are exploiting migrants to make a political point about federal immigration policy under President Joe Biden, shifting a humanitarian crisis at the border to the nation’s capital.
Local organizers have been frustrated for months at what they say is a “vacuum of leadership” among officials in DC as about 4,700 migrants and 153 buses have arrived from Texas and Arizona as of the end of July, according to the mutual aid network. But their outrage escalated last week when Bowser called for the National Guard to help bring the situation under control, which aid volunteers condemned as a “militarized response to a humanitarian crisis” that could further traumatize vulnerable migrants. “When you are met with the military,” Vazquez recalls one migrant telling her last week, “you are treated as militants.”
Bowser has “aligned herself with Governor Abbott,” Vazquez says, warning that activating the National Guard could be used as justification for the hardline immigration policies of the right-wing governors. “It really, to me, emboldens and cosigns the cruelty of Governor Abbott and Governor Ducey,” Vazquez tells me. “We could prove that a community response is possible. This is an opportunity to show what welcome looks like and what it is to be a sanctuary city.”
Immigrant rights advocates decried the policy when it was announced in spring, as did the White House: “I think it’s pretty clear this is a publicity stunt,” then–Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters at the time.
But the program has continued, with what has appeared to be little formal government action amid the influx, aside from Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) grants that have helped support SAMU First Response, one of the nonprofits that is helping the arriving asylum-seekers . But “the current FEMA grants are not nearly enough” to help the humanitarian group, which can only respond to “a small fraction of the buses arriving,” and it has “not received meaningful support from the District government,” according to DC Councilmember Brianne K. Nadeau. “Cities across the borderlands have shown real leadership in ways to provide local responses to migrants,” Nadeau, chair of the council’s human services committee, cowrote in a letter on July 14 to Bowser. “Now that the border has come to DC, it is our responsibility to meet the moment.”
Bowser responded to the letter by saying in a news conference that DC “won’t be able to bear” the responsibility for the arriving migrants and that it is a “federal issue that demands a federal response.” But Amy Fischer, a core organizer with the mutual aid network and a volunteer with Sanctuary DMV, says the mayor is “sitting on hundreds of millions of dollars,” including in federal funds, “that could be used to provide a more humane reception to the arriving migrants. “
Bowser’s office did not respond to Vanity Fair‘s request for comment.