D.C. aid groups overwhelmed as migrants arrive from Texas, Arizona

Photo for The Washington Post by Amanda Andrade-Rhoades
Families and solo migrants have a meal together after arriving at Union Station in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday. Their bus ride originated in Texas.

WASHINGTON – Aid groups helping migrants coming to Washington, D.C., on buses from Texas and Arizona were overwhelmed this week after coronavirus quarantines sidelined many volunteers and area shelters filled up, leaving some of the migrants to sleep at Union Station after they arrived.

The buses have been arriving from Texas and Arizona for months, after the Republican governors of those states started offering “voluntary” bus trips to the nation’s capital for migrants caught crossing the border from Mexico.

“We were told we were going to be helped here, that somebody was waiting for us,” Andres David Blanco, who left Venezuela a month and a half ago, said in Spanish after he arrived at Union Station on Tuesday night.

A network of mutual aid organizations armed with limited resources, and a nonprofit operating with a federal grant have been scrambling to help migrants, while the number of buses arriving in the city continues to rise.

That patchwork of aid fell short Tuesday night, after core organizers and volunteers with the Migrant Solidarity Mutual Aid Network advocates were in quarantine after being exposed to the coronavirus while helping migrants over the weekend. SAMU First Response, an international aid organization that has a Federal Emergency Management Agency grant to help the migrants, only operates Wednesday through Saturday.

SAMU’s managing director, Tatiana Laborde, said the organization tried to put together a team to find last-minute resources after it became clear Tuesday that there were not enough volunteers to help the incoming migrants.

Laborde said in an interview that SAMU does not have capacity to coordinate all the buses. “We are increasing our capacity, but all the agencies involved know that this is going to take time,” she said. Out of the roughly 15 buses arriving every week, the organization can handle half.

SAMU’s FEMA grant is enough to provide emergency aid for around 2,000 migrants a month, but the number has doubled in the last weeks.

SAMU has been operating at a shelter located in Montgomery County in Maryland, where Laborde said they prioritize migrant families from Arizona who often arrive with children. The shelter only has capacity for 50 people who are allowed to stay no more than three days. On Wednesday morning, Laborde said, the shelter was already full.

Laborde said the organization has initiated conversation with D.C. officials to secure a permanent place near Union Station, but the conversation “has not materialized” into concrete actions. The Migrant Solidarity Network has also asked for access to respite centers, coronavirus isolation hotels, and short-term housing for the migrants.

A spokeswoman for Mayor Muriel Bowser, D, did not immediately comment.

D.C. Council member Brianne Nadeau, D-Ward 1, said it appeared that SAMU was still working out kinks in its operations, underscoring the importance of a stronger response from local officials.

“SAMU has a learning curve, they have a deep bench of people who are good at emergency response and serving refugees but haven’t done that work in D.C. before,” Nadeau said. “If governments across the region are depending on SAMU to get this done, it’s not feasible.”

She added, “as stretched thin as our government is right now, we probably need more boots on the ground with SAMU until they have things up and running.”

Nadeau, who is the chairwoman for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments’ Region Forward Coalition, said local leaders who are part of the group will convene next week to determine exactly what officials and nonprofits, including SAMU, can do to increase support for those arriving in the city.

In a statement released Wednesday, the Migrant Solidarity Mutual Aid Network said they took a two-day break following the coronavirus exposure, but that the group was “exhausted” and needed help.

“DMV area community organizations and volunteers have shown up every day for over three months to support migrants but we are exhausted, burned out, and do not have the resources that the government does,” said Madhvi Bahl, from Sanctuary DMV and Free Them All VA.

Meanwhile, many of the migrants who arrived Tuesday night spent the night inside Union Station. Shelters for families were not available Tuesday night, and the ones that could take in migrants could only receive male individuals.

Venezuelans Ángeles Pinto León, 22, and Pedro José Sánchez, 30, and their two children left Perú two months ago. They reached the border last Wednesday and were told at a shelter in Texas that they could be transported in a bus free to D.C.

They said the place they had secured in Richmond is no longer available. Now they are seeking shelter or a home to stay in D.C.

At 9 p.m., volunteer Matthew Burwick, a Venezuelan activist who said he was at the site helping SAMU, answering questions and handing out granola bars and water, coordinated transportation for four families and seven children to SAMU’s shelter in Montgomery County. On Wednesday morning, Pinto León, who was taken to the shelter, said she was told she could stay there for a few days, but she hasn’t found a permanent place to stay.

Several migrants are trying to reach other states like New York, Florida or Georgia, but many don’t have anywhere to go and are hoping the city can offer them a fresh start.

“Do you know where 14th and U is?” Leonardo Javier León, 26, asked in Spanish. “I was told there are many restaurants there where I can apply for a job.”

“I don’t have anybody here, but I have the will to work,” said León, who worked as a sous-chef in Venezuela.

Some, like asylum-seeker Eduardo Antonio Mendoza, are facing last-minute cancellations by friends or sponsors.

“I called my friend this evening, but he told me he can’t receive me anymore,” Mendoza, who traveled from Nicaragua and was planning to go to New York, said in Spanish.

Mendoza said he took the bus from Texas because it was on the way to New York, but now that he has nowhere to go, he’s glad he ended up in D.C.

“I’d have been lost there,” he said.