Migrants bused to U.S. capital from Texas struggle to secure housing, medical care

·6 min read

By Ted Hesson and Alexandra Alper

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Nearly a month after arriving with their 1-year-old daughter on a bus sent by the governor of Texas to Washington, D.C., Colombian couple Noralis Zuniga and Juan Camilo Mendoza are unsure how long they will be allowed to stay in their city-funded hotel room.

The couple, who said they left Colombia in May after their house in Medellin collapsed due to heavy rains, have tried unsuccessfully to find medical care for their baby, Evangeline. She has welts on her skin since the family's arduous 10-day trek on foot through the Darien Gap, a mountainous jungle between Colombia and Panama.

Beyond the difficulties of navigating a new country and language, the uncertainty of how long the local D.C. government will permit them to stay in the hotel makes it hard to plan for the future.

"You go downstairs and you ask them, 'How long can we stay here?'" said Zuniga, who spoke to hotel staff not affiliated with the government. "They don't tell you."

The family is among the more than 7,000 migrants bused from Texas to the U.S. capital since April, part of an initiative by Texas' Republican Governor Greg Abbott to put pressure on Democratic President Joe Biden over border policies. Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, another Republican, has sent about 1,500 from his state to Washington.

More recently Abbott began busing migrants to New York City, too.

Abbott is seeking a third term in November midterm elections and immigration is a motivating issue for Republican voters, Reuters polling shows.

Around 85%-90% of migrants arriving in Washington on the buses continue to other U.S. destinations within hours or days, according to volunteers who assist them.

Some of the arrivals like Zuniga and Mendoza crossed the U.S.-Mexico border with no U.S. family or destination, alarming Democratic mayors of Washington and New York as the migrants turn to city resources and volunteers for essential services.

"If there isn't a solution that comes up permanently, these families are going to be stuck in limbo," said Ashley Tjhung, a volunteer aiding the migrants.

U.S. Border Patrol has made more than 1.8 million arrests of migrants crossing illegally in fiscal year 2022, which began Oct. 1, 2021 - the highest number on record, though it includes some repeat crossers.

Most Mexicans and Central Americans are returned quickly to Mexico under COVID restrictions in place at the border but hundreds of thousands of migrants - including many from Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua and Colombia - have been allowed into the country in part because Mexico refuses to accept returns of certain nationalities. Some will try to seek asylum in the United States.

Abbott has said other cities far from the border should share the burden of receiving migrants and blames Biden's policies for encouraging crossers. Both Texas and Arizona have spent several million dollars on the busing efforts, according to news reports and data from Arizona.

Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser asked the Pentagon twice in the past two months to deploy military troops to aid the migrants but was denied both times.

In response on Monday to Bowser's second request, the Pentagon said the District of Columbia National Guard did not have the relevant training and that non-profit organizations appeared to have the capacity to manage the situation.

Bowser's office did not respond to requests for comment.

New York City officials in recent weeks have also grappled with new migrant arrivals, including some moving on from Washington, and is seeking to rent thousands of hotel rooms for future arrivals, according to the Department of Social Services.

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Since arriving in late July, the Colombian couple has been staying at a Hampton Inn, one of two hotels being used by the nation's capital to house about 50 migrant families. The families, many of whom come from Venezuela, receive three meals a day and crucial shelter.

The number of single adults in the Washington shelter system remains unclear.

Zuniga and Mendoza, who want to consult with an immigration lawyer before deciding whether to apply for U.S. asylum, said they are deeply grateful for the opportunity to stay in the hotel rooms, but have also run into challenges, from the lack of information about how long the temporary shelter will last to basic tasks like setting up a cell phone.

The efforts to welcome migrants in Washington have largely fallen to an ad-hoc coalition of volunteers and one non-profit organization that is receiving federal funding from Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

The volunteers currently greet the buses arriving from Texas, bring migrants to local churches, conduct medical screenings and help book travel to other parts of the United States, including New York City. But some advocates say they need longer-term solutions, particularly as frigid winter months approach and concerns rise that migrants could end up sleeping on the street.

Migrant families have struggled to enroll their kids in school and access city-funded health care because they lack a government-issued letter to prove residency, according to volunteers aiding them. A parent in the Hampton Inn echoed the concerns about school enrollment.

On Wednesday, the chancellor of D.C. public schools said the migrant children would be allowed to enroll in city schools and public school staff visited the hotels on Thursday to sign them up, a school system spokesperson said.

Keiberson Soto, a 19-year-old Venezuelan migrant, was also staying at the Hampton Inn after arriving last month at the U.S.-Mexico border with his father, his father's second wife, their three teenage children and a grandchild.

He said he left Venezuela for Colombia in 2019 after he was shot in the stomach by an assailant who targeted him because a cousin allegedly owed money for drugs. In Colombia, he had trouble finding work and decided to head to the United States with his father's family last November on a journey that took months. Reuters was not able to independently confirm the account.

Soto says he is relieved to be in such comfortable circumstances but is worried about next steps.

"What can I do to study? I want to take an English class," he said. "We don't have anyone who can help us answer those questions."

Despite the struggles, some families are making strides forward. Noralis Zuniga took an entrance exam on Tuesday for a free class offered by a local community health center and a charter school to become an early childhood teacher, a departure from her work in a beauty salon in Colombia.

In the hours before the exam, the couple scrambled to find a ride to the center, which was several miles away from the hotel and not easily walkable. Eventually, a Spanish-speaking hotel employee showed them how to find the bus route on Google Maps.

They boarded without bus fare, they said, but told the driver they had no money and he let them pass.

(Reporting by Ted Hesson and Alexandra Alper in Washington; Additional reporting by Leah Millis in Washington; Editing by Mica Rosenberg and Lisa Shumaker)