Asylum seekers from Texas and Arizona pass through D.C. on their way to other cities. Credit: Courtesy of Erika Berg

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Milton is trying to fit all of his worldly possessions in a brand new black duffel bag. His original pack floated away somewhere in the Rio Grande during his trip north. Since then, the 48-year-old has collected random replacements: secondhand soccer cleats, sweatpants, a new T-shirts, and blankets he received during the asylum intake process in Texas. 

Late one night in April, Milton is in the common area of Friends Place on Capitol Hill, packing for a bus trip leaving early the next morning. His ultimate destination is Camden, New Jersey, where he has family and perhaps a job waiting for him. Throughout his five-day journey, he’s kept the Camden address on slips of paper stuck in each of his pants pockets, and one inside his mouth like a corked love note to his future American self.

Milton is just one of more than 1,000 asylum seekers who Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has bused to the District over the past two months, as a way of showing opposition to President Joe Biden’s plans to lift Title 42, a Trump-era policy that allows immigration officials to expel migrants from the U.S., including asylum seekers. Texas has paid more than $1,400 for each asylum seeker bused from the Texas border to D.C., according to a recent NBC investigation, totaling a least $1.6 million in April and May alone.

“I’d never imagined coming here,” Milton says in Spanish. “I was scared of how I came here … but it’s the American dream.” 

In May, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey followed Abbott’s lead and sent the first buses of asylum seekers from Arizona to D.C. The Biden administration sought to end the border expulsion policy by May 23, but a federal judge in Louisiana halted those plans for now.

And so the taxpayer-funded busing of asylum seekers from Texas and Arizona continues. Although mutual aid networks, nonprofits, and volunteers have welcomed them, the constant stream of people is straining those organizations. It has also generated tension over who is best suited to do the work of coordinating these efforts, including handling government funds to support asylum seekers.

As Milton continues to stuff his bag, he recalls his long and unexpected journey from fleeing state-sanctioned violence in Nicaragua to Guatemala and Mexico and eventually into Texas.

“We had it easier than others, because we just had to get past Mexico and surrender,” Milton says. “The border police were like, ‘Where are you from? Nicaragua? Welcome to the United States!’” 

The Aid Conundrum

In the corner of the Friends Place common area, volunteer organizers utter the occasional curse word as they rummage through SIM cards for prepaid cell phones at a frantic pace. They’re trying to connect with nonprofits in Portland, Maine, to ensure someone will greet the next group of asylum seekers traveling from D.C. Megan Felix Macaraeg, organizing director at Beloved Community Incubator, and Kate Brooke-Davidson, a program coordinator at Central American Resource Center in D.C., have had maybe an average of four hours of sleep a night each in the past week; they can’t recall exactly.

When some of the first buses from Texas arrived at the Capitol, a frenzied scene unfolded. Volunteers scrambled to organize support and resources for the influx of new people, and videographers jockeyed for footage. At one point, a camera operator struck volunteer organizer Madhvi Bahl over the head, she tells City Paper. Worried that publicity could jeopardize the safety of people seeking asylum, the volunteers formed a human barricade.

“The problem is, we are all short women,” Bahl says. But it wasn’t just about protecting asylees from the cameras’ gaze; it was also about giving them autonomy when they could count on few liberties.  

For much of the past two months, mutual aid volunteers and small local organizations like CARECEN have taken up the operational mantle with next to no help from federal officials or the mayor’s office. 

The D.C. Department of Human Services has taken on the role of coordinating service providers, according to Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, who chairs the Council’s human services committee. CARECEN and the D.C. chapter of Catholic Charities were instrumental in getting D.C.-based NGO SAMU First Response on board, says SAMU Director of Operations Tatiana Laborde. SAMU, which specializes in humanitarian relief efforts including work with unaccompanied minors abroad, recently got approved for grant money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The grant will fund a 24-hour intake facility with 100 beds for a stay of up to three nights. The facility would ideally have basic amenities like hot showers, she says, providing asylum seekers “an opportunity to change clothes, because a lot of them haven’t showered in about a week and are wearing clothes that they had when they’re crossing the border.”

Nadeau, who also chairs the Metro Washington Council of Governments’ Region Forward Coalition committee, says COG’s Region Forward July meeting will be focused on ways to support migrants, immigrants, and asylum seekers.   

Laborde explains that Catholic Charities and the smaller groups working with asylum seekers are doing so in addition to the projects they already had in the works. In between bus pickups and hub operations, Beloved Community Incubator organizers had been coordinating a campaign to get funds for the District’s thousands of excluded workers this budget cycle. CARECEN heads initiatives that range from housing to citizenship services. Other individual organizers and groups volunteer with local causes ranging from homelessness to criminal justice reform.  

“We’re doing this, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have every single other mutual aid organizing responsibility that still exists,” Bahl says. “For all these groups … there’s still unhoused folks, displaced by [Mayor Muriel] Bowser’s administration and by the National Park Service; there’s still people in detention that we have to run a commissary fund for. All these things are still happening. And it’s the people who work on that who are also working on this.” 

When news reached SAMU that buses from Arizona were on their way to the District, the nonprofit opened their building for sleep and travel accommodations and to assess the needs of arriving asylum seekers. The 120 people who arrived that day would have been too much for an already overtaxed network of volunteers to deal with. 

While mutual aid organizers have stepped up to do this type of work along with other groups, the FEMA grant would streamline operations under SAMU, according to Laborde. Right now, intake hubs and sites for sorting donation items are still moving from church to church or operating in coffee shops near the Capitol, Laborde says.

But some mutual aid groups oppose FEMA funding going to SAMU, an organization that doesn’t have experience working with asylum seekers in the U.S. or working in the District, according to Amy Fischer, a core volunteer organizer from Northeast.

“Best practices are really around ‘community based,’ so an … NGO that has never worked in the U.S., much less D.C., doesn’t really fit the bill,” Fischer says.  

Some organizers reached out to groups with a background in border operations, resettlement, refugee support, or housing services to ask if they could apply for FEMA funds. But many local organizations don’t have the bandwidth to take on an initiative of this size. Laborde says SAMU’s management is all local, albeit part of a larger group of international workers, and scoffs at what she sees as pure politics. 

“We are the only organization that has submitted a formal proposal for FEMA, but everybody else has a chance, right?” she told City Paper last month. “We’re coming to fill a gap that at this point nobody else is ready to do. … We are not approaching this in a political manner but in a humanitarian way.”

“I think we understand the need for expediency to find bed space for those that are arriving and need a place to land,” Fischer told City Paper via text. “But we also think it’s worth ensuring that the organization that is taking on that responsibility has the experience, community wherewithal, and expertise to provide that shelter in a way that upholds the rights and dignity of the asylum seekers.”

Meanwhile, mutual aid network organizers haven’t been included in recent strategy meetings SAMU has held with Catholic Charities, CARECEN, and other local partners. In a meeting with SAMU representatives today, Nadeau learned the nonprofit was unable to secure public space with the District and instead sealed a deal with Montgomery County. SAMU is slated to open the respite center on Tuesday. Montgomery County, which is providing the space rent-free, has requirements for use of their facility, including that SAMU provide Spanish-speaking workers. 

Nadeau, who is running for re-election this month, says the city missed its shot to set stipulations when it failed to cooperate with SAMU to approve a facility space. The FEMA contract doesn’t get into legal or language services, she says.   

“It shows you that by taking the lead, you can have a say,” Nadeau says. “But … by staying on the sidelines, the District government has missed a real opportunity to guide how people are served. And that’s a shame.”

SAMU is still in weekly talks with the city and hopes to also get approval for a D.C.-based respite center. Nadeau asks residents to appeal to the mayor’s office to support SAMU with facility space. Despite the FEMA grant and Montgomery County’s space being free of charge, SAMU will likely still have to fundraise to pay for its operations, just as mutual aid volunteers have done all along.

The mutual aid solidarity network has set up a “Wake Up Bowser Housing Fund” to cover housing costs while advocates pressure the city to help establish respite, short-term, and more long-term housing for asylum seekers. Residents can also support by donating cash or high-need items off the “Solidarity with Migrants” wish list. 

The solidarity network has some other items on their wish list for Bowser’s office. One is for emergency funds to cover food, supplies, emergency medical services, and transportation to other cities. Another is for Bowser to pressure Abbott and Ducey to send buses so that they arrive during daylight hours and with advance notice. The mayor’s team did not respond to requests for comment.

Volunteers rely on intel from sources in Texas and Arizona to let them know when buses are due to arrive in the District. Abbott or Ducey’s offices offer no communication, and buses often arrive sporadically. Volunteers have wondered aloud whether the governors are intentionally making it difficult for aid workers to meet asylum seekers. 

“We use our community connections to provide community care,” Fariha Huriya, a core organizer who works with the DC Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee, says via text. “I want to make sure people know that mutual aid groups and the [D.C.] community did all the labor without the help of the government.”

As they distribute prepaid cell phones at Friends Place, Macaraeg and Brooke-Davidson help asylum seekers hone basic survival skills such as how to pin and send their location and connect to others via WhatsApp, how to use Google Translate to ask for directions, and make sure they’re getting on the right bus and off at the right stop.

An Angolan couple with four small children staying at Friends Place get ready for their trip to Union Station. They’ve heard Portland, Maine, is a haven for African migrant communities, but they don’t know a single soul there. 

Their kids are a chattering bunch, chasing each other around the common room, giggling, and shouting in Portuguese. Their father orders them back to a state of controlled chaos. The daughter sticks out her tongue at her brother. Her ballerina backpack, one of many donated items at this makeshift intake hub, is more than half her size.

Milton, meanwhile, continues to stuff his duffel bag to the point that eventually the front pocket rips. He lets out a shriek, a lament to his “very pretty, new bag.” It’s after 11 p.m., and his bus to Philadelphia, where he will transfer to another headed to Camden, leaves at 6:30 the next morning. But he doesn’t seem to care. Instead, he continues to reflect on his journey. 

The Journey

Three years ago, Milton fled Nicaragua to escape violence and human rights violations during the protest crisis under the Daniel Ortega administration. He left behind his parents, siblings, and childhood memories of swimming in dams. He made his way to Guatemala, where he worked as a tailor’s assistant and drove cargo trucks late at night. 

In late April, spurred by his cousin’s advice, he bused and trekked through Guatemala to the Mexican border. To get across a border bridge, Milton and other migrants hoisted themselves onto a 8-foot wooden raft where paddlers cram 12 people deep. 

The group then traipsed through mountains, encountering men who said they would guide them for a hefty fee. Milton compares them to coyotes (this border crossing at the Suchiate River is known as “Paso Del Coyote,” or “The Coyote’s Passage”); they are paid to smuggle Mexican immigrants into the U.S. Milton and his travel companions were unfamiliar with the terrain, he explains, and without help they ran the risk of bumping into Mexican border police. He notes that the same men who guided them were liable to rob them if they were on their own. Safe passage to Tapachula, hours trekking through mountains and farms, costs $100 each and would bring them closer to the U.S.-Mexico border. “If not, I wouldn’t have been able to make it,” Milton says. 

In Tapachula, a Mexican woman met him and another traveler and fed them at her home. He saw Haitian migrants staying there while waiting for asylum in Mexico.

He and a fellow Nicaraguan man decided to stick together for the rest of their journey. Traveling in pairs allowed them to stave off loneliness without attracting attention from immigration enforcement officials. On local buses, Mexican immigration enforcement officers arbitrarily ask some passengers for their papers.

“They look at us suspiciously, and some folks get real nervous, and that’s when they catch you, like, ‘Aha! Your papers?’” Milton says. “It’s the nerves, the fear, that gets you killed.”

Milton spent only one day at an immigration detention facility in Ciudad Acuña, Mexico, on the other side of the Rio Grande. But he heard of many others who were detained for 15 to 20 days.

He has developed support networks along the way. New friends from Mexico City still message him via WhatsApp to see how he’s doing. En route to Texas and then D.C., it cheers him up to get a Wi-Fi signal bridging the distance between him and his newfound transnational tribe.  

The other cell phone with him doesn’t bring such good vibes. It’s a government-issued device, similar to a GPS ankle bracelet, that he received in Texas as part of immigration enforcement. It tracks his location as a condition of his stay while he applies for asylum. Asylum seekers have to check in once a week by snapping a picture on an app they download on the phone. They also have to stay near the U.S. address they provide asylum officers.

Abbott and Ducey have maintained that asylum seekers’ bus trips to D.C. are voluntary. But for those looking to reach cities far from Texas, the bus trip is too costly for them to turn down a free ride. At Friends’ Place, Milton has $8 to his name. He left Guatemala with $500, he says.

“Who would’ve thought back in Nicaragua that I’d get to know so much of Mexico … Chiapas is huge, you know? … and the U.S. and now Washington and all these friendly people,” he says. “Now I’m well-traveled.”  

He’s far from the only one. At Friends Place, a 14-year-old boy from Angola asked Erika Berg, a volunteer who works with the mutual aid network, to write down the countries she’d visited. Then she asked him the same. He took a pencil and scribbled the countries whose jungles he’d trekked through, on foot, over two months to reach the U.S. There were 12 altogether.

An Angolan boy’s handwritten list of countries he’s traveled to during his trip to the U.S. Courtesy of Erika Berg.

 

A volunteer organizer interrupts our conversation around 1:30 a.m. and reminds Milton to get ready for bed. Milton prefers the living room sofa to the dark bunk room with clean sheets, even if he wakes up with a stiff neck. Scuffling back into the bedroom to get his bag, he seems oblivious that his noise might wake his would-be roommates. “This way I can just roll out of bed,” he says. In the living room, he waves off more reminders to get to sleep. Just before 4 a.m., Milton finally nods off. 

Taking Stock

In many ways, Milton is luckier than most. It took him five days to reach D.C. from Guatemala; for others, the journey can take months. He had a supportive family waiting for him. He wasn’t attacked en route to Texas or injured or forced to watch someone close suffer an attack or injury or sudden death. He wasn’t leaving behind immediate family, no spouse or kids. He had a job lead and a new life to look forward to, no past holding him back. 

That’s not the case for hundreds of other asylum seekers who have come through D.C. from Texas and Arizona. Mutual Aid DC volunteers tell City Paper about some of the more serious situations they encounter: A Venezuelan couple with small children who were robbed by border police “left D.C. with only the bills [a volunteer] could dig out of [her] pocket … and a dream,” according to one. Another couple with small children arrived at a hub injured and glassy-eyed. The Angolan woman was sexually assaulted in the jungle; her husband injured his leg trying to save her, a volunteer learns through Google Translate. Others have arrived in the District with a shattered leg or something inside far more broken.

Some asylum seekers leave their home country without enough medication to last the entire trip, lose their medication on the way, or develop new medication needs. As the number of asylum seekers arriving in buses has increased to up to 100 per day in recent weeks, the surge has added to the strain of dwindling mutual aid funds, according to Taylor, a volunteer medic associated with Peace House DC, the D.C. Street Medic Collective, and the Ward 7- and 8-serving DC Health Justice Clinic. Apart from medical supplies, Taylor, who declined to give his last name for privacy reasons, relies on funding just to keep afloat while he devotes his time to treating acute conditions, checking basic vital signs, and doing medical triage during asylum seeker intake. 

Others need immediate medical treatment when they arrive in D.C. but don’t always get it. Chaand, a D.C.-based doctor who volunteers with mutual aid and partners with Taylor at the DC Health Justice Clinic, describes an asylum seeker with multiple swollen joints, bulging ankles and knees, and a severe fever. A blood test eventually revealed he had kidney failure, and he got medical treatment. But without insurance, it took a long time to even get a test, much less access to treatment for a severe condition. 

“As soon as the person is poor, or Black, or Brown, or an immigrant without health insurance—there’s a saying in medicine that patients without insurance suddenly have no medical problems,” says Chaand, who declined to give his last name to protect his privacy.

Kate Sugarman, another volunteer doctor, says that in her experience, issues with racist and classist medical treatment of marginalized people are prevalent in the U.S. health care system. Sugarman differentiates between treatment that Ukrainian refugees received with that of African and Latin asylum seekers. 

“I think it’s plain and simple racism,” Sugarman says. “Ukrainians and their white skin, they look like the halls of power in government. And people from the Global South don’t look like the people in power. Their skin is Black, their skin is Brown. People in Central America are fleeing gang wars, and people in Africa are fleeing all-out wars. They are fleeing the same violence that Ukrainians are fleeing, and we don’t want to look at them.”

But the most prevalent health issue asylum seekers face when they arrive in D.C., Chaand says, is trauma.

“There is nobody who’s traveling to seven to eight countries in 45 days, getting assaulted on the way, that doesn’t have trauma,” he says. “This is the one common story. And so that the largest thing, and the cure for that, is already the love that they’re getting, the safety that they’re getting.”

About six weeks ago, Milton made it to his family in Camden. His cousin got him a job packing refrigerated deliveries four days a week. He wants to work more so he can earn extra cash to send to relatives in Nicaragua, he says. Milton’s next goal is to learn how to use a lawn mower. 

By now, Milton has more possessions than the ones he brought from the District stuffed in a torn duffel bag. His relatives have given him some secondhand clothes that fit him just fine. He plans to return to D.C. someday soon, he says, to check out the museums and check in with the friends he made at Friends Place. He had never dreamed of going to Washington, he says, but now he daydreams about going back.

A previous version of this article misstated the effect of Title 42 and U.S. immigration enforcement’s GPS tracking process. The story has been updated.