WASHINGTON — Washington D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) declared a public emergency Thursday over the influx of asylum-seekers bused in from Texas and Arizona, a formality that allows her to release $10 million in city funds to aid the migrants while also acknowledging that the Biden administration isn’t likely to play a more active role.
After the Pentagon twice rejected Bowser’s request for National Guard troops to help with the busloads of migrants arriving several times per week from the two border states, Bowser is moving to create an Office of Migrant Services that will coordinate an array of services, including temporary shelter, meals and medical support.
The arrival of about 9,400 migrants in the nation’s capital since Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) launched their busing programs in the spring has caught the city largely off-guard, even as many of those individuals have since left for other parts of the United States, the mayor said.
“We’re not a border town,” Bowser said during a news conference to announce the plan. “Basically, what we’re doing today is a new normal for us. We have to have an infrastructure in place that allows us to deal with the border crisis here now that has visited us in Washington, D.C.”
The public emergency declaration allows the city to use $10 million of contingency funds for a more coordinated team of aid workers to meet the buses at Union Station and, then, offer arriving migrants other types of “triage” assistance such as medical treatment and help getting to their next destination, city officials said.
Bowser said the city will seek Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) reimbursement for as much of the aid as possible.
Through the Office of Migrant Services — to be set up within the city’s Department of Human Services — the city will also establish a framework for temporary shelter for the migrants that is distinct from the District’s existing homeless services system, the mayor said, adding that her office has not yet decided who will lead the new office.
Legislation to be sent by Bowser to the D.C. Council would extend those services beyond the 15-day period covered under the emergency declaration, Bowser said.
Until now, the city has left the bulk of the aid response to local groups whose volunteers have stood outside Union Station — often in the early morning hours — to greet the arriving buses and drive the migrants to a temporary shelter in Montgomery County that holds 50 people at a time.
Other migrants have been put up inside area hotels and churches, and some have been forced to sleep in the streets or in hotel parking lots.
As of Thursday, there were 348 migrants staying at two hotels in the city, Bowser’s office said.
With an increasing number of those families choosing to stay in the city, about 70 migrant children have been enrolled in D.C. public schools, her office said.
Despite the new city services, some longer-term questions about aid remain.
SAMU First Response, the nonprofit agency that runs the Montgomery County shelter under a nearly $2 million FEMA grant, has been searching for a larger space closer to Union Station that could serve as a clearinghouse for assistance.
Bowser said the city is helping with that search, both inside and outside the city. But “we don’t have a likely space in the District” owned by the city that would be available for such a purpose, she said.
Tatiana Laborde, managing director of SAMU First Response, said the creation of a Migrant Services Office is a welcome boost to an operation that has, at times, been haphazard.
“It’s going to make our response more robust,” Laborde said at the news conference, where workers from her agency had just come in from assisting migrants who arrived that morning from Texas.
Bowser said, through the new services, her office wants to ensure that “we have a humane and efficient welcome process that will allow people to move on to their final destinations,” in line with the city’s commitment to help those in need.
The issue of who should do more to help the migrants has dogged her office for months. Local aid groups have repeatedly criticized Bowser for not stepping in sooner with assistance — attacks that sharpened after D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D) awarded $150,000 in grants to six nonprofits helping the migrants.
The mayor said she was not reacting to any of those developments. But she accused Abbott and Ducey of politicizing a humanitarian crisis at the border — repeating allegations that some of the migrants were “tricked” into coming to D.C.
Bowser also said she was “disappointed” by the Biden administration’s reluctance to deploy National Guard troops and provide a larger space, such as the D.C. Armory, to serve as a temporary shelter.
The Department of Defense has told Bowser that National Guard troops aren’t trained to provide services at an overnight shelter and that the Armory isn’t equipped for that kind of use.
“Mayors do a lot of things, but we’re not responsible for a broken immigration system,” Bowser said.
With both Abbott and Ducey vowing to continue sending buses, “What we’re dealing with is a big unknown,” she said. “It’s an unknown that’s being imposed on us and it is an unknown that we’re going to do our best to prepare for.”