WASHINGTON — Lever Alejos was out of money and out of options when he arrived in South Texas last month, after a 1,300-mile journey from Venezuela that culminated with him crossing the Rio Grande in water up to his chin. The Border Patrol quickly arrested him, and after his release, he was offered a choice: a $50 bus ride to San Antonio, or a free bus ride to Washington, D.C., paid for by the State of Texas.
“I wanted San Antonio, but I had run out of money,” said Mr. Alejos, 28, who has no family in the United States. “I boarded the bus to Washington.”
A few days later, he arrived in the nation’s capital, among a busload of weary migrants. He spent the first night in the plaza across from Union Station but eventually found a bed at Central Union Mission, where he hopes to stay until he can apply for asylum, get a work permit and find a job — a process that could take months.
A political tactic by the governors of Texas and Arizona to offload the problems caused by record levels of migration at the border is beginning to hit home in Washington, as hundreds of undocumented migrants arriving on the governors’ free bus rides each week increasingly tax the capital’s ability to provide emergency food and housing.
With no money and no family to receive them, the migrants are overwhelming immigrant nonprofits and other volunteer groups, with many ending up in homeless shelters or on park benches. Five buses arrived on a recent day, spilling young men and families with nowhere to go into the streets near the Capitol.
Since April, Texas has delivered more than 6,200 migrants to the nation’s capital, with Arizona dispatching an additional 1,000 since May. The influx has prompted Muriel E. Bowser, Washington’s Democratic mayor, to ask the Defense Department to send the National Guard in. The request has infuriated organizations that have been assisting the migrants without any city support.
A vast majority of recent bus riders are Venezuelans fleeing their crisis-ridden country, and many have also been arriving in New York, often via Washington. Eric Adams, mayor of New York City, announced emergency measures on Monday to enable the city to quickly build additional shelter capacity. The mayor, also a Democrat, said the city had received 4,000 asylum seekers since May, fueling a 10 percent growth in the homeless population, with about 100 new arrivals each day.
Venezuelans have been showing up daily at the offices of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York seeking help. “Their primary concern has been a place to stay, food for their children,” said Maryann Tharappel, who directs the organization’s immigrant and refugee services.
“The infrastructure in New York is not built for this,” she said. “We are not on the border.”
Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas and Gov. Doug Ducey of Arizona, both Republicans, blame President Biden for record numbers of migrants crossing the southern border.
Cities along the border in Texas and Arizona have at times been overwhelmed with a surge in unauthorized border crossings that peaked under the Biden administration, which has sought to unravel some of the harsh border restrictions imposed by former President Donald J. Trump.
While thousands of migrants have been swiftly expelled under a pandemic-related health order known as Title 42, thousands of others are being allowed into the country to pursue asylum claims because they cannot be returned to Mexico or their own countries.
State officials in Texas and Arizona have been greeting many of the migrants after their release from U.S. Border Patrol custody, offering them free bus rides to Washington in a bid to force the federal government to take responsibility for what they say is a failed immigration system.
After reaching their destinations, migrants may remain in the country for months or even years while they fight their deportation cases in court; they are allowed to work while they pursue asylum claims.
The situation has become acute in recent weeks with the arrival of so many Venezuelans, who cannot be expelled under Title 42 because Mexico will not take them and their own government does not have an agreement with the United States to accept deportation flights. And unlike most migrants from Mexico and Central America who have family and friends in the United States, Venezuelans often arrive with no money and nowhere to go.
Border Patrol encountered 110,467 Venezuelans along the southern border in the first nine months of this fiscal year, compared with 47,408 in the entire 2021 fiscal year. Overall unauthorized crossings have declined with the arrival of hot summer temperatures.
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The situation has led to back-and-forth accusations with the Democratic mayors on the East Coast in recent weeks. In the latest salvo, on Monday, Mr. Abbott sent a letter to the mayors, Mr. Adams and Ms. Bowser, inviting them to tour the “dire situation” on the border with Mexico.
“Your recent interest in this historic and preventable crisis is a welcome development — especially as the president and his administration have shown no remorse for their actions nor desire to address the situation themselves,” Mr. Abbott wrote.
Fabien Levy, the New York mayor’s press secretary, had this statement: “Instead of a photo op at the border, we hope Governor Abbott will focus his energy and resources on providing support and resources to asylum seekers in Texas as we have been hard at work doing in New York City.”
The Texas governor and the mayors agree on one point: All three are calling on the federal government to act.
“The migrant crisis facing our city and our country through cruel political gamesmanship from the governors of Texas and Arizona must be dealt with at a federal level,” Ms. Bowser wrote in a letter to White House officials.
In requesting a processing center at the D.C. Armory and activation of the National Guard, she said that the number of migrants had reached a “tipping point” that had “overwhelmed” the district’s ability to handle them.
Ms. Bower’s request drew rebuke from immigrant advocates who said she had ignored repeated requests for shelter space, a respite center and coronavirus rapid testing for the migrants, among other things.
“The last thing we want is a militarized response to a humanitarian crisis,” said Andrea Scherff, a core organizer with the Migrant Solidarity Mutual Aid Network, a coalition of grass-roots groups.
Noting that Washington is a sanctuary city for immigrants, she said, “We should meet housing needs for everyone.”
The Biden administration said it had been in touch with Mayor Bowser, but Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, said the governors were using the migrants as a “political tool” for their own ends.
“There is a process in place for managing migrants at the border. This is not it,” she said, adding that the administration was continuing to expel some migrants, place others in custody and release those eligible to the care of local nonprofits “as they await processing.”
About 15 faith and community-based groups in Washington have opened their doors to the migrants, offering them meals, showers and hygiene items during daylight hours. But the increase in the frequency of buses, from two to four a day to now sometimes eight, has depleted donations and exceeded capacity, and many volunteers have contracted Covid-19, said Ms. Scherff.
“The mayors have been playing into the Republican governors’ hands,” said Adam Isacson, a scholar at the Washington Office on Latin America who studies the border.
“Of course they’re making noise about the migrant arrivals because those who need shelter are a strain on their cities’ social services,” he said. But “the tenor of their comments,” he said, is giving the governors ammunition to push for a clampdown on immigration, including such measures as erecting border walls and eliminating asylum.
On a recent night, migrants climbing down from three buses were greeted by volunteers and staff from SAMU First Response, an international aid organization that has received some funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and began operating in Washington in late June.
They were given water, pizza and granola bars, and some were provided tickets for onward travel. By 1 a.m., most had settled for the night on the marble floor of the East Hall of Union Station. Others, from earlier buses, were forced to sleep on the streets. It created an unusual tableau: unhoused Americans on one side of the plaza; on the other, migrants with their meager belongings splayed on the ground — all within sight of the Capitol.
Tatiana Laborde, SAMU’s managing director, said her organization had enough funds to buy tickets to other destinations for about a third of the migrants for whom they were providing services. The group’s shelter in Montgomery County, Md., could not provide long-term housing, she said.
Ten City Council members sent a letter to the Washington mayor urging her to not just seek federal assistance, but also release contingency funds and enlist staff members to help migrants, as well as provide Covid testing, isolation hotels and other resources.
“This is a crisis created by Republican leaders in other states, however, unfortunately it’s fallen on the mayor to allocate resources locally,” said Brianne Nadeau, the council member who prepared the letter.
Many Venezuelans have said that they made the journey to the United States because they believed that the country’s doors were open.
“On TikTok we saw that people were easily getting into the United States,” said Yennifer Ortiz, who made the trip with her partner, Luis Moreno, and their 5-year-old daughter, Sofia.
Their trek to the United States lasted 45 days, including nine days traversing the perilous jungle on the border of Colombia and Panama known as the Darién Gap, Mr. Moreno said.
By the time they reached Texas, they had no money and were happy to board a free bus to Washington. “They told us that here, there would be people to receive us and help us,” Ms. Ortiz said.
When their bus pulled in around 8 a.m. on a recent day, volunteers directed them to a respite center run by a church, where they bathed and received a fresh change of clothes. They spent their first night on park benches, and since then have been bouncing between the homes of Americans, they said.
Juan Rojas, 22, said that when he and a friend arrived in Washington, they were sent to a city shelter housing mainly Americans, where they felt unwelcome.
“The guys were yelling at us, and we couldn’t understand a word,” he said. “It was clear they didn’t want us there.” The pair left after two nights and spent a week sleeping on the streets, he said.
In recent days, Mr. Rojas said, they have been hosted by a “woman who helps migrants” some nights and in hotels arranged by volunteers other nights. He said that he had not yet given up on America after his odyssey.
But he was not optimistic. “In Texas, they told us that here, we would get help with housing, work and everything else we needed,” he said. “It was all a lie.”