Migrants bused to US capital from Texas struggle to get housing and medical care

WASHINGTON, Aug 26 (Reuters) – Nearly a month after arriving with their one-year-old daughter on a bus sent by the Texas governor to Washington, DC, 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 home in Medellin collapsed due to heavy rains, tried unsuccessfully to find medical care for their baby, Evangeline. Her skin has welts from 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 DC government will allow them to stay at the hotel makes planning for the future difficult.

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

The family are among more than 7,000 migrants flown from Texas to the US capital since April, part of an initiative by Republican Texas Governor Greg Abbott to pressure Democratic President Joe Biden over policies border. Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, another Republican, sent about 1,500 people from his state to Washington.

More recently, Abbott has also started transporting migrants to New York.

Abbott is seeking a third term in November’s midterm elections and immigration is a motivating issue for Republican voters, according to a Reuters poll. Read more

About 85 to 90 percent of migrants arriving in Washington by bus continue on to other US destinations within hours or days, according to volunteers who assist them. Read more

Some of the arrivals like Zuniga and Mendoza have crossed the US-Mexico border without family or a US destination, alarming Democratic mayors in Washington and New York as migrants turn to city resources and volunteer for essential services .

“If there is no permanent solution, these families are going to be stuck in limbo,” said Ashley Tjhung, a volunteer who helps migrants.

The U.S. Border Patrol made more than 1.8 million arrests of illegally crossing migrants in fiscal year 2022, which began October 1, 2021 — the highest number on record, though it includes some repeated transgressors.

Most Mexicans and Central Americans are being quickly returned 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 entry in the country partly because Mexico refuses to accept returns from certain nationalities. Some will try to seek asylum in the United States.

Abbott said other towns far from the border should share the burden of welcoming migrants and accuses Biden’s policies of encouraging transgressors. Texas and Arizona have spent several million dollars on bus transportation efforts, according to information and data from Arizona.

Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser has asked the Pentagon twice in the past two months to deploy military troops to help migrants, but has been refused both times.

In response to Bowser’s second request on Monday, the Pentagon said the District of Columbia National Guard lacked the proper training and that nonprofits appeared to have the ability to handle the situation. Read more

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

In recent weeks, New York City officials have also been dealing with new migrant arrivals, including some leaving Washington, and are looking to rent thousands of hotel rooms for future arrivals, according to the Department of Social Services. Read more

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Since arriving in late July, the Colombian couple have been staying at a Hampton Inn, one of two hotels used by the nation’s capital to house around 50 migrant families. The families, many of them from Venezuela, receive three meals a day and essential shelter.

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

Zuniga and Mendoza, who want to consult with an immigration attorney before deciding whether to seek asylum in the United States, said they were deeply grateful for the ability to stay in hotel rooms, but that they had also encountered difficulties, from lack of information on how long the temporary shelter will last for basic tasks like setting up a cell phone.

Efforts to welcome migrants to Washington are largely the work of an ad hoc coalition of volunteers and a nonprofit organization that receives federal funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Volunteers currently greet buses arriving from Texas, bring migrants to local churches, perform medical screenings and help book trips to other parts of the United States, including New York. But some advocates say they need longer-term solutions, especially as the freezing winter months approach and growing concerns that migrants could end up sleeping rough.

Migrant families struggle to enroll their children in school and access city-funded health care because they lack a government-issued letter to prove residency, say volunteers helping them . A parent at the Hampton Inn echoed concerns about schooling.

The Chancellor of DC Public Schools on Wednesday said migrant children would be allowed to enroll in city schools and public school staff visited hotels on Thursday to enroll them, a doorman said. -word of the school system.

Keiberson Soto, a 19-year-old migrant from Venezuela, was also staying at the Hampton Inn after arriving last month at the US-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 being shot in the stomach by an assailant who targeted him because a cousin allegedly owed money for drugs. In Colombia, he struggled to find work and decided to travel to the United States with his father’s family last November for a trip that lasted months. Reuters was unable to independently confirm the account.

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

“What can I do to study? I want to take an English course,” he said. “We don’t have anyone who can help us answer these questions.”

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

In the hours leading up to the exam, the couple rushed to find transportation to the center, which is several miles from the hotel and difficult to reach on foot. Eventually, a Spanish-speaking hotel employee showed them how to find the bus route on Google Maps.

They boarded without a bus ticket, they said, but told the driver they had no money and he let them through.

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

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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