NEW YORK – Tired of Venezuela’s autocratic government and the misery he earned in the military, Dario Maldonado defected and fled with his family to neighboring Colombia.
But life was still hard: money was tight and expenses were mounting. So he left for the United States, an odyssey that required him to travel on foot through the Central American jungle infested with poisonous snakes and gun-toting bandits, sometimes dodging the corpses of people who died on the same trip.
Now Maldonado and thousands of other asylum seekers from Latin America and the Caribbean are caught up in the political battle over US immigration policy after two Republican governors began sending busloads of migrants to the New York City and Washington.
Border cities like San Diego have long struggled with the influx of asylum seekers and built well-oiled machines to respond, but the nation’s largest city and its capital were unquestionably caught. That created an opening for Greg Abbott of Texas and Doug Ducey of Arizona to exploit what they see as failed Democratic leadership.
Nearly 8,000 migrants have arrived on state-sponsored bus trips, straining the resources and humanitarian services of both cities, which have also called on the federal government for help.
“This can be chaotic. But we want to send a message: We’re here to help and we want to put politics aside,” New York City Immigration Commissioner Manuel Castro said as he greeted arriving migrants one morning recent
PHOTOS: Asylum seekers caught in political battle in New York, Washington
Abbott began the practice in April with Washington, and Doug Ducey followed suit in May. Abbott also recently started sending buses to New York.
For migrants, politics is only vaguely understood, and far less relevant than finding temporary shelter, jobs, and a long-term home in the United States.
“I heard the governor of Texas is anti-immigrant,” Maldonado said outside a shelter in New York. “It’s like a war between the Texas governor’s party and the Biden party.”
A voluntary consent form for free transportation from Texas tells migrants that Washington is where the president and members of Congress “are most immediately able to help address the needs of migrants.”
Migrants who sign a consent form for free travel to New York are told that the city has been designated a “sanctuary” for migrants, who are provided food and shelter.
US authorities detained migrants 1.43 million times at the Mexican border from January to July, a 28% increase over the same period last year. Many are released on humanitarian parole or with notices to appear in immigration court.
The sight of both cities struggling to cope with the influx drew undisguised schadenfreude from Abbott, who called New York City “the ideal destination for these migrants, who can receive the abundance of services and city homes that Mayor Eric Adams has boasted within the sanctuary. city.”
In both cities, social service charities and churches have mobilized to support the newcomers, offering temporary shelter, medical care and often a ticket to their next destination while they await a date in immigration court.
“Many are fleeing persecution and other very serious circumstances. They are confused. And we want to make sure that we support them as much as possible and make sure that they are not used as political pawns,” Castro said.
On a recent August day, a busload of 41 migrants from Arizona arrived at a church in Washington’s Capitol neighborhood, where they were greeted by workers from SAMU First Response, an international relief agency.
Within minutes the group was enjoying a hot meal inside the church and filling out arrival forms.
Texas buses arrive randomly, said Tatiana Laborde, the agency’s managing director. They only learn from charity groups that a bus carrying a certain number of people has left. Sometime around 48 hours later, the bus drops passengers off at Union Station in Washington.
Arizona provides detailed manifests of passengers and their nationalities, coordination of arrival times and has medical staff on board each bus.
“They don’t want to just throw people out here,” Laborde said.
Many who come to Washington don’t stay long. Mayor Muriel Bowser, in her second request for National Guard support, told Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin last week that most migrants stay up to 72 hours before moving on to their final destinations.
“They don’t know much about D.C. other than the president is here,” Laborde said.
Kelin Enriquez, another Venezuelan, was among them. She and her children first arrived in Washington and later met at a family center in the Bronx to plan the family’s next steps.
“No one leaves their land because they want to. We want to work. We want a better chance,” said Enriquez, who helped care for Alzheimer’s patients in his native country.
Some migrants see a free ticket from the border as the best of bad options.
For Eduardo Garcia, the main priorities were to find a job and a place to live and start life anew.
It was an agonizing journey, although he hadn’t broken his left ankle while trying to keep his wife from falling down the dangerous path. He limped in pain for over 1,000 miles.
“I didn’t care because I was more concerned about getting here,” he said.
He didn’t tell anyone about his broken limb until he got to New York, where he received medical attention, a cast and crutches.
In New York, many of the migrants go to the offices of Catholic Charities. Texas officials – it’s unclear who – listed the office as the migrants’ address, perplexing church officials in the New York diocese. The diocese has now received more than 1,300 court notifications on behalf of migrants.
“I think maybe we were caught off guard, a little disappointed that the governments of Texas and Arizona were just putting people on buses to DC with no plan on the other end,” Msgr. Kevin Sullivan, executive director of migrant services at Catholic Charities in New York.
In the past two months, the procession of Venezuelans seeking refuge in the United States has grown dramatically. In July, Border Patrol agents stopped Venezuelans 17,603 times, up 34% from June and nearly triple since July 2021.
The United States does not recognize the government of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro amid allegations that the country’s 2018 election was a sham. The lack of official recognition complicates the country’s ability to take back asylum seekers. The Mexican government also refuses to accept migrants, leaving the US with few options for dealing with Venezuelans.
At a shelter in New York City, brothers Leonardo Oviedo, 22, and Angel Mota, 19, looked giddy shortly after arriving in New York. They had plans to reconnect with an acquaintance in New Jersey.
Big plans are ahead. Oviedo wants to get a job. Mota wants to go to school. It’s not yet known how they will achieve their dreams, as the couple swiped photos of family members they left behind in Venezuela, including their mother, grandmother, brother and sister.
For now, neither brother is particularly worried about the politics that got them here.
“We had nowhere to go,” Mota said outside a shelter on a sweltering summer morning. “This is where we will be accommodated.”
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