If D.C. is to call itself a sanctuary city, its government must take bold steps to actually protect its immigrants.
Municipal responses to migrant busing have been woefully inadequate, locking some of the District’s most vulnerable residents out of guaranteed access to legal support, employment and education trainings, fixed shelter, medical care, and food provision. It also endangers the ability of many immigrants—including those who are long-term D.C. residents—to access D.C.’s services for homelessness entirely. The D.C. Council must adopt legislation correcting these failures.
Since the spring, thousands of immigrants have been bussed to Northern “sanctuary cities” from the southern border by Republican governors, a ploy to inflame national tensions about migration. Used as political pawns, some 10,000 immigrants, mostly asylum seekers awaiting immigration court dates, have been bussed to D.C. alone from Texas and Arizona.
The actual execution of bussing has been uncoordinated and inhumane; receiving cities are rarely notified in advance of immigrant arrivals, complicating the resettlement process. Doubts have been raised about whether this bussing is even consensual: D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine told the press on Oct. 14 he was investigating whether Southern states misled migrants.
Bussing calculus aside, the receiving sanctuary cities—D.C., chiefly—have failed to protect immigrants in the center of this maelstrom, providing little municipal support as immigrants attempt to get settled. D.C. must take responsibility and provide sanctuary for the asylum seekers within its borders.
Mayor Bowser and D.C. City Council’s response thus far has been to declare a public health emergency and establish the Office of Migrant Services (OMS) through temporary legislation on Sept. 20. Under the Migrant Services and Supports Emergency Amendment Act of 2022, the OMS will provide “time-limited” services to recent immigrants to the United States that include food, clothing, temporary shelter, and medical and relocation services. Eligibility for OMS services is unilaterally determined by the mayor; the bill provides no clear definition of what “recent” entails.
The emergency bill is riddled with anti-immigrant policies. Notably, Title II of the bill amends the Homeless Services Reform Act (HRSA) of 2005 to define individuals with active immigration proceedings as temporary nonresidents of D.C. As Councilwoman Brooke Pinto noted in a failed proposed amendment, immigrants with active cases—which can last years due to immigration court backlog—are rendered ineligible for services for people experiencing homelessness under HRSA. These provisions affect nearly all asylum seekers and countless other immigrants.
Immigrants who do not fall into the category of “recent” lack guaranteed access to OMS services—meaning they may go unprotected entirely. Either way, the new bill gatekeeps critical services for vulnerable people—many of whom lack permanent housing arrangements by virtue of their immigration status. This may become life-threatening as hypothermia risk mounts in the coming months.
The bifurcation of immigrants and “legitimate” residents by city political leaders is dangerous: If immigrants are considered temporary visitors, merely passing through, why bother with cost-heavy policy solutions? The result of this outlook is an unwillingness to establish effective legislation that can facilitate meaningful immigrant settlement. Immigrants are thus regarded as short-term burdens, a hassle to the government’s grander concerns. There’s no reason, either, why immigrants shouldn’t be sent elsewhere rather than be settled here.
The new bill also specifically harms immigrant families. Rather than being accommodated in family shelter systems, migrant families have been placed in hotels retrofitted for COVID-19 quarantine purposes, in which they’ve experienced discriminatory treatment from security and stringent movement restrictions. As a result, volunteer organizations have had to manage many familial cases themselves, directing funding to move these migrants into more traditional shelter programs and to rehabilitate stable family dynamics.
Additionally, the bill permits congregate shelter settings for recent migrants, raising concerns about the safety of children in these environments. Legally, all other families experiencing homelessness must be housed in private rooms; why are migrant families any less deserving of safety?
D.C.’s resettlement efforts have also been stymied by declined requests for National Guard assistance; Bowser cannot herself order a deployment because D.C. lacks statehood. Though National Guard presence further militarizes immigrant resettlement, it at least constitutes leveraging of federal resources.
While the city response crystallizes, a net of mutual aid organizations and volunteer groups have rushed to pick up the slack left by municipal neglect. These groups have offered vital shelter, medical care, food, community, and more. Informed by theories of reciprocal community care and solidarity, mutual aid organizers like Sanctuary DMV are still actively fundraising and accepting volunteers to support their operations. As D.C. residents, Georgetown community members should plug into these initiatives, as well as mount resistance to the ongoing anti-immigrant framework. Immigrants are integral members of Georgetown’s student body, staff, and faculty. Protecting immigrants new and old in D.C. is imperative.
D.C. needs to take funding immigrant resettlement more seriously. The $10 million allocated for the District’s plan seems insignificant when held relative to the whole D.C. budget. A look at D.C.’s economic stance in previous fiscal years reveals the city is underfunding immigrant settlement efforts with nearly 600 million dollars in surplus budget. Such surplus finances should be put towards the city’s most pressing issues—namely, the current migration disservice.
Amidst resettlement turmoil, policymakers need to institutionalize policies that ensure all immigrants can access quality District services. Only then can we go beyond basic necessities and instead be geared toward long-term integration in society, such as providing child care, healthcare, public transportation, and education.
With D.C.’s migrant services falling woefully short, minor changes aren’t enough; D.C. needs to shift its entire approach. Though the idea that migrants are societal burdens begins with border state bussing policies, D.C.’s insistence on treating immigrants as short-term residents en route to other cities clearly reinforces that perception. All immigrants deserve to be treated as human beings, not political pawns; D.C. should walk the walk of supporting immigrants and provide them with real, effective, and long-term assistance.