At a church in Washington, D.C. a group of migrants are given free clothes after arriving by bus from an immigration center in Texas.
After a journey from Venezuela that included a 5-day trek through the jungle and a 33-hour bus ride from Texas, Caro and Alejo had finally found respite at a Northwest D.C. rowhouse, alongside a Shih Tzu Poodle mix named Pippa.
They've been at the home of a D.C organizer named Sarah for two weeks now. Despite being under house arrest while anxiously awaiting a home-visit from immigration caseworkers as part of an alternative to detention program, they exchanged sweet looks and made each other laugh on a recent Friday afternoon. This is what their journey was for: to finally be together without fear, after facing hostility for being in a queer relationship in Venezuela.
"I feel the freedom to love," says Caro in Spanish. "Most importantly, I am very happy."
At a mutual aid organizer's home in Northwest D.C., the couple from Venezuela sits on the balcony after arriving by bus from Texas.
Caro and Alejo, who both asked to be referenced by nicknames to protect their safety, are two of hundreds of migrants bused to D.C. by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott over the last six weeks. The Republican ally of former president Donald Trump has framed the chartered buses as a pointed criticism of President Joe Biden's border policy — his many detractors, meanwhile, say he's orchestrating a cheap political stunt for electoral gain.
"By busing migrants to Washington, D.C., the Biden Administration will be able to more immediately meet the needs of the people they are allowing to cross our border," Abbott has said. "Texas should not have to bear the burden of the Biden Administration's failure to secure our border."
But the president has so far been little help to the people journeying over one thousand miles to the District. Mayor Muriel Bowser, too, has largely left the arriving migrants to fend for themselves.
Instead, when Abbot announced his plans in April, a core group of about 20 D.C. activists set to work creating an emergency aid operation. For nearly two months now, the small group of volunteers has been stretched to the limit: They meet buses arriving at Union Station at all hours of the morning and night; they provide medical care and organize transportation for people leaving the city; and they feed, clothe, and even shelter people in their own homes.
The organizers are all rooted in D.C.'s mutual aid network, which has existed for years but took on a new reach in 2020 amid a raging pandemic and social justice protests that followed the murder of George Floyd.
"This is a new way of coming together and doing mutual aid," says Fariha Huriya, a core organizer who works with the DC Incarcerated Workers' Organizing Committee and is the co-founder of the DC Free Store. "The community, again, responding where the government fails."
Abbott has sent at least 35 buses transporting 922 migrants to the District, according to his office. Recently, he inspired another governor, Arizona's Doug Ducey, to follow suit. Neither Abbott nor Ducey's office responded to a request for comment.
As organizers have expanded their efforts in recent weeks, they've teamed up with a local church, a coffeehouse, and a hotel so that migrants have a comfortable place to rest and a warm meal after their 33-to-50 hour bus ride. (For safety and privacy reasons, DCist/WAMU is not naming these locations). They've coordinated through regular meetings and various messaging services, like Signal and WhatsApp. Organizers juggle multiple threads as they work to connect new arrivals with whatever they need: a bus ticket to another destination, temporary housing, new shoes, or a cell phone.
At a church in Washington D.C., migrant children play together from arriving by bus from an immigration center in Texas.
Migrants arrive at Union Station exhausted. Some are unsure of their next move, organizers say – many are surprised by the hospitality of the strangers greeting them as they step off the bus. Within hours of meeting, organizers and migrants exchange telephone numbers and stories.
"There is a false narrative of like 'Everybody's so happy to hop on these free buses,' which is not really true," says Huriya. "You need to know that people don't have anything."
The group, which is led by Black and brown femmes, operates on the tenets of mutual aid, a generations-old practice of reciprocal, community-based support that often picks up where governments or big-name nonprofits fall short. While many of the organizers engaged in mutual aid prior to the pandemic, they refined and expanded their efforts at the beginning of the public health crisis. This work included building an informal infrastructure to purchase, bag, and deliver groceries to neighbors who needed them.
The practice of mutual aid is often very personal. Several organizers are sheltering migrants in their own homes. Sarah, who asked to be identified by her first name to protect her privacy, has hosted nine people in her 750-square-foot, two-bedroom apartment over the last month. They've ranged in age from two months to 42 years, and while some have left D.C. for other states, she keeps in touch with all of them. A few still ask about Pippa.
"The house has been more full," Sarah says. "But also everybody's sort of doing their own part to keep the house going."
Mutual aid rejects the one-way relationship that structures traditional charity work, where one person offers help and the other receives it. Instead, it celebrates reciprocity – such as when Caro and Alejo take care of Pippa while Sarah and her partner work from home.
One night, they all danced bachata. Another evening, the couple made Sarah and her partner bean and cheese empanadas.
"I like to cook," says Alejo in Spanish. "Any type of food. Everything I see. I have been to several cities, so I pick up something from each city."
Sarah and Alejo prepare empanadas, as the puppy Pippa looks for crumbs on the floor. Some organizers like Sarah host migrants in their own homes.
On a recent Wednesday morning, dozens of organizers and migrants gathered inside the large parish hall of a local Christian church. Organizers had learned the night before that 100 migrants were headed to D.C. from Texas and Arizona — a much higher number than they had anticipated. They scrapped plans to gather at the coffee shop for food and rest, moving operations to the church. Organizers arranged mats on the church's linoleum floor for the children, expecting they'd be exhausted after an all-night bus ride.
(Organizers do not allow press or police inside the church as a safety precaution. But four organizers independently explained their efforts outside the church that Wednesday, and the church's pastor confirmed details.)
Megan Felix Macaraeg, another core organizer, welcomed migrants in English and Spanish as they arrived at the church. A teenager from Angola who arrived that day volunteered to translate the welcome into Portuguese and French. His welcome set a tone, Felix Macaraeg says, showing people that this is a space where they'll have security and agency.
"What they've experienced so far has been horrible," Felix Macaraeg says. "We want to give a really abundant, culturally-appropriate, warm welcome as if they're our family. For me, as a Catholic worker, that's what radical hospitality means. And for me, as a person who came to the United States during martial law in my own country [of the Philippines], that's what everybody deserves when they land here."
Shortly after 11 a.m., Felix Macaraeg left the church suddenly after a family arrived in distress — the father had been injured after protecting his wife from assault, they said. Felix Macaraeg took the family to their own home to decompress in private, and arranged for a doctor to come to the home, they told DCist.
"Of course things are a little more complicated in my household. Like, that's definitely true. But people have brought so much more joy and so much more resources," they say. "Migrants and refugees are not a burden to our communities."
True to most mutual aid, the organizers tend to be affiliated with multiple grassroots groups and their work is bolstered by advocacy on a variety of economic, immigration, LGBTQ+, and racial justice issues.
Felix Macaraeg secured the church, for example, through their work with the pastor on local sanctuary city legislation, and helped acquire meals through a food collective called the Beloved Community Incubator.
Migrants have been receiving medical care from Taylor, who is affiliated with Peace House DC and the D.C. Street Medic Collective. His work is informed by past experience treating people injured at police brutality protests during the summer of 2020, he says.
Taylor, who declined to give his last name to protect his privacy, says the migrants' care is free, and if they need more serious medical attention he connects them to doctors for further treatment. Many migrants are sick from water contamination after traveling the Darien Gap, a dangerous jungle that borders Colombia and Panama. He says that just like with the racial justice protesters, he tries to provide care that's as holistic as possible.
"A lot of [medical] people just take care of the actual wound or whatever itself and don't actually really check in with the person afterward," he says.
These efforts are expensive, and organizers say they aren't receiving any support from the federal or local government. Their work has cost roughly $90,000 in just over one month, according to Madhvi Bahl of Sanctuary DMV and Free Them All VA, and they're raising funds to sustain it as well as collecting donations of things like baby formula and clothing.
"Mayor Bowser is 100% failing at addressing an enormous humanitarian crisis in her own back yard," Felix Macaraeg says.
Organizers say they're frustrated that so much of this potentially life-saving work is falling entirely on them and a few nonprofits, and believe that the D.C. government should be doing more. The mayor's team did not respond to requests for comment.
"If the groups had not sprung to action to greet people as they were being dumped out of buses by Governor Abbott onto the side of the street, we would be facing a humanitarian crisis of proportions I can't even think about," Felix Macaraeg added.
Organizers serving food to migrants who recently arrived to D.C.
This dynamic played out on a recent Thursday night when Nee Nee Taylor, another core organizer and co-founder of Harriet's Wildest Dreams, quickly secured hotel rooms for roughly two dozen migrants because neither the local chapter of CARECEN or the government provided housing accommodations.
The group of migrants, which included several children and a pregnant woman, had unexpectedly arrived at Union Station at 9:30 p.m. Kate Brooke-Davidson of CARECEN says their nonprofit had already provided hotel rooms for migrants who arrived on three other buses earlier that day, and couldn't support any more people due to fiscal and staff constraints. Instead, they were going to offer the new arrivals sleeping bags as they stayed overnight at the station's waiting area. Brooke-Davidson says her group reached out to the Bowser administration for assistance, and was instructed to connect migrants to homeless shelters.
"It's inhumane," Taylor repeated to herself throughout the night, as she called and texted people in search of a solution.
Within two hours of Taylor arriving at Union Station, organizers had purchased hotel rooms for migrants, who cheered upon learning the news. Taylor had personally bought a bus ticket for the pregnant woman and her partner, who wanted to go to New York City after having traveled a long way from Ghana. While happy to support a Black family, she said organizers should not shoulder the crisis when the government has so many more resources.
Still, organizers believe their mutual aid model can provide something the government can't.
"We show up under the banner: Solidarity, not charity," says Huriya, who immigrated to the U.S. from Egypt roughly 14 years ago. "[The] solidarity model is we respect you for who you are. We respect your autonomy."
Huriya says that she always asks for permission before moving another person into a space with migrants who are already living there. Some people are confused by this, she says, and defer to her to make the decision as if she is the boss. But she explicitly tells them that when it comes to mutual aid, there is no hierarchy.
Organizers rigorously vet volunteers — no one affiliated with law enforcement is allowed, for example, and they work to prevent people who may simply be interested in photo-ops from joining the group.
"I am going to gatekeep a little bit because it can get exploitative very quickly," says Lilith, another organizer. Lilith also says they are working to grow the team to prevent burn out.
To further sustain the work, migrants who've decided to stay longer in D.C. are welcomed to join in on the efforts. Caro arrived at the church one day at sunrise to serve new arrivals food that she prepared herself: scrambled eggs, rice, and beans. She was pleased to see everyone clear their plate.
"I got to cook for everyone and I did it with pleasure," says Caro, who arrived in D.C. before Alejo, and was able to greet him with a warm meal.
Now, Caro and Alejo sometimes join Felix Macaraeg when they organize for other issues. The day before Mother's day, they rallied outside the homes of D.C. councilmembers, urging them to dedicate money in the city budget for excluded workers — which includes undocumented immigrants and people who work in the informal economy.
"We are always doing something. We are always busy," says Alejo, nestled onto Sarah's gray couch beside his partner.
"I see Washington as very lovely," adds Caro. "The most beautiful."
This story is from DCist.com, the local news site of WAMU.