A local church offers immediate respite to migrant families who are bused from Arizona and Texas. Some families looking to stay in D.C. are sheltered at hotel rooms paid for by local volunteers or city government.
NoMa's Hampton Inn – a hotel D.C. uses for COVID-19 isolation and temporary quarantine for unhoused Washingtonians – has effectively become a family shelter for asylum seekers sent to D.C. by red state governors, according to multiple migrants and their advocates.
While migrants have expressed gratitude for shelter, their advocates say they're not receiving the care or resources typically offered to unhoused residents in the city. The District only provides a hotel room and three meals a day, says Mariel Vallano of the Migrant Solidarity Mutual Aid Network, so local volunteers have had to facilitate anything else migrants might need.
"The city promotes the narrative that they're only here temporarily," says Vallano, a DC Public Schools teacher who volunteered her summer welcoming migrant families arriving at Union Station and kept in touch with them as they settled in the city. "However, the families are staying. ... They have no contacts in the United States and they have nowhere else to go."
Additionally, migrants who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of losing their shelter described negative experiences at Hampton Inn, including stringent restrictions on their movement thanks to the hotel's use as temporary quarantine. They also allege discriminatory treatment from hotel security that has resulted in at least one police complaint.
Neither a spokesperson for Mayor Muriel Bowser nor the D.C. Department of Human Services, which is responsible for the temporary isolation and quarantine sites, responded to repeated requests for comment or provided answers to this reporter's questions about all the accusations of unfair treatment.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott started to bus migrants to D.C. in April in order to protest the Biden administration's immigration policies; Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey soon followed suit. Bowser has repeatedly described the charter buses of migrants as a humanitarian crisis, but also as a federal problem in need of a federal solution. "Cities alone cannot solve a broken immigration system," Bowser said during a press conference Monday. "We are going to do everything that we can to have a humane setting for people who are coming through our city to their final destinations."
Local volunteers and councilmembers, including Ward 1's Brianne Nadeau, have taken issue with Bowser's characterization. Ten to 15% of the several thousand migrants sent to D.C. decide to stay indefinitely, and those people are in need of resources, particularly because they cannot legally work due to their immigration status, they say. The migrants are largely supported by a network of volunteers and an international nonprofit called SAMU First Response, which is receiving federal dollars to provide temporary assistance.
The Bowser administration has requested National Guard help – though they've now been denied twice – and provided shelter to dozens of families at Hampton Inn and Days Inn (the latter of which is not used as a quarantine shelter). But the hotels lack adequate resources for unhoused families, advocates contend. For example, migrants are not receiving case managers or counseling, which is offered to unhoused residents at family shelters. There are a variety of local programs, related to health care and food, that the migrants might qualify for with proactive case management.
It's unclear why D.C. is placing migrant families at hotels instead of the traditional family shelter system, because city officials did not respond to media requests. Some single men who arrived on the chartered buses have stayed at the city's shelters; unlike single men, however, families have to go to a central intake center in order to access one of the city's seven family shelters. When volunteers working with migrants tried to access the shelters through the standard process, families were instead placed at hotels.
Just over 100 of the 262 slots in short-term family housing were available as of July 31, according to a report from the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness. It's also unclear how long migrant families have to live in D.C. until they can access a traditional family shelter or enroll in the city's Continuum of Care program and receive comprehensive services.
In 2020, D.C. ended its practice of systematically sheltering unhoused families in hotels, which were referred to as "cells" and often criticized for being unsafe and unclean. The city now only houses families experiencing homelessness in smaller shelters designed to be more inviting. Inside the shelters, there are community rooms with books and games, and outside in the courtyard, sometimes even a playground.
A migrant tells DCist/WAMU they wish their children had a playroom because they are stuck in their Hampton Inn rooms watching television. They say Vallano has provided donations for families, including diapers, milk and clothes for babies, and toys for children.
"As an adult, we know how things are. But I am thinking of the children's wellbeing," the migrant tells DCist/WAMU in Spanish. "We can't complain about what we have. We have to settle for what there is."
The city only just told migrants that children living at the hotels can enroll in public schools, and it took weeks of pushing for communication from volunteers, according to Vallano. A DC Public Schools spokesperson confirmed officials will visit hotels this week to enroll students and assess their needs. Vallano worries migrant students will not have all the services afforded to other unhoused students given disparate treatment thus far, but DCPS spokesperson Enrique Gutierrez stresses "DCPS is eager to serve all families."
Until recently, city officials at the Hampton Inn were relying on Vallano to communicate with families, because they aren't fluent in Spanish and needed her to translate, she says.
"The families and the DHS staff would call me ...50 to 100 times a day because there are so many families and because the staff at that time was completely unable to communicate with them with no bilingual support," says Vallano, who also shared text messages that corroborate her claims. The DC Public Schools teacher is not a hired translator, although she has experience supporting Spanish speakers in her professional life. The city just hired bilingual staff this month, she adds.
The Hampton Inn in particular also heavily restricts residents' movement, Vallano and two migrants told DCist/WAMU. Migrants are not allowed to have any visitors or visit one another in each other's rooms, according to a photograph of a two-page document of restrictions printed and passed out to all the migrants at Hampton Inn. Residents are also not allowed to have keys to their rooms, and must ask staff at reception to get into their rooms, according to the document.
The document says the restrictions are intended to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but they have had negative consequences: One migrant living in the hotel tells DCist/WAMU that they were brought to tears when an immigration official looking to confirm their residency and answer other questions was unable to visit them – they worried it would compromise their case to stay in the country.
Vallano says it also means that large families who live across multiple rooms struggle to visit or provide child care for one another. The restrictions have also led to at least one altercation between security and migrant families.
A migrant tells DCist/WAMU that a security guard who didn't speak Spanish became aggressive when a visiting friend tried to leave to return to their own hotel room. According to an Aug. 8 police report, a person of Latino descent living at the hotel "reported that the staff at the listed location are being rude to them and cursing at them without cause." The alleged victim claimed "they are being mistreated by the staff ... because of their ethnicity." An MPD spokesperson says they are not investigating the incident any further because no crime was committed.
Despite some negative experiences, the migrant tells DCist/WAMU in Spanish that they want to settle down in D.C. with their child. They have nowhere else to go, they said, but they also have met some good people like Vallano. "This city appears to be peaceful," they add. "We've had some opportunities. They have called me to take a course in English. I am interested in that. And I've met some people that are very nice."
This story is from DCist.com, the local news site of WAMU.