After being bused to D.C., this migrant family struggles to make the region their home
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Juanita scoured the H&M in Downtown Silver Spring for something that looked warm enough – winter loomed, and it was already chilly on that dreary, rainy day in October. Her six-month-old had nothing to wear.
Ale, her husband, wandered the store, staring blankly at men's fleeces and down-filled puffer jackets in between glances at his cell phone. He was hoping to see a job listing come through – a request for a day laborer to do landscaping, or similar work.
"On the internet, you can look for work," he later recalled in Spanish. "But I haven't found anything like that for those of us who don't have papers."
Searching for jobs has become a daily ritual for Ale, 30. The trickle of money he earns through informal work – about $200 a day, when he can get hired– is the family's only sustenance. That weekend, he'd barely managed to find any work at all.
But the baby needed new clothes. All of them did. Originally from Cuba, they had nothing to get them through a D.C. winter.
"These kinds of boots are for the snow?" Juanita asked, carrying a women's size 7 in her hand.
"For the snow and for, um, rain," replied family friend Mara, pausing for a moment to remember the correct words in Spanish.
The boots were practical and seemed to fit. But there were other things to consider: No job, mounting expenses, and daily instability.
"There was almost no money," Juanita, 28, said later. "We couldn't buy anything."
Juanita put the boots back on the shelf, handing only a small pile of baby clothes to Mara, who went to the register and paid the $80.
Juanita and Ale are two of the thousands of migrants who have been bused to D.C. by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott or Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey since last spring. The Republican governors have employed the practice as a kind of defiant message to President Joe Biden's administration, which they say should be responsible for the flow of people seeking asylum at the country's southern border. But it's often decried by Democrats as cruel, intent on using vulnerable migrants as pawns in a political debate.
The three-day bus ride can also be punishing for migrants, with people sleeping on the floor or eating nothing but crackers on the long ride. But for some, it's also a free ride closer to a desired destination near family or friends – or one that simply provides a more welcoming environment than the one they found in Texas or Arizona.
For nearly a year now, volunteers in the District and its surrounding suburbs have largely taken charge of receiving the migrants (they used to arrive at D.C.'s Union Station, though recently groups of migrants have been regularly dropped off at Vice President Kamala Harris's residence). The federal government has awarded money to an international nonprofit called SAMU First response to help receive and temporarily house migrants. But local volunteers say they've formed the backbone of the operation, and they need more government help.
To top it off, hundreds of migrants who arrive here opt to stay and try to build a life in this region – including Juanita and Ale.
For the last eight months, the couple has been crowded into Mara's one-thousand-square foot townhouse in Montgomery County with their baby. Their close friend, Pocho, who arrived in D.C. on a later bus, also stayed there for roughly six months. All four adults requested only first names or nicknames appear in this article, for fear of jeopardizing the family's immigration cases.
Since then, the family has struggled to manifest what feels like an impossible dream: a steady job and their own home. Even essentials like food and health care are hard to come by because they don't have consistent work – they haven't yet managed to file for asylum, and so don't have work permits. That process can take months (if not years) due to a backlogged immigration system, according to attorneys familiar with the process.
Moreover, like many migrants bused to the city, they lack any connections at all in the area: no family and no friends that can help them get on their feet. Local government officials say for this reason it's been more challenging to resettle this wave of immigrants.
The family have had to depend, instead, on Mara, a volunteer and relative stranger whom they met for the first time last May, shortly after local groups created an emergency response operation for arriving migrants. Mara received a phone call from a volunteer one day asking if she had the space to host a couple, including a woman who was eight months pregnant.
"I thought for about 30 seconds and I was like 'Yes'," Mara says. "I was nervous that we didn't have everything we needed. How am I going to feed them? Do I have groceries for tomorrow? I was just thinking [about] logistics, and [I was] really excited."
Mara and the family met at a church where volunteers offer migrants respite after they are dropped off in the city. Juanita and Ale were organizing clothes that volunteers had donated when Mara spotted them. They were quick to embrace. Mara offered the couple a spare bedroom in her apartment, and Pocho made do in the downstairs living room before eventually moving out.
"I had roommates for years and [several] months ago I decided I'm going to be a grown up and live alone as a middle aged woman," the 42-year-old health-care worker said jokingly in September. "I've been used to living with people in the house for a long time. This is just a few more people."
There are dozens of locals like Mara who spend their time helping migrants-turned-residents, some like her who are volunteers and others who are nonprofit staffers that partner with the D.C. or Montgomery County governments. Mara is a volunteer with the Migrant Solidarity Mutual Aid Network, a coalition of local activists that facilitates emergency and resettlement services.
Since taking the family into her home last year, Mara has done a lot more than provide them shelter: She's been instrumental in helping them navigate the bureaucratic tangle of the region's social safety net. It's complicated for recently arrived migrants, who often lack the asylum status or residency required to qualify for government programs. Finding and applying for those programs also requires patience, institutional knowledge, and sometimes proficiency in English.
"I see them working so hard," says Mara of the family, "doing everything that they can."
"I'm ashamed as a country we can't be better hosts," she continues. "I try to extend my own hospitality but why isn't my country backing me up on that?"
The family doesn't make light of Mara welcoming them into her home. Juanita called Mara her "guardian angel"– shortly after they met, she even asked Mara to be her daughter's godmother. When it came time to deliver the baby, Mara arranged for a hospital visit, and made sure emergency Medicaid paid for Juanita's three-day stay.
"She is the baby's second mother," Juanita says. "When we got here, she was the one who welcomed us without knowing us. She's like a mother to me, imagine for the baby."
Getting Juanita and the baby the care they needed was anything but simple, Mara says. It took weeks to secure the first appointment through Montgomery County's maternity program. The family is also still on a waitlist for Montgomery Cares, which provides primary care to uninsured residents regardless of immigration status.
"We say these programs exist but they are not large enough or funded enough or I don't know what it is but you can't actually get the care," Mara says.
For Juanita, the lengths that Mara has gone through to not only help her give birth but to raise a baby in a new country means the world. She says her daughter will be raised to be thankful for her acts of kindness.
"I owe her my life," says a teary-eyed Juanita. "I don't work and she's the one who helps me with everything for the baby. The pampers, the medicine, everything because my husband doesn't work every day. Every time the baby needs something, she's the one to help me."
Back in Cuba, the group says they struggled economically and often went without electricity. They also say they could not protest their living conditions out of fear of the government incarcerating them or worse. Instead, they sold all their belongings for a chance to escape on a plane to Nicaragua.
"The Cubans are desperate to leave Cuba," Pocho says. "That government is destroying the people and it doesn't care."
The family endured a months-long journey across Central America that cost them several thousand dollars. It was also extremely dangerous, they said.
"There are people who die on the way. Others are raped, others are robbed. Everything you can imagine. It's like a horror film," Ale says. "You leave with the expectation that you'll make it, but you don't really know if you'll make it."
The journey can be merciless, but they say it's worth it for their daughter. According to Juanita, even basic necessities like diapers are in short supply back home.
"Here [in the U.S.], I have the opportunity to give her what a human being deserves," Ale says.
"A dignified life," interrupts Juanita. "In Cuba, there is no possibility of anything."
"It's a pride to be in this beautiful country," Juanita adds. "It has flaws like everything else but it's a pride, an advancement, a privilege, an honor. It's the greatest thing in the world for us to be here where we are."
But the family's future is still rife with uncertainty. The U.S immigration system is difficult to navigate – even with legal representation, Ale says. Despite limited cash at their disposal, the family hired a private attorney who advised them to either file for asylum or apply for legal status through the Cuban Adjustment Act.
"There is absolutely no guarantee that anybody who is seeking asylum or any other type of humanitarian protection is going to be approved," says Arielle Chapnick, a staff attorney at Whitman-Walker Health Legal Services who does not represent Ale but has worked with migrants who were bused to D.C.
Other experts say migrants like Ale are in a particularly tough spot. Cuba recently agreed to begin accepting migrants deported from the U.S. back into the country, after having stopped at the beginning of the pandemic. Ernesto Castañeda, the director for the Immigration Lab at American University, says that change has left Cubans with even fewer options for a stable future.
"Now, being sent back is going to put them in a worse situation than the one they were in before they left," Castañeda says. "So many of them are going to end up leaving again to go to other places to try to make a living or escape political persecution."
Migrants who arrive in the United States typically have one year to apply for asylum. Once the application has been filed and is pending for at least 150 days, asylum seekers can apply for a work permit that becomes approvable about a month later. The work permit then has to be renewed as needed while the asylum application remains pending.
Chapnick says the process can get very lengthy. Most migrants nowadays have to attend deportation proceedings, and it can take as long as five years before they can present their case before a judge. Meanwhile, some people have been waiting since 2015 for an asylum interview.
According to a report from TRAC, an organization that gathers data on the U.S. immigration system, the number of asylum seekers waiting for a hearing has now reached more than 1.5 million nationwide.
Ale is unsure of what's happening with his family's immigration case. The family had an initial hearing scheduled in a Baltimore immigration court at the end of October, but he says it's been pushed back a year. While Ale knows they need to file for asylum by May, he says he doesn't know much else when it comes to the U.S. immigration system.
"Everything depends on what [my lawyer] tells me," Ale says.
Pocho, too, has yet to apply for asylum. His wife and 9-year-old son arrived in D.C. at the start of the year, and he moved out of Mara's two-bedroom apartment to live with them. Pocho's family was offered a hotel room through the D.C. government's shelter program, where they're all making do.
"It is very difficult to live here," Pocho says. "But I'd rather live four or five lifetimes here than one lifetime in Cuba."
So while the entire family is allowed to be in the U.S. legally, they – along with countless people in similar situations – are in a kind of limbo, without any real assurances of getting to stay. That has them left struggling to make ends meet.
"[Migrants] still have to try and make some money, so they're forced to work under the table," Chapnick says. "They can be taken advantage of, exploited, not paid fair wages, not paid any wages... And then when you couple that with the super high cost of living in Washington, D.C. and the surrounding areas, it's a recipe for disaster."
The local governments for Montgomery County and D.C. have offered temporary shelter and case management, knowing migrants struggle to be self-sufficient in part due to their immigration status. But those resources came months into the busing program – at first, Mayor Muriel Bowser punted responsibility for the migrants to the federal government. In September, she eventually declared a local emergency and created an office to care for newly arrived migrants, particularly those with children.
Consequently, families like Juanita and Ale – who arrived in the early weeks of the busing program – fell through the cracks and have instead had to rely on the generosity of mutual aid.
The indefinite housing support the family has received from Mara is uncommon, says core organizer Amy Yi, though many volunteers continue to stay in touch with families they helped on their feet.
"While people may not be able to host indefinitely, they'll still invite them over for meals or they'll still be in touch. They'll still find ways to connect with each other and be able to spend time together," says Yi. "These are people that you care about."
In addition to the roughly 100 migrants sheltered in informal or volunteer-supported housing, a D.C. spokesperson says approximately 858 adults and children are being housed in hotel rooms paid for by the government. Still, organizers say that the government needs to step up its resettlement efforts, because providing a temporary hotel room for migrant families is not enough.
"It can be really hard to like to stabilize yourself," says core organizer Jennie Saldana. "It's not always as simple as 'Well, you're in your apartment now. You're all good. You'll be fine.' People struggle to find work. Sometimes, they might lose their job. They might get sick or have an injury. They're getting used to paying for all the things that they need."
Still, even given all these struggles, word has gotten out about the robust support for migrants in the D.C. area – so much so that local Texas-based groups have begun flying migrants out directly, according to the Migrant Solidarity Mutual Aid Network.
Day-to-day, Juanita, Ale, and Mara are getting by. For Christmas, Mara gifted Juanita, Ale, and Pocho some winter clothes. They also received donated clothes through mutual aid.
The days pass easily for Juanita, who usually spends her time in Mara's apartment, caring for her infant, marveling at seemingly mundane events given that she's a first-time mom.
She uses any free time when the baby is sleeping to clean the house or prepare dinner before everyone else returns home from work. Mara says she no longer eats microwavable dinners – instead she's eating home-cooked meals like stew or meat with rice and beans.
Ale leaves the apartment for a worker center at the break of dawn, vying for work. He has recently been getting work as a handyman for a resident in the area, who has taken to calling him directly with jobs. But it still doesn't pay much.
The family huddles together around the television in the living room most weekday evenings to watch U.S. shows with Spanish subtitles. One of their favorites is a sports drama called All American on Netflix. Mara wants to take the family out and show them Latinx neighborhoods, but she says she sometimes has trouble identifying places that might resonate with the family culturally because she's white. The family appreciates Mara's effort. They say they want to see what D.C. has to offer, being young and full of energy.
The family also seeks fun and joy wherever they can. That Sunday in October, after the H&M trip, levity came in the form of mojitos and croquetas, some of the things they miss from home. They visited Mi Cuba Cafe in Columbia Heights, where the music was almost loud enough to muffle the boisterous group. After being seated, they teased about the fact that only one of the staff there is actually Cuban. Still, they enjoyed the moment.
"¡Mara, salud!" started Juanita, Ale and Pocho following suit.
At one point in the evening, Ale taught Mara to dance salsa, and Juanita and the Cuban server traded stories about how difficult it can be to arrive in a new country with little to no help.
"That's the characteristic of us Cubans: To be a fighter and a winner means that what we want, we achieve," Juanita says.
After learning that the trio made their way to D.C. on the infamous migrant buses, the Cuban server asked for Juanita's cell phone number. She empathized with what they've been through, and offered her own daughter's old clothes for the baby girl. It's a gesture that will go a long way for the family who needs all the help they can get – including indefinite support from their host.
"My goddaughter is not staying at a homeless shelter," Mara says.
This post has been updated to reflect that Juanita qualified for Montgomery County's maternity program.
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