Concerns in D.C. grow as temporary migrant housing reaches capacity

Oct. 4, 2023, 6:57 p.m. | By Alex Feingold-Black | 9 months, 2 weeks ago

The recent influx of migrants to D.C. via busing creates numerous challenges and reveals the nation's unpreparedness to support migrants

Temporary migrant housing in D.C. reaches capacity; concerns grow as more migrants are turned to the streets. (Sandor Csudai | | Creative Commons) Photo courtesy of Sandor Csudai.

Exploitation of employees, child labor, and civil-rights abuses are issues people often consider things of the past. However, the recent influx of migration to the U.S. reveals that these issues are still relevant today.

Over the past few months, hundreds of thousands of migrants have entered the U.S. However, the nation demonstrates that it is not prepared to welcome and support the vast numbers of migrants. This has led to numerous concerns such as reaching max capacity for migrant housing and lacking laws that protect migrants from exploitation.

Operation Lone Star 

In April 2022, Texas Governor Greg Abbott launched Operation Lone Star, which drastically increased security at the Mexican-US border enforced by the Border Patrol to prevent illegal immigration. The operation, however, has been rife with human rights abuses. Over 600 migrants have died in the U.S.-Mexico border zone in 2023 alone. Border Patrol also often permanently confiscates migrants’ passports, birth certificates, and other personal documents that are necessary for migrants’ asylum cases.

One of the main reasons behind Abbott's launch of Operation Lone Star was to pressure the Biden administration to enact tougher immigration policies. With the influx of immigrants to the U.S. over the past few years, Abbott began sending migrants on buses from the Mexican-U.S. border to D.C. and other major cities such as Chicago and New York. Since then, over 25,000 migrants have been bused from Texas by Abbott to major democratic cities.

Jadel Contreras is a Venezuelan immigrant living right outside of D.C. He migrated to the U.S. with his wife and two kids after completing a harrowing journey through Central and South America. Upon finally arriving in the U.S. in July 2022, he and his family were involuntarily bused to D.C. along with hundreds of other recently arrived migrants. 

“[We had] absolutely nothing. No food, no water, nothing. And the ride, we didn’t know any English…One lady from Mexico helped us…she sold us chicken and gave us money. Every time the bus stopped, we bought something for the kids,” Contreras recalls. They were on the bus for five days. They were not provided any food, water, or supplies, and had to survive with the help of another migrant.

Capacity concerns

Many cities were not prepared to receive vast numbers of immigrants. Local and federal governments had not yet implemented policies to allocate necessary resources and funds to house vast amounts of migrants. As of May 2023, D.C. reached temporary housing capacity for migrants, raising additional concerns about the inability to provide for the surge. Incoming migrants have had to sleep in cars, on the street, or wherever they can. Some migrants have been routed to the Salvation Army Building in D.C. for temporary housing, but it is unknown how many migrants are there or how long they can stay.

The Contreras family was fortunate enough to have a connection with someone they knew in D.C. when they arrived. There was much more support and resources available for those who arrived last year. “My friend Daniel was already here. When he arrived, they left him in the capital, on a bus,” Contreras says.

The concerns about the overflow of temporary housing for migrants are not a D.C.-specific issue: it is affecting other major cities, notably New York and Chicago. In fact, so many migrants have been routed to New York – more than 100,000 since spring 2022 – that New York shelters are now dumping out migrants to discourage more arrivals.

Evidently, the U.S. lacks an adequate system to manage and support incoming migrants. The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) Director of immigration policy, Shannon Lederer, explains that to allow immigrants to flourish in the U.S., there must be a structure in place to welcome them. “Having immigrants and refugees and asylum seekers arrive can be great for… our communities, for our workforce. But, that requires us to have the proper support in place… to welcome them humanely and to help them integrate into life in a totally new environment safely,” she says. 

Migrant exploitation

A constant issue more prevalent with the migration influx is the exploitation of migrants. Lederer explains that without a work permit, employers hold more power over migrants. Thus, employers can exploit them for more – often dangerous – work for less pay, and even abuse them. “Any immigrant – recent arrival or not – who lacks formal work authorization has a heightened risk for abuse and exploitation. Employers…violate the laws [by exploiting migrants] when they think that there's less risk of facing consequences for it,” she says. 

Additionally, state and federal authorities have recently discovered and investigated more and more cases of migrant child labor. Due to the pressure on migrant children to send money back home, the lack of correct documentation – as they are often confiscated at the border – and the absence of laws to protect migrant children, child labor still occurs in numerous facilities across the nation.

To prevent migrant worker exploitation, Lederer emphasizes the importance of granting migrants work authorization when they arrive. “It is really important for us to figure out ways to expedite getting people their work authorization so that we reduce that period of vulnerability,” she urges.

To tackle the root problem of migrant exploitation, George Escobar, Chief of Programs and Services at CASA, an organization that provides human services and advocates for working-class minorities, explains that many people must change their perspective on migrants’ effect on U.S. society. “[One must] look at immigrants as a resource, and look at immigrants as partners, instead of being a victim of the right-wing perspective of looking at consumption of resources,” Escobar says.

Organization involvement

Since the federal and local governments, including D.C.'s, lack the resources to support migrants with basic needs, the burden to provide for them has fallen into the hands of local and national organizations. 

One of these organizations, D.C.’s SAMU First Response, is the capital’s primary response to treating migrants when first arriving. The organization fills in where the government can’t, having served over 10,000 migrants, and providing them with temporary shelter and food.

Other prominent organizations in the DC area include CASA and Migrant Solidarity Mutual Aid Network, which offer every type of resource to migrants imaginable, ranging from legal services to vocational training to meals and shelter.

Taking action

While governments and organizations have contributed greatly to aiding migrants, there is still much more work to be done.

Lederer explains that there are two main steps in ensuring migrants are able to live independently. “The two main things that we have to work on are getting the resources to folks, and then trying to help ensure that they have the support and the tools that they need, including work authorization, to, as quickly as possible, be able to support themselves and their families,” she says. 

Additionally, many migrants do not have access to health insurance, making work and living treacherous. CASA and other organizations are pushing for the government to provide migrants with basic public benefits. “One of the things that we're really pushing for at all levels, both from local and the state level, and hopefully at the federal level, is really inclusion of immigrants in all their public benefits, making sure that immigration status is not a barrier to enrolling and benefits,” Escobar says.

The greatest change, however, that needs to happen is the increase in advocacy and volunteer work from the public. Volunteering at organizations and being an ally, in general, can greatly improve the lives of migrants by supporting them with resources to thrive in U.S. society. “What we ask for a lot of folks is to be an ally of the American struggle. There's a lot of things for which we really need help in raising awareness among legislators, among different policymakers to understand the needs of our community and where we need to improve to create more just laws,” Escobar says. 

D.C. Migrant Support Organizations:

Amnesty International

Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition 


Migrant Solidarity Mutual Aid Network

SAMU First Response

Last updated: Oct. 5, 2023, 8:24 p.m.

Alex Feingold-Black. Hey! I'm Alex [he/him] and I'm the Feature Editor and External Manager for SCO. Outside of school you can find me running laps around a track and eating from Potbelly's Sandwich Shop. More »

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