Column: Lack of federal representation imperils D.C.’s support for migrants

Whether in Martha’s Vineyard or D.C., cities and towns across the country have struggled to respond to an influx of migrants that Republican governors have sent as part of a foolish, cruel and inhumane attempt to protest President Joe Biden’s border control policy this summer. The United States has received record numbers of migrants in recent months, and busing these human beings to cities that were ill-prepared to handle such an influx has worsened their living situations. But unlike other cities, the structure of the District and its relationship to the federal government is making it harder to provide food, water, housing and legal aid to the thousands of people who have found themselves in a city that they may not have intended to enter.

Mayor Muriel Bowser declared a state of limited emergency in D.C. last month to address migrants’ basic needs. While the city created the Office of Migrant Services last month to aid asylum seekers with $10 million in contingency funds, it also looked to federal authorities for assistance – Bowser stressed that the city can’t address a national issue on its own while dealing with other issues, like homelessness. But with a steady increase in migrants and no guarantee of federal help, D.C. must organize its response to house, defend and support these migrants.

D.C.’s reliance on the federal government has hamstrung its ability to respond to this crisis. The Pentagon rejected Bowser’s request earlier this summer to deploy 150 members of the National Guard to help process migrants and refugees. While the National Guard is usually under the command of the state or territory governor, that’s not the case in D.C. – the president and Department of Defense assume the responsibility that Mayor Bowser would otherwise have. The condition of federal oversight listed above is just one example of how the District differs from other governments with statehood. Without voting representation in Congress, D.C. missed out on millions of dollars of federal COVID-19 relief in March 2020 because lawmakers grouped the city with U.S. territories rather than with states in the bill’s funding calculations.

Although the mayor’s office is just a stone’s throw from the White House and a short walk from Capitol Hill, federal officials are turning a blind eye to the migrant crisis D.C. is facing. Bowser has said that aiding and welcoming immigrants to D.C. is a top priority, but that priority needs money, staff and other resources to become reality. Denying Bowser’s requests for National Guard assistance and failing to reimburse the city for covering migrants’ needs ignores how much her administration is working to address this crisis and strains that response even further.

If D.C. can’t rely on federal funding to help address the issues migrants are facing, it’ll have to stretch every dollar to its limit and rely on local residents and organizations to assist in resettling incoming migrants. Nongovernmental and charitable organizations are a second line of defense to serve and support migrants and their families in ways the government can’t. Overworked and underfunded organizations like SAMU First Response provide migrants with food, water, shelter, legal consultations, translation services and more. While the Office of Migrant Services is theoretically doing the same, shifting funding from there to organizations that have experience and more established relationships with community members would be more effective.

D.C.’s lack of representation and resulting lack of funding have limited its ability to support migrants, leaving them without the resources they need to survive and thrive in the nation’s capital or at their final destination within the country. D.C. is, as the mayor’s declaration indicates, in a state of emergency. Migrants are human beings and deserve all the aid they require, whether it be legal assistance, a change of clothes or something to eat. Both the federal and local governments should be doing everything in their power to provide this assistance, especially considering that D.C. may not be every individual’s final destination in the U.S.

This is a crisis that requires immediate attention – the federal government should take seriously the call to action from Bowser and nongovernmental agencies alike. But barring federal intervention, D.C.’s residents will need to take action to defend their new neighbors whether they intend to make a new life here or are simply passing through. Migrant rights are human rights, and human rights belong to every individual regardless of where they might come from.

Jessica Rich, a freshman studying political psychology, is an opinions writer.

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