Recent decisions by governors in Texas, Florida and Arizona to bus asylum seekers to Democratic-run cities like Washington, D.C.; Chicago; and New York have drawn fierce criticism across the country. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is among several Christian denominations and social justice organizations calling the move purely political and manipulating individuals seeking a new life.
For months, busloads of asylum seekers have been transported to these cities with little or no notice to impacted communities. Some of the higher profile drop-offs have included in front of Vice President Kamala Harris’ home in D.C. and Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. Many of the nonprofit and volunteer organizations in the impacted cities say they are overwhelmed by the arrivals, leaving many of the travelers to fend for themselves.
Amanda Craft, manager of immigration advocacy for the Office of the General Assembly, says she’s been in contact with several Presbyterians in some of the receiving cities, including The New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C.
“The church has offered a respite center one day per week. Members and friends of the congregation receive and care for asylum seekers during their stay. Several buses were arriving each week at the height of the movement,” she said. “But that has slowed down. Some weeks they don’t have anyone coming through. It’s not consistent.”
Craft adds that initially, it was a scramble in D.C. to provide assistance, but now it’s coordinated.
“They usually know at least 10 hours in advance if a bus is coming. So, there’s been coordination among groups,” she said. “Asylum seekers are responsible for getting from the border to their destination, most often to be with family or friends. Some asylum seekers choose to take the government-funded bus because it gets them closer.”
Churches in other communities, according to Craft, have a variety of responses in how they are ministering to the travelers who come to their communities.
“Presbyterians are trying to fill the need where they can. Some offer space in their church if available. Other services include providing meals, providing some activities for children, helping to find clothing for people and arranging travel from the city they arrive to the location they’re heading to. That’s been the compassionate response,” Craft said. “Like the Presbytery of Chicago, many are also urging advocacy efforts to change policies. There’s the compassion reception for folks with urgent needs and there’s also the pushing of lawmakers to review how asylum seekers enter the immigration system and how they’re treated through that system.”
Craft says she’s disappointed that the Biden administration has not been able to make more headway in clearing the way for immigrants coming into the U.S.
“There are times when states step in with litigation that makes it challenging, but the Biden administration hasn’t necessarily been willing to push back and has made agreements with Mexico to keep people there,” she said. “There are steps the administration has taken that have prompted many to question whether leaders are willing to take political risks to do the right thing.”
Craft says she’s hearing that 10% to 15% of the migrants arriving in D.C. want to stay there, which could pose some problems.
“D.C. has not been a community that has generally been a feasible place to settle for migrants. It’s very expensive and there’s not much of a labor market for those arriving,” she said. “Community leaders are asking, how do we become a place where we can be a long-term city of welcome? There are places outside the city where migrants live, but not typically in D.C. proper. There has been some push for city council to respond and open an office, but so far city officials are focused on the short-term response. There will be long-term needs that they haven’t wrapped their heads around yet.”
For those interested in doing more to support immigrants coming to the U.S., Craft advises individuals to connect with their elected officials and be sure to think about that as they go to the polls this November.
“If 50% of asylum seekers (for those who have access to legal counsel) are going to be returned to their home countries, what is going to happen when those cases are not decided in their favor? We have not legislatively responded to the question about long-term residents who may find themselves undocumented,” she said. “We must figure these pieces out as people invest in community, invest in being part of churches. This is a place where I hope Presbyterians can be creative, supportive and persistent. We do not want to witness people pushed into the shadows as status becomes inaccessible. It is another piece we will need to continue urging lawmakers to change.”