The Cuban man stepped wearily off the bus after the long journey to Washington DC, expecting to see an official or a volunteer with information on the next steps for him and his fellow passengers.
Instead, he was greeted by TV news crews. Texas officials had tipped off conservative media – but not anyone who could offer practical assistance – that the latest group of asylum seekers they were unilaterally and controversially dispatching from the US-Mexico border would be dropped off outside US vice-president Kamala Harris’s residence.
“¿Nos usaron entonces?” he later said, frustrated, to volunteer Claudia Tristán when she caught up with the people she was trying to help, she told the Guardian. It translates to “so they used us?”
Tristán is the immigration campaign director for the grassroots advocacy group MomsRising/MamásConPoder, but she also volunteers with a mutual aid group.
Members have been dashing into the nation’s capital pre-dawn to meet the busloads of asylum seekers that the Texas, Arizona and now Florida governors have been sending north without any liaison with the places they end up, in a deepening political, legal and ethical scandal.
On the brisk early fall morning earlier this month, volunteers had been waiting at 6am where the buses normally rolled up. They waited and waited, but no buses. As 7am approached, some volunteers reluctantly had to leave for their day jobs.
Then, Tristán was sent a tweet showing that a bus had suddenly arrived miles away, at the vice-president’s official residence, the US Naval Observatory on busy Massachusetts Avenue, where the buses had never shown up before.
She jumped into her car and raced across town. Her fellow volunteers with the mutual aid group Sanctuary DMV, an organization focused on helping migrants in Washington DC, Maryland and Virginia, hurried there too.
“It was morning rush hour. The streets were filled with regular commuters heading into work,” Tristán said.
When she made it there, she was the first to arrive with assistance, and the first person she locked eyes with was a bewildered mother holding her baby in a Red Cross blanket.
“Everyone was completely confused,” Tristán said.
Once she enthusiastically announced to passengers “welcome to our nation’s capital,” there was a visceral moment of relief as they gravitated toward her, she said. It was “almost a breath that they released, because someone was going to give them answers,” Tristán added.
“One of the most important things is being there to welcome families with a smile and a ‘buenos días’ the moment they step off the bus,” she said. “Many have told us we’re the first friendly faces they’ve seen in days, if not weeks.”
But she lamented her organization’s late response: “We weren’t there, because politicians in Texas chose instead to create a spectacle for television crews rather than show humanity toward asylum seekers by alerting volunteer networks to the change of location. [They] left people like that mother having to closely clutch their infant during those chilly morning hours, while hoping help would come.”
Normally the mutual aid groups give a formal welcome to the new arrivals about who they are and what they do. They offer provisions such as food, water, clothing, breastfeeding necessities and help with communication and further travel. Where needed, groups such as MomsRising/MamásConPoder, which typically focus on boosting family economic security and women’s rights, will provide further advocacy where they can.
“Unfortunately, many boarded the buses with little to no information about where they were going, where Washington DC is and what would happen when they got here. They told us they had been herded like animals,” Tristán said.
Typically, the asylum seekers are given a hot breakfast and a chance to rest at a group respite center after being on a bus for two or more days, then volunteers speak with each family or party individually to begin an intake process, explaining rights and options.
Tristán often picks up bagels for the new arrivals on her way meet the buses. She also posts on Twitter in protest.
Or explain what an asylum seeker is.
Washington mayor Muriel Bowser earlier this month declared a temporary emergency because of the thousands of people being bussed without consultation into the district. New York, Chicago and even Martha’s Vineyard also more recently became unannounced destinations.
Tristán noted that nonprofits and mutual aid groups are working around the clock to fill gaps where the authorities fall short. Volunteers have been putting up asylum seekers on their couches or in a spare bedroom or basement, or raising money to fund bed and breakfast stays, especially when city shelters are full.
“The community has stepped in when no one else does,” said Tristán.