In the basement of a church, a short walk from the US Capitol Building, Daniella rummages through a pile of donated clothing and picks out a pair of yellow pyjamas that appear to be her size.
The 23-year-old Venezuelan and her boyfriend have just arrived in Washington, DC, after a free 36-hour bus ride from Texas with several dozen others. Days earlier, the couple had applied for asylum in Texas after crossing the border with Mexico, citing dire economic and political conditions in their home country.
“Like many people here, we didn’t have enough money for a plane or bus ticket to our destination, so we took this free bus ride,” said Daniella, who spoke to Al Jazeera on condition that her last name be withheld. “We heard that here, we would get support and help to get where we need to go, which is New York.”
They are among more than 7,000 migrants who have been bused from Texas and Arizona to the nation’s capital since April, in what critics call a “political stunt” by the Republican governors of the two states to protest President Joe Biden’s border policies.
“By busing migrants to Washington, DC, Texas is sending a clear message: we should not have to bear the burden of the federal government’s inaction to secure the border,” Texas Governor Greg Abbott said in a statement in April.
Indeed, as the country gears up for midterm elections in November, Republicans have seized on the issue of record-breaking migrant arrivals to denounce the Biden administration’s handling of security at the US-Mexico border, slamming his efforts to overturn the anti-immigration legacy of former President Donald Trump.
Nim Kidd, the chief of the Texas Division of Emergency Management, which is responsible for the state’s emergency-response measures, said in late June that the state had spent $5.3m to send people to Washington, DC.
“Both Governor Abbott and Governor [Doug Ducey of Arizona] have made clear that this is a political stunt that they are carrying out to send a political message to the Biden administration, regardless of how much it costs the states of Texas and Arizona, or how it impacts the migrants or the people on the ground,” Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, the policy director at the American Immigration Council, told Al Jazeera.
“For migrants themselves, even those who voluntarily get on a bus to DC, being used as a political weapon is inherently degrading.”
A ‘racist stunt’
In the dining room of the church, whose officials asked Al Jazeera not to reveal its name because of security concerns, volunteers lay out food, clothing and hygiene kits for newly arriving migrants, many of whom are ultimately headed to other US destinations. Organisers take down people’s information and help them find shelter for the night, before coordinating their onward travel. This is one of several receiving sites in the city.
Volunteers aiding the new arrivals told Al Jazeera that dozens of buses have arrived since April, generally early in the morning or late at night, packed with hungry and exhausted asylum seekers mostly from Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua and Haiti.