NEW YORK – Weary of Venezuela's autocratic government and the pittance he earned in the military, Dario Maldonado deserted and fled with his family to neighboring Colombia.
But life remained hard — money was tight and expenses mounted. So he set off for the United States, an odyssey that required him to travel by foot through Central American jungle infested with venomous snakes and gun-toting bandits, sometimes sidestepping the corpses of people who died on the same journey.
Now Maldonado and thousands of other asylum seekers from across Latin America and the Caribbean are caught in the political battle over U.S. immigration policy after two Republican governors started sending busloads of migrants to New York City and Washington.
Border cities such as San Diego have long wrestled with influxes of asylum-seekers and created well-oiled machines to respond, but the nation's largest city and its capital were caught flat-footed. That created an opening for Greg Abbott of Texas and Doug Ducey of Arizona to exploit what they consider failed Democratic leadership.
Nearly 8,000 migrants have arrived on the state-sponsored bus trips, straining the resources and humanitarian services of both cities, which have also sought assistance from the federal government.
“This can be chaotic. But we want to send a message: We’re here to help, and we want to put politics aside,” said New York City’s immigration commissioner, Manuel Castro, as he greeted arriving migrants on a recent morning.
Abbott started the practice in April with Washington, and Doug Ducey followed suit in May. Abbott also recently began sending buses to New York.
For migrants, the politics are only dimly understood — and far less relevant than finding temporary shelter, jobs and a long-term home in America.
“I have heard that the Texas governor is anti-immigrant,” Maldonado said outside a New York shelter. “It is like a war between the party of the governor of Texas and the party of Biden.”
A voluntary consent form for free transportation from Texas tells migrants that Washington is where the president and members of Congress “are more immediately able to help address the needs of migrants.”
Migrants who sign a consent form for a free trip to New York are told that the city has designated itself a “sanctuary” for migrants, who are provided with food and shelter.
U.S. authorities stopped migrants 1.43 million times at the Mexican border from January through July, up 28% from the same period last year. Many are released on humanitarian parole or with notices to appear in immigration court.
The sight of both cities scrambling to cope with the influx drew undisguised schadenfreude from Abbott, who called New York City "the ideal destination for these migrants, who can receive the abundance of city services and housing that Mayor Eric Adams has boasted about within the sanctuary city."
In both cities, social service charities and churches have mobilized to support new arrivals, offering temporary shelter, medical attention and often a ticket to their next destination as they await a date in immigration court.
“Many are fleeing persecution and other very severe circumstances. They’re confused. And we want to make sure that we support them as much as possible and make sure that they’re not being used as political pawns,” Castro said.
On a recent August day, a bus of 41 migrants from Arizona arrived at a church in Washington's Capitol Hill neighborhood, where they were greeted by workers from SAMU First Response, an international relief agency.
Within minutes the group was enjoying a hot meal inside the church and filling out arrival forms.
Texas buses arrive haphazardly, said Tatiana Laborde, the agency's managing director. They only hear from charitable groups that a bus carrying a certain number of people has departed. At some point about 48 hours later, that bus drops off riders at Washington's Union Station.
Arizona provides detailed manifests of passengers and their nationalities, coordination on arrival times and has medical personnel aboard each bus.
“They don’t want to just dump people here," Laborde said.
Many of those who arrive in Washington don’t stay long. Mayor Muriel Bowser, in her second request for National Guard support, told Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin that most migrants stay up to three days before moving on to their final destinations.
"They don’t know much about D.C. other than the president is here,” Laborde said.
The Pentagon on Monday denied the mayor's request for help, saying the use of the National Guard would be inappropriate and would hurt the overall readiness of the troops by forcing some to cancel or disrupt military training.
Kelin Enriquez, another Venezuelan, was among them. She and and her children first arrived in Washington and later found themselves at a family center in the Bronx to plan the family's next steps.
“No one leaves their land because they want to. We want to work. We want a better opportunity,” said Enriquez, who helped care for Alzheimer’s patients in her native country.
Some migrants see a free ticket from the border as the best of bad options.
For Eduardo Garcia, the top priorities were finding a job and a place to live and starting life anew.
It was an agonizing journey, even if he hadn’t broken his left ankle while trying to keep his wife from falling along the perilous trail. He limped in pain for more than 1,000 miles.
“I didn’t care because I cared more about getting here,” he said.
He told no one about his fractured limb until he arrived in New York, where he got medical attention, a cast and crutches.
In New York, many of the migrants make their way to the offices of Catholic Charities. Officials in Texas — it is unclear who — listed the office as the migrants' address, which perplexed church officials at the New York Diocese. The diocese has now received more than 1,300 court notices on behalf of migrants.
“I think we were maybe caught off guard, a little bit disappointed by the governments in Texas and Arizona just putting individuals on buses to D.C. without any plan at the other end,” said Msgr. Kevin Sullivan, executive director of migrant services for Catholic Charities in New York.
In the last two months, the procession of Venezuelans seeking refuge in the United States has grown dramatically. In July, Border Patrol agents stopped Venezuelans 17,603 times — up 34% from June and nearly triple from July 2021.
The United States does not recognize the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro because of allegations that the country's 2018 election was a sham. The lack of official recognition complicates the country's ability to take back asylum-seekers. The Mexican government also refuses to accept the migrants, which gives the U.S. few options in handling Venezuelans.
At a New York City shelter, brothers Leonardo Oviedo, 22, and Angel Mota, 19, seemed giddy shortly after arriving in New York. They had plans to reconnect with an acquaintance in New Jersey.
Big plans lie ahead. Oviedo wants to land a job. Mota wants to attend school. How they will accomplish their dreams was still uncertain as the pair swiped through photos of relatives they left behind in Venezuela, including their mother, grandmother, brother and sister.
For now, neither brother is especially concerned about the politics that brought them here.
“We had nowhere to go," Mota said outside a shelter on a sweltering summer morning. "This is where they would welcome us.”
Khalil reported from Washington. Associated Press journalists Anita Snow in Phoenix, Claudia Torrens and Robert Bumsted in New York, and Jacquelyn Martin and Nathan Ellgren in Washington contributed to this report.