Justo Robles & Alejandra Reyes-Velarde
Aura Silva was among 36 migrants who in early June were driven from Texas’ border to New Mexico and then flown to Sacramento. She had no family there to take her in and no knowledge of how to find shelter. She had just learned about the capital city several days before, after crossing the U.S. border.
The Diocese of Sacramento and partner organizations stepped in to help, offering clothes and food to the 31-year-old Colombian mother and her fellow travelers. The next few days, the migrants slept at a synagogue before being placed in a hotel.
While grateful for that support, Silva soon began to feel frustrated because she couldn’t find a job. Without guidance on the convoluted U.S. asylum process, Silva didn’t know how to apply for a work permit, which can take six months or more to get.
After three months of waiting, Silva decided to leave Sacramento.
“A friend of mine told me I could find a job at a Mexican restaurant in Memphis. I thought about it for days until I left,” Silva said during a phone interview from the apartment she shares with three other migrants in Tennessee’s second largest city.
Silva and her fellow new arrivals in Sacramento found an under-resourced local support system, community leaders said. Some, like Silva, already are considering moving on to other destinations.
By contrast, other migrants are finding better support in Los Angeles. Since June, more than 900 migrants have arrived there, most on buses from Texas. Advocates say they are being quickly integrated into the L.A. community.
Texas ‘theatrics’ or California hospitality
Los Angeles has received millions of dollars from the state to help newly arrived migrants. Sacramento has received no such help from the state. State officials said that’s because of the significantly larger number of migrant arrivals in L.A. than in Sacramento.
Some lawmakers applaud California’s response.
“While the governors of Florida and Texas have decided to play politics with human lives, our state has decided to take a compassionate approach towards individuals who are in need of care,” said Assembly member Wendy Carrillo, a Democrat from Los Angeles. “For me, it’s about coming together as a state to recognize the humanity of people, and treating them with dignity, rather than engaging in political theatrics.”
Beyond the political controversy over the unexpected migrant arrivals, Silva’s experience raises a question: Does the capital city have sufficient resources to help migrants, especially compared to Los Angeles?
A few days after Silva landed in Sacramento, Hember Paiz and Dena Arenas arrived in L.A.’s Union Station. They were part of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s plans to bus thousands of migrants to Democratic-led cities.
The Guatemalan couple received a paper listing local resources and phone numbers. They knew who to call for legal advice, for instance. A relative picked them up.
Three months later Paiz and Arenas were sitting in a downtown Los Angeles law office, ready to apply for a government work permit.
“The city is beautiful, honestly,” Paiz said in September. “We don’t yet have jobs to be able to become more independent.”
With help from the local nonprofit Immigrant Defenders Law Center, Paiz and Arenas applied for work permits, received health care coverage for their family through Medi-Cal and enrolled in the state’s Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children.
No funds available
Meanwhile in Sacramento, some community leaders were criticizing how California’s capital city responded to the arrival of the 36 migrants in June.
“What we saw in the experience of these particular migrants is that integration into this community has been slower,” said Jessie Tientcheu, CEO of Opening Doors, a resettlement organization in Sacramento.
“I think we need a more coordinated approach. And that is going to include both the city and the county governments, as well as the state, frankly.”
For 32 years the mission of Sacramento Area Congregations Together (ACT) has been to organize and work with the faith community to further social justice causes. On June 2 the organization’s executive director, Gabby Trejo, received a phone call, informing her that a group of 16 migrants had been abruptly dropped off at the offices of the Sacramento diocese and needed immediate assistance.
“At the beginning this incident was considered a crisis, but it quickly escalated.”
GABBY TREJO, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR FOR SACRAMENTO AREA CONGREGATIONS TOGETHER
Though Sacramento ACT had never provided direct services in a situation like this, Trejo said, the organization decided to respond to what seemed to be a temporary emergency.
But it wasn’t temporary. Three days later, a second flight with 15 Latin American asylum seekers, including Silva, arrived in Sacramento similarly unprepared.
“At the beginning this incident was considered a crisis, but it quickly escalated,” Trejo said.
“We got a sense of how much the hotels cost per day, but we realized we would need help, so we pulled someone out of retirement to help us with folks going to ER, dental appointments, and a lot of coordination. We normally don’t do that.”
Anticipating the logistical and economic challenges of helping a growing number of asylum seekers in Sacramento, Trejo sent a funding request to Sacramento County on July 12, more than a month after the migrants’ unexpected arrivals.
Trejo asked for nearly $194,000, to cover 17 hotel rooms for four months and to pay the salaries of a case manager and staff. Trejo said at first Sacramento County officials said they would explore available resources to assist the migrants, though spending the funds would require approval by the county Board of Supervisors.
Sacramento County ultimately did not release the money, saying in a written statement that officials had not identified funds they could allocate for the immigrants.
Fears of sleeping on streets
As Sacramento ACT waited for an official answer from Sacramento County, Silva feared having to sleep on the streets again.
She’d experienced homelessness during her journey to the United States, she said. She had walked across mountains in the notorious Darién Gap rainforest in Panama and traversed several Central American countries to reach Mexico. She settled in Ciudad Juárez, near the U.S. border, for about a month.
In May Silva surrendered to U.S. border officials in El Paso, Texas. Once Silva was released and placed into a shelter two men approached her, promising her housing and a job in California. Feeling hopeful, she accepted the ticket on a chartered flight, which was later revealed to have been paid for by Florida’s migrant relocation program.
“I think we need a more coordinated approach. And that is going to include both the city and the county governments, as well as the state, frankly.”
JESSIE TIENTCHEU, CEO OF OPENING DOORS
Silva thought Sacramento might be where she could start over and, little by little, fulfill the promise she had made to the 15-year-old daughter she left back in Colombia: to make enough money to help her daughter continue and improve on her education.
Some time before Sacramento County rejected Trejo’s funding request, the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development (GO-Biz) announced the state’s first Local Immigrant Integration and Inclusion Grants, more than $6 million going to 12 local governments across California.
Sacramento County was awarded $910,210 to “establish an interagency task force to promote cross-jurisdictional coordination to create a rapid response plan and system of care for newly arriving migrants,” according to the state agency. But the county would not be able to disburse the funds until January.
Like Silva, some asylum seekers have left Sacramento. Ones who stayed were told Sacramento ACT could no longer help them financially.
State aid for Los Angeles
California officials began planning last spring for a potential increase in migrant arrivals linked to the impending end of Title 42, a federal emergency health rule that had allowed border officials to turn away migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border, to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
From April 2021 to September 30, 2023, the state helped more than 472,000 migrants who were processed and released at the border, said Scott Murray, a social services department spokesperson. That includes more than 98,000 who came to the state since Title 42 ended on May 12.
The state’s preparation included a $1.3 million contract with the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in Los Angeles, the lead organization of the L.A. Welcomes Collective of nonprofits. Officials allowed that contract to stay in place, to provide humanitarian aid for migrants arriving to the L.A. area from Texas, Murray said. It expires in December.
“We have to be responsive to these major emergencies, sometimes not created from a natural flow of migration but by the politics in the nation.”
ANGELICA SALAS, DIRECTOR OF THE COALITION FOR HUMANE IMMIGRANT RIGHTS
As part of the state’s 2023 budget, the L.A. County government also received $2 million from the state’s social services department, to work with nonprofits providing aid to newly arriving migrants.
Lyndsay Toczylowski, executive director at the Immigrant Defenders Law Center, said her firm is providing legal guidance and support to migrants seeking asylum. The L.A. Welcomes Collective organizations also work with each other and with state and local officials to provide services to arriving migrants. That includes medical attention and a warm meal at arrival, and legal services and transportation to new destinations if migrants choose to leave L.A., said Jorge-Mario Cabrera, a spokesperson for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, more commonly known as CHIRLA.
This is nothing new for the organization, said Executive Director Angelica Salas. “We feel like this is the nature of the work we do, which is that we have to be responsive to these major emergencies, sometimes not created from a natural flow of migration but by the politics in the nation.”
A family’s flight
Since June, Texas has sent dozens of buses of migrants to Los Angeles. The City Council in August voted to investigate whether human trafficking, kidnapping, or any other crime was committed when the first bus arrived from Texas on June 14.
“The gang activity was growing and we were getting threats; we were being extorted and abused,” Paiz said. “It was a difficult situation. More than anything, that’s why I needed to look for some security and protection for my family.”
Paiz, 30, had been a propane gas salesman, and his daily routine involved driving a truck through various neighborhoods. Gang violence was growing in Guatemala, Paiz said, and gang members harassed him on his work routes. They stole money and, when he stopped carrying cash, they stole tanks of gas, which his employer deducted from his earnings, he said.
In early 2023, two gang members approached him at work with a proposition, Paiz said: Would he join the gang as an informant? They asked that he give them information about his clients and in exchange, gang members would leave him alone and supplement his earnings.
Paiz said no and the gang assaulted him. He arrived home that day with his nose and mouth bloodied and his chest covered in bruises. Soon after the family left Guatemala and made the journey to the U.S.-Mexico border by car, bus and foot.
By the time Paiz, Arenas and their oldest daughter made it to the U.S.-Mexico border, Arenas, 31, was near the end of her pregnancy. Hanna was born in April in Tamaulipas, Mexico where they waited two months before crossing the border to Laredo, Texas.
There they claimed asylum, saying they had fled violence in Guatemala. The family was transported to a Laredo church where they waited two weeks for the bus that would take them to Los Angeles.
Hanna, barely a month old, cried the whole way. She had wanted warm milk but there was no way to heat up her formula on the bus, Arenas said.
The only consolation, Arenas said, was the view out the window of a beautiful new country she had never seen before, as the bus made its way through the Arizona desert.
Three months later the family sat in a Los Angeles legal office. Arenas bounced Hanna on her lap as the infant babbled. Occasionally croons would begin to turn into cries, and Arenas would stand and rock Hanna to quiet her. Arenas handed Hanna to 11-year-old Sheryl, who rubbed noses with her baby sister.
Paiz said the family is living in central Los Angeles with his uncle, and he’s looking for jobs while he waits for his permit.
“We want stability, emotionally and economically,” Paiz said. “My family wants to have a home free of everything we went through in Guatemala. To forget about all of that and build a new home.”
A promise to keep
In total, California has spent more than $1.3 billion since 2019, to assist the federal government in providing humanitarian services and help for newly arriving migrants, said Murray, of the California Department of Social Services. The Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights’ contract is part of that investment.
California does not have a contract with Sacramento ACT, or any other organization in Sacramento, for providing services to migrants sent there, Murray said.
Because Sacramento ACT couldn’t provide long-term assistance to asylum seekers, at least two other organizations stepped in. NorCal Resist has daily supplied food and basic necessities and Opening Doors, which has worked with Afghan and Ukrainian refugees, will pay for housing the asylum seekers for six months.
Tientcheu, of Opening Doors, said welcoming migrants is a good investment for the city and county of Sacramento — and for the state.
“Immigrants and refugees are incredibly entrepreneurial,” she said. “Over time, they pay more in taxes than they use in public benefits.”
Days before Silva left Sacramento, she was able to start working on her declaration for asylum application, detailing her experiences in Colombia and her reasons for fleeing and fearing going back. But Silva wasn’t able to file her asylum application while in Sacramento, she said, because she wasn’t given proper information about the asylum process.
In her paperwork, Silva recounted that her former partner, a police officer in Colombia, psychically abused her. Before she could report it to authorities, he threatened to kill her, she said.
Now, seven months after she fled Colombia, Silva works as a waitress in Memphis. Her tips are best on weekends, she said, though her earnings aren’t enough to pay for her own apartment.
Still, Silva is able to send money to Colombia, to build a better future for her daughter.
“I didn’t want to leave Sacramento. I loved it,” Silva said. “But I came to this country to work and give my daughter a better education. That was a promise I will keep.”