Since April, thousands of migrants have arrived by bus in New York City and Washington, D.C., sent north by Republican governors in Texas and Arizona as a political gambit to blame Democrats for the migrants’ presence in the country.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey have spent millions of dollars transporting the migrants to the liberal cities to protest President Joe Biden’s intention to roll back some pandemic-era border restrictions and Democratic immigration policies more generally.
But increasingly the migrants are hopping off the buses before reaching Washington and New York, which are too expensive to settle in for many migrants who don’t have friends or family in those cities. Instead, they are disembarking in red states along the route, where the cost of living is much lower — but where their presence has generated opposition from some state and local officials.
“If Texas is going to put people on buses, they need to make sure that these individuals are going to their destinations,” said Georgia state Rep. Mike Cameron, a Republican who protested bus stops in Dade County, Georgia. “I understand Texas’ problem, but don’t just put people on a bus and let them get off anywhere. That’s not a solution.”
Both Arizona and Texas offer asylum seekers voluntary bus rides as they are released with permission to travel and pursue their asylum claims after screenings by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents, who determine they’re not a security threat and don’t qualify for programs that force some asylum seekers to wait south of the border. In Texas, a humanitarian group offers the seats on state-funded buses to those who need transportation.
Texas can’t stop people from getting off at intermediate stops, but the buses no longer stop in Dade County or nearby Chattanooga, Tennessee, after protests from Cameron and other Republican officials.
Migrants have disembarked in Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee in recent weeks, and some of the buses arriving in New York and Washington have been nearly empty, according to media reports, though local charities say they’re still helping dozens of arriving migrants almost daily. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, warned migrants back in April not to use the buses to get to his state, saying “Florida is not a sanctuary state.”
Nevertheless, about 20% of migrants bused by Arizona have final destinations in Florida, according to a state report. Texas has not released a breakdown of destinations for its migrants.
Those who do stay on the buses and arrive in Washington, D.C., often just need a little advice and help to join friends and family ready to help them, said Abel Nuñez, director of the nonprofit CARECEN DC, or Central American Resource Center, which has been meeting eight to 10 buses a week in the District of Columbia. One man drove from New Jersey to meet his long-lost Cuban son as he arrived on a bus recently, he said.
But those with no money or connections, maybe 15% of those arriving, have a tough road with no permission to work legally and no way to pay for soaring housing costs, he said.
“Sometimes they get the idea that it’s paved with gold, if they can just get here. We have to tell them ‘No, basically if you stay here, you’re going to be homeless, working with shelters.’ That’s the reality,” Nuñez said.
Bus riders who got off in Dade County, Georgia, generated complaints from residents and the local sheriff in August, and some Chattanooga residents were alarmed when penniless migrants started asking for food at a local McDonald’s. Some were trying to get to the nearby Chattanooga Airport to reach other destinations. Republican politicians protested, and buses no longer stop in the area.
Georgia Republican Gov. Brian Kemp “shares the Sheriff’s concern about this practice” of buses stopping in Dade County, spokesperson Andrew Isenhour said in an email to Stateline.
There were similar complaints in nearby Chattanooga, which adjoins Dade County, though city officials didn’t mind helping the migrants.
“This administration will respond with compassion to vulnerable people fleeing extremely difficult circumstances,” Mayor Tim Kelly’s chief of staff posted in a statement in mid-August, noting that the migrants had been screened by the Customs and Border Protection and were legally paroled while seeking asylum.
However, U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican, also complained about the stops publicly Aug. 15, accusing migrants of “wanting to get to where their friends are” and expecting “a free bus ride to wherever they want to go.”
The next day, Aug. 16, the bus company hired by Texas, Wynne Transportation, told Chattanooga officials there would be no more stops in the city.
It would be illegal for the bus company to prevent people from leaving the bus when it stops, noted Muzaffar Chishti, an immigration policy expert and senior fellow at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute’s New York City office.
“These poor immigrants have the ability to decide where they want to go. You can’t tell them, ‘You have to go to New York,’ when they have relatives in Georgia or Miami or North Carolina,” Chishti said. “That would be detaining them on the bus, and Texas has no basis to do that.”
Abbott’s office did not respond to a question about whether it has curtailed stops in Georgia and Tennessee — or anywhere else along the way. But the Texas governor’s press secretary, Renae Eze, emphasized in an email that migrants are free to get off anywhere the bus happens to stop.
“Migrants are allowed to purchase any needed provisions or disembark at any of these stops,” Eze wrote, though she added that “the migrants willingly chose to go to New York City or our nation’s capital” and agreed to the destination when they signed a release waiver.
When they cross the Mexican border, asylum seekers are screened by officers from Customs and Border Protection. They are on a 60-day parole while they seek asylum in court, Chishti said.
Those who are released in Del Rio, Texas, may be offered a bus seat by a service organization, the Val Verde Border Humanitarian Coalition, if it gets them closer to their final destination, said Tiffany Burrow, operations director for the coalition. It depends on how many seats are available and how many migrants are released.
“Every day is different,” Burrow said.
Generally, the seats go to people who plan to go to the Northeast. But if there are extras, people headed for the Southeast could get a seat and disembark at one of six stops for gas and driver changes, she said.
Customs and Border Protection said migrants eligible for buses must have an address in the United States and check in regularly to maintain legal parole status.
But some confusion swirls around migrants with destination addresses, filled in by the Customs and Border Protection, that turn out to be Catholic Charities service centers or CARECEN DC’s own offices in the District of Columbia. Catholic Charities complained of the practice in New York, saying it had never heard of the migrants before they started getting mail for them.
“It’s hard to gauge the intent of his,” Chishti said. “If the intent is to say, ’This will teach them a lesson for supporting immigrants’ that’s one thing. But it could be that they’re putting down that address thinking, ‘At least this place will offer them some help.’”
Customs and Border Protection spokesperson Cecilia Barreda did not say how addresses for places such as Catholic Charities end up getting used, but said migrants are given a form so they can change the address when they reach their destination.
Nuñez said he interprets the bogus addresses, which are sometimes his own CARECEN DC office, as an attempt by federal immigration officers to help migrants with no friends or family in the United States.
“They cannot make an asylum claim if they don’t have an address,” he said.
Most of the migrants from Texas are from Venezuela, Cuba, Colombia and Nicaragua, nonprofit workers told Stateline. Arizona’s buses to Washington, D.C., mostly have been filled with people from Colombia, Peru and Venezuela, according to state reports.
Other asylum-seekers from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are still barred under pandemic programs to limit immigration. The Biden administration intended to stop so-called Title 42 expulsions but the issue is held up in court.
U.S. Rep. Adriano Espaillat, a Democrat representing parts of Manhattan and the Bronx, said the migrants should get more information on the services New York City can provide when they arrive.
“They are left stranded and unaware of the resources they need,” he said, saying he personally rescued a Venezuelan family with small children as they tried to walk from a service center in Manhattan to a homeless shelter near Yankee Stadium in the Bronx.
“That was one long walk, and they were about to miss the deadline to get in the shelter. That’s all they know is walking so that’s what they were doing,” Espaillat said. “They had walked all the way to the border including the Darien Gap [between Panama and Colombia] through the jungle with wild animals, holding a little baby.”
Arizona has spent about $3 million since May to bus migrants to Washington, D.C., and Ducey earmarked as much as $15 million to continue the program in next year’s budget. Texas has started taking public donations to defray some of the $7 million it has spent on buses since April.
“The migrants are being used as pawns in a politically charged election, intentionally sowing chaos so the governors can say, ‘You’re getting a taste of your own medicine.’ That can’t be good,” Chishti said.