Minus the Politics, Migrants Often Use Buses, Planes to Reach Shelter

By: - October 4, 2022 12:00 am

Axel Coronado, center, a migrant from Venezuela, listens to a conversation outside a New York City shelter in August. As border crossings from Mexico topped a record 2 million in the past fiscal year, moving migrants to friends and family inside the United States is a priority for red and blue states alike. Bobby Caina Calvan/The Associated Press

Editor’s note: This story was updated to clarify the description of the Migration Policy Institute and its position on possible immigration policy changes.

Despite some Republican governors using migrant buses to try to embarrass Democrats, transportation for migrants from border areas to places where they can find shelter may be an important part of handling an unprecedented crush of asylum seekers.

Providing bus and plane tickets is a longstanding method used by local officials and advocates trying to speed migrants on their way to family and friends while they legally apply for asylum, and to clear shelter space for newcomers. But experts and advocates stress that transportation must be welcomed by the migrants and coordinated with people who will be receiving them.

“The notion of getting people from the border to their final destination, if they are going to present an asylum case, is not a crazy idea, especially if it’s done right. It’s a stopgap solution while we work on policy solutions,” said Andrew Selee, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Migration Policy Institute, a think tank that favors more legal immigration and other policy changes to discourage individual border crossings in search of asylum. “There’s just so many people who want to get here right now and so much demand for their labor.”

The thousands of migrants offered bus rides to Chicago, New York City and Washington, D.C., by Texas and Arizona governors are a tiny fraction of the record movement of migrants over the Mexican border, driven by demand for their labor and repressive conditions and economic crises in countries such as Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela.

At the Arizona border near Yuma, most asylum seekers released after federal screening, about 350 a week, get on airplanes in Phoenix with tickets bought by friends and family members, said Amanda Aguirre, a former Democratic state senator who is president of the nonprofit Regional Center for Border Health in Somerton. Only about 60 people a week use buses provided by Arizona to reach areas near Washington, D.C., she said.

“People are protesting the buses, but most [migrants] are arriving at airports,” said Aguirre, whose organization helps migrants get where they need to go once released after federal screening at the border. The same is true at the Texas border, advocates said.  

“Migrants were purchasing Greyhound and airplane tickets long before state buses came on the scene,” said Tiffany Burrow, operations director for the Val Verde Border Humanitarian Coalition in Del Rio, Texas.  

The Democratic-led city of El Paso, Texas, recently started providing buses as a wave of Venezuelan migrants overwhelmed shelter space in the city. The city has chartered at least 60 buses since August to take 3,000 people to New York City and Chicago.

“We don’t send anyone where they don’t want to go. We make sure we help them,” El Paso’s mayor, Oscar Leeser, a Democrat, said in a recent interview with ABC News.

The city of Albuquerque, New Mexico, has been helping asylum seekers arrange travel under the Democratic administration of Mayor Tim Keller. Most migrants have to leave since the state does not have an immigration court where they can seek asylum. Still, most arrange their own flights or buses, and others get help through private donations arranged by volunteers, said Michelle Melendez, director of the city’s Office of Equity and Inclusion.

Michael Hopkins, CEO of Jewish Family Service of San Diego, called red-state governors’ transportation “dehumanizing” and said his service “more compassionately” moves asylum seekers.

In a four-week period from late August to September, the group helped more than 5,700 people leave San Diego, with about 85% headed out of state, according to statistics posted on its website. Many migrants pay their own way, but in some cases the group buys bus and plane tickets with the help of local and state money as well as private donors, but unlike Arizona and Texas, doesn’t provide scheduled charter buses to a single destination.

“Our goal is to make sure guests reach their destinations comfortably. They have been through traumatic experiences,” said Kate Clark, senior director of immigration services for Jewish Family Service.

Florida and Texas have been getting the most asylum seekers, according to federal statistics. Republican governors there and in Arizona have been vocal about sending migrants on buses to Democratic cities, though many riders disembark in red states anyway.

Federal asylum offices in Florida, where migrants register while awaiting asylum hearings, got the largest share of asylum seekers, about 45% of the national total of 43,289 applications between January and March of this year, the latest figures available. Houston handles about 10% of cases, which can include migrants living in nearby states, and about 9% are handled in the Washington, D.C., area by an Arlington, Virginia, office.

Asylum seekers paroled at the border don’t have legal work permission until an immigration court accepts their case, which can take years.  

The country’s top border official, Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Chris Magnus, has accused the Republican governors of “luring” more migrants with transportation to the East Coast and false promises of work in Democratic cities.

A group of Venezuelan immigrants filed a lawsuit Sept. 20 against Florida GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis, saying they were misled into boarding a plane that later landed unannounced in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.

Immigration advocates in New York City and Washington, D.C., also have complained that Texas state-sponsored buses arrive without notice or coordination and that migrants often are hungry or sick. Arizona buses, by contrast, serve food and carry medical professionals to help migrants on the way.

“Arizona is definitely the best example of doing this the right way,” said Selee.

In the 11-month period from October 2021 to August 2022, the U.S. Border Patrol said it found 2.15 million people crossing the border from Mexico, a record for any one year and more than four times the 2020 level.

Some of those border crossings are second or third attempts, as migrants barred from seeking asylum keep trying, said Sara Ramey, director of the Migrant Center for Human Rights, a legal services group in San Antonio, Texas.

That doesn’t include thousands who come to the United States on tourist visas every month from Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela who often apply for asylum as well, said Ava Benach, a Washington, D.C., immigration attorney who has helped hundreds of migrants with asylum cases.

“There are a ton of Venezuelans and Cubans showing up who are all headed to Florida,” Benach said. Along with Nicaraguans, she added, those migrants often complain of repressive semi-governmental “community brigades” who enforce leftist ideology in their home countries and threaten or harass anyone believed to be a dissident.

Texas GOP Gov. Greg Abbott cited the announced ending of a Trump-era border policy that immediately expelled migrants to stop the spread of COVID-19 when Abbott started offering bus rides to migrants in April. The so-called Title 42 federal restrictions are still in place, however, resulting in expulsions at the border for many from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico.

But Cubans, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans can’t be expelled from the United States because Mexico won’t accept them, Selee said.

The Biden administration, in light of the influx, is negotiating with Mexico to let more of those migrants be sent back over the border, U.S. and Mexican officials told Reuters. 

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Tim Henderson
Tim Henderson

Tim Henderson covers demographics for Stateline. He has been a reporter at the Miami Herald, the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Journal News.