Immigrant busing isn’t stopping anytime soon
Border communities and sanctuary cities call for federal reforms
Natasha Guterres, 20, said she was sleeping under a plastic tarp in a large room with many others after crossing the border. Now she is staying at the Days Inn in northwestern Washington, D.C., unsure of what to do next but relieved to have shelter. She arrived in the nation’s capital on a bus sponsored by the state of Texas. “They told us they would pay our fare. We were so tired. [We told them] we wanted to find shelter to rest so that we could take up steady work and come out on top. They helped us get here,” she said.
Guterres met Sarai Landaeta on the bus. Both are from Venezuela. Landaeta, 19, is six months pregnant. “The conditions are better here,” Landaeta said, “We are calm. We’re sleeping better. Our children are well, they’re already studying in school.”
So far, Texas has spent more than $14 million to bus immigrants from the U.S.–Mexico border to sanctuary cities, including Washington, New York, and Chicago. While some advocates view the buses as merely a political stunt, border communities are taking a more nuanced view. Overflowing border shelters can’t handle the ongoing influx of immigrants, and some border cities have started busing immigrants themselves. Recipient cities claim they are not prepared to handle the drop-offs. But border communities and sanctuary cities agree on one thing, however: The federal government must step up its game.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey have bused an estimated 9,400 immigrants to Washington and 1,500 to New York since April. In the meantime, the number of border crossings has increased.
In the Del Rio and El Paso border sectors, U.S. Customs and Border Protection encountered 375,136 immigrants in July—a 106-percent increase from the same month last year. Total border encounters for this fiscal year have surged to over 2 million.
Tens of thousands of Venezuelans fleeing their country’s communist regime have contributed to the rise. In August, a monthly record of 25,000 Venezuelans entered U.S. border custody. Strained diplomatic relations with Venezuela mean U.S. Customs and Border Protection cannot use the pandemic-era no-entry policy, Title 42, to expel Venezuelans, Nicaraguans, or Cubans back to their countries of origin. “Failing communist regimes in Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba are driving up the wave of migration across the Western Hemisphere, including the recent increase in encounters at the southwest border,” CBP Commissioner Chris Magnus said in a statement Monday.
Few immigrants stay in border cities for long periods of time, but thousands pass through. “They come in, and they flood us. And they’re not flooding by 50, 100, one bus, two buses. We’re talking thousands at a time,” said Monica Weisberg-Stewart of the Texas Border Coalition. Weisberg-Stewart lives in the border city of McAllen, Texas, where Customs and Border Protection drops immigrants at the bus terminal. Right across the street, Catholic Charities helps them get on a bus or plane to their family or friends. “We’ve had days where we had so many thousands that Catholic Charity could not handle it … the city had to open up backup places for these individuals to go,” said Stewart.
Danilo Zak, a policy and advocacy manager for the National Immigration Forum, says it’s important to consider what happens to immigrants who are processed by CBP and released into border communities to be cared for by a network of nonprofits. When the El Paso Central Processing Center reaches capacity, Border Patrol works with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to find room at nonprofit shelters. And now Venezuelan immigrants are erecting makeshift camps in downtown El Paso. Sami DiPasquale is the executive director for Abara, an organization that supports border shelters. On Aug. 25, the organization opened three emergency shelters as other nonprofits filled up.
These immigrants have few travel options. In Del Rio, immigrants can book a $50 ticket for a twice-daily Greyhound bus for San Antonio, or an American Airlines flight that leaves twice a day for Dallas and costs about $240. An economy bus ride to Chicago from El Paso costs $247. Right now, airfare costs even more, about $580.
The city of El Paso has started its own busing operation. The El Paso city-county Office of Emergency Management has sent 1,135 immigrants on 25 charter buses to New York City since Aug. 23. “At no time was this operation handed over to the state, and this continues to be our operation,” said coordinator Jorge Rodriguez. El Paso will continue its busing effort with the state’s help if needed, added Deputy City Manager Mario D’Agostino.
The El Paso immigrant center helps the immigrants get bus or plane tickets, prints them out, and explains what to expect at the station or airport. They also provide care packages, free clothing, and a warm meal, according to Kelly Knott, the missions coordinator for the El Paso Baptist Association, the organization that runs the center. The center works with another organization, Annunciation House, and the offices of Emergency Management to get immigrants who do not have money or a sponsor onto free buses. Knott has directed immigrants to buses heading to Chicago and New York.
“Many of these people, especially to the larger metropolitan areas, would be ending up heading in that direction anyways,” said Zak, with the National Immigration Forum. Many immigrants would jump at the opportunity for a free bus ride, “if that city is [anywhere] near where they are ultimately going,” said Zak.
But the flights to Martha’s Vineyard are a different story, Zak said. Planes carrying about 50 Venezuelan and Colombian immigrants from San Antonio landed unexpectedly at Martha’s Vineyard’s Airport last Wednesday. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis called the airlift “part of the state’s relocation program to transport illegal immigrants to sanctuary destinations.” Some reports indicate the immigrants were misled about their destination and believed they would get expedited work papers in Boston.
“I don’t think any of them had families in Martha’s Vineyard … there’s not an ICE office in Martha’s Vineyard where they can hear their asylum claims … there’s not an immigration judge there,” said Zak. Martha’s Vineyard also doesn’t have available housing or public transportation. Charitable services are limited on the small but wealthy island. Texas Sheriff Javier Salazar of Bexar County opened a criminal investigation into the flights.
In Chicago, roughly 615 immigrants from Central and South America have checked into Salvation Army facilities since Aug. 31. The nearly 1,500-mile bus ride from Texas landed many of them outside the Salvation Army Freedom Center, a large brick building with the iconic red shield and white cross pointing toward the sky not far from downtown. “They had a long, scary, stressful journey. They’re in a country they don’t know and a city they don’t know. It’s a language they don’t know, and they’re scared, nervous, anxious,” said Brian Duewel, the director of communications for the North and Central Illinois Division of the organization.
Duewel said they haven’t had to turn anyone away. Some stay for a few nights, while others move to different shelters. If the immigrants have family somewhere else, they work with the city to move them to another location. Rows of cots line the gymnasium in the Freedom Center. Families stay across the street in dorms at the Shield of Hope.
But other cities are struggling to put new infrastructure in place to handle the busloads of immigrants. “Places like El Paso and San Antonio have had years of coordination with nonprofits to understand how to respond,” said Zak, “so there’s infrastructure in place.”
New York Gov. Eric Adams says homeless shelters are overflowing and called on the federal government to provide aid. The state has a legal obligation, known as the right to shelter, to house every unhoused person. The city has opened 23 emergency shelters to meet the growing demand but doesn’t have enough people to staff them—let alone enough Spanish-speaking workers to process the immigrants.
Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser declared a state of public emergency. She called the influx an “ongoing humanitarian crisis” that has overwhelmed D.C. shelters. Her request to activate the D.C. National Guard was refused. Bowser announced the creation of a D.C. Office of Immigrant Services with a $10 billion budget. She is requesting that the federal government reimburse the city. “What we need in this country is we need the Congress to do its job and fix the immigration system,” she said.
Bowser echoes the sentiments of border residents clamoring for congressional reform. “This should be the complete job of the federal government,” said Weisberg-Stewart, the McAllen resident with the Texas Border Coalition. “I blame this on Congress and the Senate for not passing the proper legislation in order to effectively protect this county.”
— Additional reporting by Leo Briceno
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