EL PASO, Texas — As Gov. Greg Abbott expands his program to bus migrants into a third major metro, inciting a fresh feud with a new Democratic mayor, immigration rights experts say the Republican governor who is working to crack down on illegal immigration is actually establishing one of the nation’s most generous publicly funded services to assist immigrants entering the country.
The free rides given to migrants to travel to sanctuary cities like New York, Washington, D.C., and now Chicago have cost the state $12.7 million so far. Abbott has provided voluntary trips to 8,900 migrants so far, according to his office. Those trips are bridging an important gap — the stiff cost of transportation — for immigrants entering the country, according to immigration rights advocates who are often on the opposite side of Abbott’s border security initiatives. Migrants entering the country often are seeking transportation to connect with relatives or friends who can make their transition into the U.S. smoother.
“Abbott is one of the only state actors that is giving immigrants a free benefit, a free ride,” said Abel Nuñez, executive director of the Central American Resource Center. “You’re actually creating a free program that if a Democrat would have said it, he would have gone against it.”
Abbott’s office did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
The voluntary busing policy, part of the governor’s Operation Lone Star initiative to slow the number of migrants crossing the border, may actually incentivize migrants coming through Central America and Mexico to reach Texas, Nuñez said.
Nuñez added that nonprofits often try to provide the transportation to get immigrants to their desired destinations but lack the funds to serve everyone who needs it. Instead, they can help them purchase transportation if the migrant already has the money.
As a way of antagonizing the Biden administration, Abbott began sending buses full of migrants to Washington in April. In total, more than 7,400 migrants have been bused to the nation’s capital, and over 1,500 have been sent to New York City, according to the governor’s office.
Late Wednesday, Abbott announced Chicago, another sanctuary city for immigrants with a Democratic mayor, was being added as a new program destination as the first bus with 60 migrants arrived.
The mayors in the cities have blasted Abbott for the busing policy and said that their social services have been overrun by the influx. Abbott has expressed delight over their complaints, noting that those same Democrats have been dismissive of Republicans who have raised the same concerns along the border. Abbott escalated his feud with New York Mayor Eric Adams last week with a New York Post op-ed labeling the city’s executive a hypocrite.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot called the policy “racist” but said the city would welcome the new arrivals.
Immigration experts say the governor’s effort to score political points is making it easier for migrants to stay in the country.
“What this shows is the unintended consequences of bumper sticker policy,” said Michelle Mittelstadt, director of communications for the Migration Policy Institute. “Perhaps it was not fully thought out that busing people to what the governor has described as a ‘sanctuary jurisdiction’ ... you are likely to achieve different outcomes in immigration court cases.”
Data from Syracuse University shows that New York courts have approved just over 70% of asylum relief or other relief applications since 2001. Houston has denied nearly 88% of asylum-seekers. Dallas has denied over 72% of such applications.
But other experts raise concerns about Abbott’s execution of the program and note that Abbott’s intentions are not rooted in humanitarianism. While immigrants may be able to reach other parts of the country, some say the busing will only make reaching their final destination more confusing because some do not ultimately want to be in New York, Washington or Chicago.
“The cruelty in the busing program lies in the removal of human agency for the migrants themselves,” said Laura Peña, director of Beyond Borders at the Texas Civil Rights Project. “It is extremely cruel to fool people with a free ride that takes them to a place where they actually will not be able to settle down.”
El Paso, a Democratic city, has also joined in on the busing policy, sending 35 Venezuelan migrants to New York City in late August.
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