Caught between feuding politicians, nonprofits shoulder burden of Texas’ migrant busing program

Texas has transported about 13,000 migrants to New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C. But in the absence of communication between the state and those cities, nonprofits are having to pick up the pieces for this mass movement of migrants.

click to enlarge People at San Antonio's Migrant Resource Center line up for provisions from nonprofit group Catholic Charities. - Sanford Nowlin
Sanford Nowlin
People at San Antonio's Migrant Resource Center line up for provisions from nonprofit group Catholic Charities.
Over the past seven months, Texas has moved nearly 13,000 migrants from the border to the Democratic-run cities of Washington, D.C., New York and Chicago — in what has emerged as an unprecedented cross-country movement of migrants by a state government.

All of that has happened — suddenly and chaotically — with virtually no communication between the Texas governor’s office and the leaders of the cities and states where the migrants are sent. Gov. Greg Abbott’s office says it has not received any direct requests to coordinate the busing program from any of the cities or states. But the city of New York and the Illinois governor’s office shared letters with The Texas Tribune sent to Texas officials about the buses that they said went unanswered.

Abbott, for his part, said he doesn’t need to talk to the mayors because the coordination of the busing program is happening through nonprofit organizations.

Indeed, a small network of volunteers and nonprofit groups have stepped up out of necessity to help organize busing efforts as politicians refuse to talk to one another. The only heads up that a city receiving migrants gets comes from a nonprofit in Texas alerting organizations in the receiving city. The sudden burst of cross-country coordination has strained the financial resources of the volunteer groups, which are usually small and run on shoestring budgets that are reliant on donations.

For the nonprofits, the buses are a political means to a humanitarian end. Tiffany Burrow, who works with the Val Verde Border Humanitarian Coalition in Del Rio, said her group has helped migrants get on planes or buses to their desired destinations across the country for years. Now, the state of Texas is picking up the tab to the tune of millions of dollars for a service that would otherwise cost the migrants between $250 and $300 per person.

In that sense, the state busing program is an answer to their prayers, but it has also injected divisive political grandstanding into what the nonprofits deem an act of altruism.

“Advocates have been pushing for years to help address this issue of transportation, and it hasn’t happened. … Now it’s being done and we know that the intention of Gov. Abbott, Gov. [Doug] Ducey and Gov. [Ron] DeSantis is not to be helpful,” said Amy Fischer, a core organizer for the Migrant Solidarity Mutual Aid Network who coordinates the program in Washington, D.C. “The reason it’s so popular is that it’s such a great need for the migrants, so of course they’re going to take the transportation.”

Muzaffar Chishti, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute, said the busing program puts the nonprofits that want to aid migrants “between a rock and a hard place.”

“They don’t want to be political pawns, but they also want the helping hand,” he said.

The lack of communication between Texas and the destination cities has led to missed opportunities to help the migrants by the receiving cities and politically motivated changes to the bus routes by Texas. The busing program also does not pay for any of the services that migrants need once they arrive in the destination cities, leaving the local governments and nonprofits to pick up those costs.

Chishti said the burden of coordinating such a large-scale migrant relocation operation shouldn’t fall solely on them.

“It’s extraordinary how much they’re doing by the seat of their pants. They’re not getting enough credit for how much they have done,” he said. “This underscores the lack of a unitary federal response.”

How the coordination works

Burrow became involved in the program when staff with Texas Division of Emergency Management visited her shelter in Del Rio, which has seen a major increase in migrants over the last two years, and asked if her group would be interested in partnering with the state to help bus migrants to Washington, D.C., since many of the migrants her group encountered were already on their way to the East Coast.

She’s partnered with the agency since the beginning of the busing program in April. Her group gets no money from the state.

The buses are chartered and paid for by the state of Texas, but it’s the Val Verde Border Humanitarian Coalition, a group of three paid employees that relies on volunteers, that coordinates the movements of the thousands of migrants who need the bus rides with groups in the destination cities.

Every day, the U.S. Border Patrol drops off migrants at the organization’s migrant processing center in Del Rio. Burrow’s team greets them, provides them with a meal, asks what their final destination is and tries to assist them with their travel plans.

The nonprofit offers to put them on a state-financed bus to Chicago, New York City or Washington, D.C. According to Burrow, TDEM then tells the nonprofit where its bus is heading that day and asks if there are migrants who want to go there. But according to TDEM, the final destinations are determined based on where the majority of migrants at the shelters want to go.

The buses leave from at least three cities in Texas along the border. But Burrow knows when each bus leaves, regardless of the departing destination. Once the state dispatches a bus, Burrow notifies a partner nonprofit in the destination cities: Team TLC NYC in New York, which is entirely run by volunteers; the Interfaith Community for Detained Immigrants in Chicago, which has seven paid employees; and the Migrant Solidarity Mutual Aid Network in Washington, D.C., which is also volunteer-run.

Burrow tells those groups how many buses are on their way, how many people are on the buses and an estimated window for their arrival. The nonprofits in Washington and New York typically get 36 hours notice — the length of the bus ride from Texas — while those in Chicago get 24 hours. The groups use that time to recruit volunteers to greet the migrants and to plan for the arrival with the local governments.

“It’s been really remarkable to have the ability to know when buses are arriving and to be able to develop the relationship with Tiffany to better understand who is arriving and the ins and outs of this system that has been pulled together over the last [seven] months,” Fischer said.

When the buses arrive at the destination cities, a network of local nonprofits greets the migrants, conducts health inspections, and provides food and clothing. For migrants who need to continue their journeys to another city, the nonprofits help them buy bus tickets. Sometimes, nonprofit volunteers pay for the bus tickets out of their own pockets. On one August day in New York, Team TLC paid more than $2,000 to send 16 migrants to their ultimate destinations.

Other migrants may simply need transportation to a relative’s home near those cities, which nonprofits also try to facilitate.

But in recent months, a large number of people, mostly from Venezuela and Colombia, have arrived with no relatives or friends in the United States and no place to stay. In those cases, the nonprofits direct them to shelters operated by the cities and larger nonprofits like Catholic Charities in New York and the Salvation Army in Chicago, or offer to temporarily house the migrants themselves.

For migrants who stay in those cities, the nonprofits offer long-term services like help finding housing and medical care, as well as teaching them how to use the public transportation system, enrolling their children in school and directing them to groups that can help with their asylum applications.

“Someone the other day was asking, ’Do you know where I can go to the gym?’” Fischer said. “It’s building relationships with folks so they feel comfortable asking questions so they can grow and be connected to the new community and find their way here in D.C.”

'Failures of politicians'

But the groups are clear-eyed about the bus program’s shortcomings. It doesn’t provide aid to the migrants after they are dropped off in their destination cities and leaves it up to nonprofits and local governments to help them find housing, work, legal assistance and additional transportation if needed.

“The community is stepping up,” Fischer said. “But it’s also showing the failures of politicians.”

Those failures started in April, when Abbott first announced he would send migrants on buses to Washington, D.C., as a response to the Biden administration’s plan to end Title 42, a pandemic-era public health order that federal authorities use to turn away migrants at the border.

But when Texas sent its first bus a week later, no one affiliated with the state contacted Washington, D.C., officials or nonprofits. Immigrant aid groups in the city found out about the arrival of the migrants through Fox News and social media and rushed to Union Station to help.

Without any information, all they could do was watch for buses that might be carrying migrants.

Fischer, who works in immigration advocacy, began culling her network for people she could connect with in Texas and eventually made contact with Burrow. The two women did not know each other but eventually developed a system to coordinate the arrival of the migrant buses, which they’ve been employing successfully for months.

Still, the nonprofits get occasional reminders that they are not in control.

For months, Burrow and Fischer coordinated bus drop-offs at Union Station, which is centrally located in the city, is easy for Fischer’s volunteers to access and is near respite centers where the nonprofits direct migrants if they need to rest for a few hours. The station’s bus and train connections were also convenient for migrants heading to other destinations outside of the city. (Fischer said about 85% of the migrants that arrive in Washington are headed to meet family or sponsors in other cities.)

But in September, Abbott changed the drop-off location to the Naval Observatory, which is on the same grounds as Vice President Kamala Harris’ Washington residence. Abbott’s stated reason for the change was purely political.

“She’s the border czar, and we felt that if she won’t come down to see the border, if President [Joe] Biden will not come down and see the border, we will make sure they see it firsthand,” Abbott said in September.

Texas officials did not notify the immigrant aid groups of the change, and Fischer’s volunteers had to scramble to the new location, which is half an hour away, and in many cases make the trek back to Union Station with the migrants to put them on buses to their next destination.

“The switch to the Naval Observatory has been really, really challenging,” she said. “It’s created an additional burden to have to transport people to the respite sites, to Union Station, and there is no reason to be dropped off at Vice President Harris’ residence.”

Despite the nonprofits asking for the drop offs to return to Union Station, the state-managed buses still stop at the Naval Observatory. The Texas Division of Emergency Management did not answer a specific question about the reason for the change, nor did Abbott’s office.

At the same time, Democratic officials have resorted to their own form of retaliation. New York police have started ticketing buses from Texas after they drop off migrants at the city’s port authority. The traffic inspections start around 6 a.m., which has led Texas bus drivers to try to get to Union Station earlier to avoid the citations, said Ilze Thielmann, director of Team TLC NYC. The earlier schedule makes it more difficult for her group to get volunteers to greet the migrants when they arrive.

“That’s super frustrating,” Thielmann said. “Instead of helping, the mayor keeps throwing up roadblocks.”

New York Mayor Eric Adams’ office did not respond to a specific question about the ticketing of the migrant buses but said the office is working with community groups, as well as state and federal partners, to respond to the migrants arriving in the city.

Slow to activate

While cities have stepped up with housing and other services for migrants in recent months, the nonprofit leaders say in some cases they were too slow to activate.

Three days before Abbott sent the first bus of migrants to New York on Aug. 5, Thielmann sent a desperate email to Adams’ office of immigrant affairs. Burrow had tipped her off that Texas would begin sending buses to New York just as it had been sending them to Washington, D.C., for months, and Thielmann requested “immediate assistance” to coordinate the response.

But in the end, the entire city office dedicated to immigrant affairs could offer only one volunteer to assist the immigrant aid groups when the first Texas bus arrived.

“Eight women greeted this bus all by ourselves and fed them,” Thielmann said. “All of our supplies, toiletries, clothing, water came out of our storage, and we spent it all on this one bus.”

Thielmann said the small group of volunteers was kicked out of Port Authority while trying to greet the migrants because police said they were blocking traffic. They had to stand across the street from where the migrants were dropped off to try to help them.

The leader of the mayor’s immigrant affairs office eventually showed up at the Port Authority, but that was hours after the bus had arrived, and only a few migrants who were waiting for buses to their next destination remained.

Fabien Levy, an Adams spokesperson, said the city has worked for months — even prior to the arrival of the first Texas-sponsored buses arriving in New York — to handle the arrival of migrants and has provided triage, water and medical assistance. He said the leader of the immigrant affairs office has also greeted migrants at the Port Authority for months.

“This administration has safely and efficiently provided shelter, health care, education, and a host of other services to more than 22,600 asylum seekers who came to this country seeking a better life,” he said in a statement. “We know that we can’t do this work alone, which is why we’ve worked hand-in-hand with a number of community-based organizations [and] why we have also asked our federal and state partners for financial resources in an effort to provide asylum seekers quality support and services.”

Similarly, in Chicago, Johannes Favi of the Interfaith Community for Detained Immigrants said officials at the city’s community engagement office dismissed a call to coordinate a drop-off location for the migrant buses.

“We informed the city’s community engagement [office] a week before” the first bus arrived, Favi said. “They downplayed it.”

Joseph Dutra, a spokesperson for the city of Chicago, said there was no collaboration between Texas and the city but did not answer a specific question about the nonprofits’ attempts to alert the city of the arrival of the first Texas bus.

Texas eventually picked Chicago’s Union Station as the drop-off without any input from the city. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot later said Texas did not try to coordinate the busing efforts. And Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker has decried Texas for not heeding his calls to send the buses to welcome centers set up by the city and state.

Olivia Kuncio, a Pritzker spokesperson, said the state has tried to contact Abbott’s office in multiple ways and has not gotten a response. She said the Illinois Emergency Management Agency also sent a letter to the Texas Division of Emergency Management to coordinate the busing efforts and received no response.

“As always, we are ready and willing to coordinate with Governor Abbott if he chooses to prioritize care for people who have been through a great ordeal over scoring political points in the media. His administration has not been willing to communicate the necessary information to ensure a safe and smooth arrival for these migrants, who have faced grueling and dangerous journeys,” Kuncio said in a statement. “We are immensely grateful for the help of non-profits and others on the ground in Texas helping to coordinate with the state of Illinois wherever possible.”

Renae Eze, an Abbott spokesperson, disputes that, saying Pritzker’s office has “never contacted Abbott’s office about the busing program.

“A letter to TDEM is not them contacting the Governor or his office,” she said.

As the politicians feud, Favi said he understands why Chicago officials were initially skeptical of his group’s attempt to assist with the bus arrivals.

“Information was coming from a small organization like us and not city officials. How is that possible?” he said. “But they quickly realized we were right and they started taking it serious.”

Since then, the nonprofits in the destination cities have worked with city and state officials to create a streamlined process for the migrants they receive. In Chicago, migrants are given a health inspection upon arrival, then sent to nonprofit shelters where they can spend a few days before being sent to their next destinations or to hotels provided by the state for the migrants to live in temporarily, Favi said. There, the migrants have wrap-around services provided to them around the clock.

“Welcoming new arrivals and connecting them to services are a coordinated effort from City, County, State, and community-based agencies. Upon arrival, individuals and families are provided immediate shelter and support to meet their basic needs,” Dutra said in a statement.

Dutra said Illinois has received more than 3,600 migrants, but there have been no new arrivals since Oct. 21.

New York has used 57 hotels as emergency shelters and opened up two humanitarian relief centers and a navigation center, run with Catholic Charities of New York, to provide help with immigration cases, housing options and health services. And two days after the first bus from Texas arrived, the city set up a triage center at the port authority to help welcome and assist the migrants.

But the city has also been criticized for not opening its navigation center for migrants until weeks after the Texas buses started arriving. The navigation center provides migrants with food, financial assistance, help enrolling children in schools and aid with their immigration process. The city’s plans to open a tent encampment for the migrants coming on the buses has been roundly criticized. But as the number of migrants coming from Texas has slowed, migrants turning up to the tent shelters have lauded the conditions.

Kevin Sullivan, executive director of Catholic Charities of New York, which operates the welcome center, said the city and state have done a good job of trying to communicate with nonprofits during a time of crisis, but some things have fallen through the cracks.

“There’s been very good cooperation in terms of trying to deal with this crisis in a way which provides whatever kind of compassionate care and welcome can be provided in the midst of an overwhelming crisis,” he said.

Catherine Cole, executive director of Grannies Respond, the parent organization for Team TLC, said the city “ultimately” came around to help the group’s efforts greeting migrants at the port authority.

“We made good acquaintances with the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs and staff and I have nothing bad to say about any of them, but bureaucracy prevents effectiveness,” Cole said in an email. “They all tried to deal with this overwhelming situation. But Team TLC NYC dealt with it hands-on every single day, while the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs stepped down.”

Meanwhile, government officials from Texas and the destination cities have refused to cooperate with one another.

Four days before Texas sent its first migrant bus to New York, Adams’ office reached out to Abbott by phone call and email to attempt to coordinate the arrival of buses. But Abbott’s office never responded to the city, Levy said. Eze, Abbott’s spokesperson, said the phone call and email were about an invitation for Adams to visit the southern border.

The email, which The Texas Tribune reviewed, includes the contact information for a staffer in Adams’ office but does not say what the two offices are trying to coordinate.

The two executives have not communicated since the first bus was sent to New York in August.

Federal help

Abbott has said all along that the migrant busing effort is intended to grab the attention of the Biden administration. And he’s garnered strange bedfellows in that effort: the nonprofits helping the migrants.

“There should be coordination between the states,” said Thielmann, of Team TLC NYC. “It’s not a New York City or a New York state problem, it’s a federal problem. … I hate to say I agree with [Abbott] on anything because he’s been so deplorable, but it is true that this is not a Texas problem, nor should it be.”

Favi in Chicago agrees. He said immigration reform is long overdue. And if that can’t happen, the federal government should at least come up with a plan to relocate the migrants who are seeking asylum in the same way that it would help asylum-seekers who filled out their applications in their home countries.

“These are the same people coming from the same countries, fleeing the same violence,” he said.

The mayors of the destination cities have also called on the federal government for help, saying that their localities do not have the infrastructure to tackle the issue alone — a request similar to what Abbott has been making since March.

The federal government allocated $150 million in Federal Emergency Management Agency funds to municipalities and groups that give assistance to migrants that interact with the Department of Homeland Security. But in some cases, like the city of El Paso’s busing programs, those funds can pay for only 30% of the people being helped. Cities and nonprofits have to pick up the rest of the tab, but leaders in El Paso hope that a recent change to the FEMA rules will help them cover the entire $4.6 million cost for their busing efforts.

El Paso recently ended its busing program, citing relief provided by the Biden administration’s decision to turn away Venezuelan migrants at the border by using Title 42 authority.

Even among immigrant rights advocates, however, there is some debate about how much the government should be involved.

“Governments don’t understand the needs of migrants and aren’t as flexible,” said Denise Gilman, co-director of the Immigration Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law. “It should be a nonprofit thing, but they should get the funding they need.”

And both the nonprofits and city leaders agree that the federal government should allow the migrants to work once they’re in the country and waiting for their asylum applications to process. Currently, asylum-seekers cannot get work permits until at least six months after they’ve filed their asylum applications.

But as the bickering over the busing program has shown, politicians are at an impasse over almost anything related to immigration. To Chishti, the answer is clear but unlikely.

“The solution is so obvious in front of all of us. Politics is not making it for the solutions to happen,” he said. “The solution is that the Abbotts and Adamses of the world should be called to the White House and told, ‘Stop doing this. This is a national problem which requires a national solution, which will be run by the federal government.’”

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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