Governor Greg Abbott’s migrant bus program is what asylum advocates have always wanted

A group of migrants board a Chicago Transit Authority bus at Union Station in Chicago to be taken to a Salvation Army shelter after arriving from Texas on Wednesday, August 31, 2022. Credit: Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune via REUTERS

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As Governor Greg Abbott expands his program to bus migrants on a third major subway, sparking a fresh row with a new Democratic mayor, immigration rights experts say the Republican governor who is working to crack down Illegal Immigration is establishing one of the most generous state-funded services to assist immigrants entering the country.

Free rides offered to migrants to sanctuary cities like New York, Washington, DC and now Chicago have so far cost the state $12.7 million. Abbott has so far provided voluntary travel for 8,900 migrants, according to his office. These trips fill an important gap — the high cost of transportation — for immigrants entering the country, according to immigration advocates who are often opposed to Abbott’s border security initiatives. Migrants entering the country often seek transportation to connect with relatives or friends who can ease their transition to the United States.

“Abbott is one of the only state actors to offer immigrants a free benefit, a free ride,” said Abel Nuñez, executive director of the Central American Resource Center. “You are in effect creating a free program that if a Democrat had said so, they would have gone against it.”

Abbott’s office did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

The voluntary bus policy, part of the Governor’s Operation Lone Star initiative to slow the number of migrants crossing the border, may actually entice migrants passing through Central America and Mexico to reach Texas, a Nuñez said.

Nuñez added that nonprofits often try to provide transportation to get immigrants to desired destinations, but lack the funds to serve everyone in need. Instead, they can help them buy transport if the migrant already has the money.

In order to antagonize the Biden administration, Abbott began sending buses full of migrants to Washington in April. In total, more than 7,400 migrants were transported by bus to the nation’s capital and more than 1,500 were sent to New York, according to the governor’s office.

Late Wednesday, Abbott announced that Chicago, another sanctuary city for immigrants with a Democratic mayor, was added as a new destination for the program when the first bus arrived with 60 migrants.

City mayors blasted Abbott for the bus policy and said their social services had been overwhelmed by the influx. Abbott expressed joy at their complaints, noting that those same Democrats have dismissed Republicans who have raised the same concerns along the border. Abbott escalated his feud with New York City Mayor Eric Adams last week with a New York Post op-ed calling the city executive a hypocrite.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot called the policy “racist” but said the city would welcome newcomers.

Immigration experts say the governor’s efforts to score political points are making it easier for migrants to stay in the country.

“What this shows are the unintended consequences of the sticker policy,” said Michelle Mittelstadt, communications director of the Migration Policy Institute. “Perhaps it hasn’t been fully thought out that by taking people into what the governor has described as a ‘sanctuary jurisdiction’…you’re likely to get different results in immigration court cases.”

Data from Syracuse University shows New York courts have approved just over 70% of requests for asylum or other requests for help since 2001. Houston has denied nearly 88% of applicants of asylum. Dallas rejected more than 72% of those requests.

But other experts are concerned 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 bus will only make their final destination more confusing, as some ultimately don’t want to be in New York, Washington or Chicago.

“The cruelty of the bus 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’s extremely cruel to deceive people with a free ride that takes them to a place where they actually won’t be able to settle.”

El Paso, a Democratic city, also joined the bus policy, sending 35 Venezuelan migrants to New York in late August.

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