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Blue cities and the Biden administration are failing migrants bused from the border

The migrants bused from the border on Christmas Eve revealed resource gaps in Democrat-led cities and a failure of federal policy.

Asylum-seekers board a bus after being processed by US Customs and Border Patrol agents at a gap in the US-Mexico border fence near Somerton, Arizona, on December 26, 2022. 
Rebecca Noble/AFP via Getty Images
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

After migrants arrived by bus at Vice President Kamala Harris’s home in Washington, DC, on Christmas Eve, they weren’t left in the freezing cold without winter jackets for long. But that’s no thanks to Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who has spearheaded a scheme to send migrants to blue states and cities in protest of the Biden administration’s border policies.

Mutual aid groups, which have been receiving migrants in DC, got a tip from their partner organizations on the border that three buses of migrants would come on Christmas Day. But the buses arrived a day earlier than expected, and that sent groups including the Migrant Solidarity Mutual Aid Network rushing to ensure that the city could transport them to a church and synagogue where they provided hot food, clothes, and toys for the children.

They’re among at least 7,000 migrants who have been bused to DC this year, though many of them won’t go on to reside there permanently, said Madhvi Bahl, a core organizer for the Migrant Solidarity Mutual Aid Network.

“It was terrible for them to do that on Christmas Eve,” she said. “But for us, this has just been the norm for the past eight months.”

While the migrant arrivals in DC on Christmas Eve and in Martha’s Vineyard earlier this year have gotten the most media attention, there has been a steady stream of buses — or, in some cases, charter flights — arriving in northern cities since Abbott announced his migrant busing program in April. As of November, Texas had transported more than 13,000 migrants to other parts of the country under the program without giving notice to local officials or mutual aid groups in the receiving cities, apparently with the aim of sowing chaos and blaming it on President Joe Biden. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, both Republicans, have since adopted similar programs in their states.

Abbott has been clear that he’s sent waves of migrants north to force President Biden to do more to secure the border. But mutual aid groups see an unexpected benefit of the efforts to ship migrants to Democrat-led states: As long as the trips are voluntary, they can bring migrants closer to their final destinations in the US.

Aid groups are working around the clock to make the process smoother by greeting migrants upon their arrival in receiving cities, helping them get to their final destination, and offering them ongoing support and help with the typically lengthy process of applying for legal status in the US. But the groups say they aren’t getting enough help from local governments, whose resources are stretched thin, and the federal government hasn’t stepped in to formalize the process nationally.

Receiving cities face a gap in resources

In June, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) awarded a $2 million grant to the humanitarian aid organization SAMU First Response to operate a temporary shelter for migrants arriving by bus in Montgomery County, Maryland, which is just outside DC. But mutual aid groups have been calling on the Biden administration to increase its financial support.

In DC, existing city resources aren’t sufficient, Bahl said. DC Mayor Muriel Bowser, a Democrat, has declared a public emergency that freed up $10 million in funds to establish an Office of Migrant Services that provides migrants with food, health care, and, in the case of families with young children, temporary accommodation in hotels. The city has also allowed migrant children to enroll in public schools. But individuals who aren’t traveling with young children don’t get city-sponsored housing and they’re also not currently allowed to access city homeless services even if they can prove residency, leaving it to mutual aid groups to find them accommodation in hotels, religious institutions, or in volunteers’ homes.

Recognizing the gap in services, Bowser has twice requested that the National Guard be dispatched to help receive migrants arriving by bus, but the Pentagon refused her both times, and mutual aid groups have argued that the military shouldn’t get involved in what is a humanitarian matter.

Similarly, New York City Democratic Mayor Eric Adams declared a state of emergency over the migrant crisis in October, when there was an average of five to six buses arriving in the city every day, putting pressure on the city’s coffers.

Mutual aid groups say that the creation of a uniform system under which blue cities can process new arrivals from the border could help. Under the current system, “every receiving city is reinventing the wheel to some degree,” Bahl said.

These groups currently rely on their partners at NGOs on the border for information about how many migrants are on their way and when they’re projected to arrive. There’s a lack of basic coordination by government officials in Texas, Arizona, and Florida who are chartering these buses and planes.

That meant that residents of Martha’s Vineyard were caught unprepared when DeSantis flew migrants to the island earlier this year. Local residents rallied: The migrants were taken in by a church and provided with a cellphone if they didn’t already have one and a $50 Visa gift card. With their consent, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker then temporarily housed them on a military base at Cape Cod where they received additional humanitarian support, including food, health care, hygiene kits, and legal and crisis counsel.

But the process can still be so much smoother, Bahl said.

“If the federal government sat down and formalized this process and then supported receiving cities, we could actually create something that is helpful for the entire country,” she said.

The Biden administration has called on Abbott to cooperate with states that are receiving migrants. Abdullah Hasan, a White House spokesman, said in a statement Monday that Abbott not only had “abandoned children on the side of the road in below-freezing temperatures on Christmas Eve,” but that he had also done so “without coordinating with any federal or local authorities.”

It’s not clear whether the administration has the power to legally do much more than that, or whether that would require federal legislation — a prospect that is very unlikely in the closely divided Congress that will convene in the new year.

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