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Busing migrants was a partisan lightning rod. Here's why Democrats have embraced it

Democratic Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs, middle, is flanked behind by Arizona House Speaker Ben Toma, left, and Arizona Senate President Warren Petersen, right, at Hobbs' state of the state address on Jan. 9, 2023, in Phoenix.
Ross D. Franklin
Democratic Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs, middle, is flanked behind by Arizona House Speaker Ben Toma, left, and Arizona Senate President Warren Petersen, right, at Hobbs' state of the state address on Jan. 9, 2023, in Phoenix.

When Texas and Arizona's Republican governors began busing immigrants out of their states last year, they said it was in protest of the Democrats' "reckless" federal immigration policies.

Democrats criticized the tactic as dehumanizing, especially when migrants were misled about where they were going. But some cities and states led by Democrats later warmed to the practice, most recently Arizona's new governor, Katie Hobbs.

"If we're spending money to bus people, why just not get them to their final destination?" Hobbs told reporters at a recent press conference.

Here's how the politics of transporting migrants has evolved.

Immigrants have always moved around

People have always traveled within the U.S. once they claim asylum at the border.

In the border town of Del Rio, Texas, for instance, the non-profit Val Verde Humanitarian Border Coalition receives immigrants directly from the U.S. Border Patrol station.

From there, they only have a few options for getting to their final destinations.

"You have to understand the locale here. The nearest major city is in San Antonio. That's a three-hour drive," says VVHBC operations director Tiffany Burrow.

A couple of Greyhound buses depart Del Rio each day. The local airport recently lost service after American Airlines pulled out. The non-profit also works directly with a private transportation company. VVHBC would typically help recent arrivals figure out where they needed to go, and then a family member would purchase them a ticket.

But in 2022, the non-profits and aid groups at the border had trouble meeting basic needs for the record number of people trying to come to the U.S., per federal data.

Buses operated by the state are "incredibly useful," says Burrow.

Most do not stay in the cities they're bussed to, except for New York

Some bus passengers also appreciate the free ride.

"I didn't know that the ticket to get here cost $500 dollars," says Selina, a migrant traveling from Chile who caught a state-run bus from Texas to Philadelphia. NPR is not using her name because her immigration case is pending.

Selina, who wants to meet up with her brother-in-law in New Jersey, tells NPR in Spanish that when she got into the United States, a guard told her about the free buses and showed her where to get in line for one. Otherwise, "I couldn't pay," she says.

Passengers disembarking from a bus sent to Philadelphia by the state of Texas on December 5, 2022.
Laura Benshoff / NPR
Passengers disembarking from a bus sent to Philadelphia by the state of Texas on December 5, 2022.

That reality has helped shift the politics of transporting immigrants. "Something that looked like a punitive thing towards immigrants done for political gains suddenly turned itself on the head because migrants are rational people," says Muzaffar Chishti, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute.

Not only could they get a free ticket to a family or a shelter, but "they found these cities were actually quite hospitable to immigrants," says Chishti.

Government agencies and nonprofits in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Chicago and New York have welcomed tens of thousands of immigrants bussed from the border. In many cases, they provide food, shelter, legal services and help with transportation.

Some arrivals move on quickly. In Philadelphia and D.C., between 5-10% of the arrivals remained in shelters or subsidized housing as of mid-January, according to data provided by city officials. Chicago officials did not provide enough data to make the comparison.

In New York, where there is a "right-to-shelter" law, more than 26,000 asylum-seekers are staying in city-run shelters as of Jan. 8, according to a city spokesperson.

Democrats have started to adopt the process

Cities and states led by Democrats started busing immigrants last year – with some tweaks.

In El Paso, the Democratic administration bused more than 13,000 people as of the fall, outstripping buses from the state of Texasin some cases.

At the time, Mayor Oscar Leeser said he was coordinating with officials in the receiving cities, unlike Gov. Abbott. However, the city stopped its own busing program in October, and the only government-backed bus program there now is run by the state of Texas, according to a city spokesperson.

Then in December, thousands of people started showing up in Denver on their own. The city set up emergency shelters as temperatures dipped outside. But, it also bought individual bus tickets for 1,900 people, helping them get to 35 states, according to data provided by local officials.

"It goes along with food and shelter and clothes and toiletries. Those bus tickets are part of this huge humanitarian effort," says Josh Rosenblum, a city and county spokesperson.

The politics remain tricky

Colorado's Democratic governor, Jared Polis, announced in early January that the state would also charter buses from Denver to other cities. But just a few days later, he halted that program, after the mayors of Chicago and New York asked him to stop.

In astatement, Polis directed blame elsewhere. "The federal government and Congress, unfortunately, have failed the American people on immigration reform and border security," he said, while urging the Biden Administration and Congress to set aside funds for states helping migrants.

Chishti says the busing controversy is a "wake-up call" for politicians, and hopes it will encourage a more coordinated, federally-backed system for helping migrants move around the country.

In Arizona, another revamped busing program is in the works. Murphy Hebert, communications director for the Arizona Governor's Office, says the new administration has an obligation to use the $15 million appropriated by the legislature to transport immigrants away from border areas.

"We are reallocating those funds to a program that is more effective and more humanitarian," she says.

That could include chartering buses, or other forms of transportation. While there is no timeline for when it will roll out, "it is a priority," says Hebert.

Preliminary federal data for 2023 show a drop in the number of people crossing into the U.S., taking off some pressure to figure it out.

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Laura Benshoff
Laura Benshoff is an interim reporter on NPR's National desk.