A year and a half after Gov. Greg Abbott began busing newly arrived migrants from Texas to large Democratic cities whose leaders had pledged to provide sanctuary, the state has now sent more than 50,000 migrants to destinations across the United States, helping to provoke a shelter crisis in several cities that has reshaped the debate over immigration.
When Mr. Abbott announced that the first bus had been sent to Washington last April, the move was greeted by many as simply a means of scoring political points by drawing attention to what the governor said was President Biden’s inaction on the border. Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, jumped in to charter a plane that flew 48 migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts.
But since then, the program has grown into an organized migrant transportation system, helping alleviate the strain of new arrivals on small border cities by systematically sending them to a widening list of destinations, including Chicago and Denver, at a cost of roughly $75 million and growing.
Modeled on disaster relief efforts after hurricanes and floods in Texas but infused with a political desire to “bring the border” to Democratic strongholds, the busing program has worked out better than even Mr. Abbott and his advisers anticipated, altering the conversation around immigration in major American cities. It has also prompted some Democrats, like Mayor Eric Adams of New York, to urge federal action and to make uncomfortable choices about how generously to treat those arriving on their doorstep.
“It has had a real effect on the mayor and policies here,” said George Arzt, a longtime Democratic political consultant in New York. “People in the Democratic Party want to help the migrants without angering the permanent residents here.”
Tensions have flared in Chicago, where Mayor Brandon Johnson this month announced that he would travel to the border to assess the situation, only to reconsider the trip, saying he would stay and address the challenge at home. A city delegation went instead.
In Denver, officials have responded with a strategy similar to Mr. Abbott’s: paying for bus tickets to send thousands of migrants arriving by bus on to other cities.
While Texas has been responsible for thousands of migrants arriving in cities with Democratic leaders, far more have gotten there by other means. In New York, for example, the city has counted more than 120,000 arrivals since the spring of 2022, according to data provided by the city. Of those, about 20,000 came on buses chartered by the Abbott administration.
But Mr. Abbott’s program has concentrated a large number of migrants, often those with little money and few existing ties who accept a free ride, on a small number of specific cities chosen by Texas, and delivered them in a highly visible way — a sharp contrast to the usually more diffuse movements of migrants who make their way across the country on private buses or flights with their own resources, or with the help of charity groups, some of which receive federal funding.
Denver, for example, has paid for bus tickets but allowed migrants to choose their destinations, as well as a much smaller number of plane and bus tickets. Roughly half of the 8,800 migrants went to New York and Chicago, while the other half traveled to scores of other cities, including Salt Lake City and Miami, according to data provided by the city.
“The migrant crisis would not have gotten the attention in the blue states and cities but for the Texas governor’s targeted busing campaign,” said Muzaffar Chishti, a senior follow at the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research center. “That’s why immigration historians, I think, will forever describe this as the busing chapter of American immigration history.”
Still, the Texas program has not succeeded in what is perhaps Mr. Abbott’s biggest goal, his top advisers acknowledged: forcing the federal government to adopt more stringent border controls, favored by Republicans.
About 1.1 million migrants were encountered by federal border agents along the Texas border in the 11 months before the end of August. Around 40 percent of those encountered across the southern U.S. border have been released into the country.
Mr. Abbott is now pursuing an even more audacious effort: to change Texas law to make crossing the border from Mexico without authorization a state crime, allowing the police in Texas to arrest people coming across the Rio Grande, including asylum seekers.
The State Senate passed a bill to do just that this month during a special legislative session, though it has yet to be approved by the Texas House. Immigration lawyers said the legislation amounted to a violation of the federal government’s pre-emptive role in setting immigration policy.
Some critics see the move as a deliberate attempt to create a court case that could allow the more conservative Supreme Court to broaden state power over immigration. Jennefer Canales-Pelaez, a lawyer and Texas policy strategist at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, called the bill “an obvious attempt to challenge Arizona v. United States,” referring to a 2012 Supreme Court decision upholding the federal government’s role in immigration.
Top advisers to Mr. Abbott said that overturning that precedent was not the intent, but added that the administration would be prepared to defend such a law in court as part of its challenge to federal immigration policy.
While some border residents and city officials have complained about those aggressive efforts, many have embraced busing as a necessary emergency measure.
“If we can’t move people on within three or four days, our entire system becomes backlogged,” said Jorge Rodriguez, the emergency management coordinator for El Paso. For several weeks last year, the city chartered its own buses, sending about 14,000 migrants north, primarily to New York, he said. Now the city is partnering with Mr. Abbott’s program.
Since last month, when there was a new surge of arrivals, more than 7,700 migrants have traveled from El Paso to Chicago, Denver and New York, according to city data. “About 99 percent of migrants that come to El Paso choose not to stay in El Paso,” Mr. Rodriguez said.
Mr. Abbott’s advisers said that the governor started the busing program after hearing from local officials that they could not keep up with the large number of arriving migrants. And he wanted to make a political point to Democrats who said they would welcome the migrants.
“This is about sending migrants to those cities that have said, publicly, that we welcome these folks with open arms,” Mr. Pate said.
The program is run by the Texas Department of Emergency Management, which has extensive experience busing people out of natural disaster areas. About 40 or so migrants are taken on each bus, which leaves when officials find enough people who are interested in traveling to a destination chosen by the state. Each bus is a commercial charter stocked with water and rations of the sort provided in disasters.
Word of the program has spread widely among arriving migrants, said Mr. Chishti, of the Migration Policy Institute, helping to reshape migration pathways. “We know that social networks were abuzz after the New York City busing started,” he said.
Denver started seeing buses sent by Texas arrive in May.
“We got nine buses last night alone,” Mayor Mike Johnston, a Democrat, said in an interview this month. “An overwhelming majority of those buses are being sent directly by the governor,” he said, referring to Mr. Abbott. “Before, it was more organic. Now it’s almost all deliberate.”
Buses chartered by Texas have also started arriving with increasing frequency in Los Angeles, said Isaac Cuevas, director of immigration for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, part of a coalition of groups set up to welcome migrants. “Yesterday there was a bus that arrived with zero notice, just unannounced.”
This week, the delegation of Chicago officials traveled to several Texas border cities to learn about the situation from locals and plea for more advance warning on departing buses. They also brought a message about the harsh Midwest winter.
“Sending people to Chicago in the winter is not the humane thing to do,” said Cristina Pacione-Zayas, first deputy chief of staff to the Chicago mayor.
In addition to the Texas buses, she said the city has received about 3,000 migrants on flights from San Antonio, paid for in part with federal funds. She urged the Biden administration to do more to support Chicago in caring for the migrants once they arrive.
As for Mr. Abbott’s program, Ms. Pacione-Zayas said, the politics behind it were clear: Of the 430 buses that have been sent so far by the Texas governor, 320 had come to Chicago since April, when the city was announced as the host city for next year’s Democratic National Convention.
Ernesto Londoño contributed reporting from Chicago, Eileen Sullivan from Washington and Maia Coleman from New York.