By the time the first bus of migrants from Texas arrived in Los Angeles in June, Democratic leaders who run the city were surprised it had taken so long for Republican governors to send people their way.
Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida had already chartered flights of asylum seekers to Sacramento and to liberal areas like Martha’s Vineyard. Over the course of a year, Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas had already sent thousands of migrants to New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C., by chartered bus.
Texas has since made Los Angeles, the nation’s second largest city, a regular destination, sending a total of 13 buses carrying 522 people over the past three months. During the same period, thousands of other recent immigrants have traveled to Southern California on their own.
But unlike in other major metro areas — particularly New York, where Mayor Eric Adams recently warned that the migrant crisis “will destroy” his city — leaders in Los Angeles are not sounding alarms.
Instead, the city has quietly avoided the kind of emergency that has strained shelters and left officials pleading for federal help in New York, Chicago and Massachusetts. Los Angeles officials are relieved to have avoided major problems so far, especially considering that their city has faced so many other challenges lately, from a homelessness emergency to a prolonged Hollywood labor strike.
“As a city that is not very far away from the border, we’re used to people coming here seeking refuge and shelter,” said Hugo Soto-Martinez, a City Council member whose parents immigrated to Los Angeles from Mexico decades ago and worked as street vendors. “Luckily, we have the infrastructure.”
Officials at homeless shelters in Los Angeles report that they have not seen a significant increase in recent migrants seeking temporary housing. Immigrant aid groups say they have been able to develop an efficient process to help the migrants who do arrive on the buses sent by Texas, usually a few dozen at a time.
A major reason California has avoided a crisis is that the state no longer attracts as many migrants as it did decades ago when it was a top destination for people moving to the United States. Starting in the 1990s, the state’s high cost of living, coupled with a plethora of job opportunities in the Sun Belt and elsewhere in the country, led border crossers to seek other destinations.
Although Los Angeles is home to the largest undocumented population in the United States, most have been living in the city for at least a decade.
The migrants arriving by bus from Texas are just a small fraction of the more than 1,000 recent immigrants each week who head to the Los Angeles area to start new lives in California — a number that has stayed steady for years.
Most of them initially stay with relatives, who help them find work, housing and schools for their children. As a result, they are unlikely to seek emergency shelter or other city resources, immigration experts said.
Those arriving in Los Angeles tend to be Central Americans and Mexicans, who have been migrating to California for decades and have built up strong communities in the region, providing a ready support network for new arrivals.
“L.A. may have absorbed a large number of immigrants organically, as have these other cities, over the years,” said Muzaffar Chishti, a senior fellow with the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research center.
Those fleeing their home countries in the current migrant wave include Cubans, Haitians and Nicaraguans, who, like others from Caribbean nations, have traditionally migrated to the East Coast, rather than to California. The biggest group is Venezuelans, who have not historically migrated to the United States at all, and who do not have well-established networks in California.
Mr. Chishti said that for Venezuelans, New York is a much more attractive destination, largely because of its legal requirement to provide shelter to families. New York also has an enormous, diverse economy and, crucially, a robust transit system. Unlike in Los Angeles, newly arriving residents do not need a car to traverse the New York region.
“Migrants are smart people,” he said. “Venezuelan social networks were abuzz within days after people started coming to New York City.”
For now, Los Angeles leaders have walked a fine line between welcoming the few families who have arrived on the Texas buses and condemning Mr. Abbott’s moves as a cruel political stunt. While migrant waves have not overwhelmed the city so far, the City Council last month voted to pursue legal action against Texas.
Mr. Soto-Martinez said it was important to push back: “You can’t just let a bully do that to you.” The measure he proposed to investigate Mr. Abbott passed unanimously.
Immigrant aid workers in Los Angeles say they are locked in a kind of chess match with Mr. Abbott: They are glad to help as many vulnerable families as they can, but they do not want to prod Texas into sending more people to Los Angeles as a stopover on their way to other places.
Andrew Mahaleris, a spokesman for Mr. Abbott, said in a statement that migrants on the Texas-funded buses sign consent waivers agreeing upon their destination.
Mr. Mahaleris called Mr. Soto-Martinez and his colleagues “complete hypocrites,” for voting in June to make Los Angeles a so-called sanctuary city that generally will not cooperate with immigration enforcement officials.
“Instead of complaining about dealing with a fraction of the border crisis our small border towns deal with every day, the City Council should call on President Biden to take immediate action to secure the border,” he said.
Los Angeles aid groups described a relatively smooth system for helping migrants once they arrive on buses. Other aid workers in the border town of Brownsville, Texas, have sent lists of passengers as much as a day before the buses arrive so that case workers in Los Angeles can begin to contact sponsors and relatives who will pick up families. When migrants arrive, staff members with the Immigrant Defenders Law Center give presentations to help them apply for asylum or work permits.
“We feel like we created an organized rhythm,” said Angelica Salas, the executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, better known as CHIRLA, a nonprofit that has led coordination with Los Angeles agencies. “Each time, we learn.”
An increasing share of the migrants who arrive in Los Angeles on the buses are ultimately heading to other places in California, such as the Central Valley, where housing is cheaper and low-wage work is plentiful, according to data compiled by CHIRLA. Many of the migrants have also gone on to other states, including Nevada and Washington.
The number of recent migrants in Texas who want to travel to Los Angeles is currently low enough that it is taking officials there more than a week to fill the Los Angeles-bound buses with enough people to justify the trip, immigrant aid workers and migrants said.
“I waited eight days until there was a free bus to Los Angeles,” said Joelsy, a Honduran asylum seeker who recently arrived in the city from Brownsville and asked to be identified by only one name out of concern for the safety of her family back home. “There were also free buses to New York and Chicago, and most people chose to go to those cities.”