Democrat-led Texas city steps up migrant busing to New York, outpacing Republican effort

By Ted Hesson, Paul Ratje and Kristina Cooke

EL PASO, Texas (Reuters) - The Democrat-led border city of El Paso, Texas, has sent more migrants on buses to New York City and Chicago than a campaign by Texas' Republican governor, a twist in an ongoing partisan battle over U.S. border security.

El Paso, which sits across the border from Juarez, Mexico, has bused roughly 7,000 migrants to New York City since late August and sent more than 1,800 to Chicago, a city-run effort that far exceeds the more ad-hoc transportation of the past.

The city's busing effort has received less attention than a separate statewide campaign by Texas Governor Greg Abbott, who is seeking a third term in Nov. 8 midterm elections. Abbott has bused more than 3,000 migrants to New York City and more than 900 to Chicago as part of a high profile campaign to put a spotlight on the record crossings at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Texas and Arizona combined have also bused over 10,000 migrants to Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, Florida's Republican Governor Ron DeSantis recently flew a group of about 50 migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, but those who boarded the planes have said they were misled.

The Republican initiatives to move migrants, including those seeking asylum, away from the border have called attention to the issue with the election just weeks away. A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll showed U.S. voters prefer them over Democrats for addressing immigration issues.

The Democratic administration of U.S. President Joe Biden and Democratic mayors receiving the migrants have criticized the Republican governors for creating confusion with surprise drop-offs and say the busing campaign strains resources.

But El Paso's Democratic leaders say they are coordinating with receiving cities and that migrants take their chartered buses voluntarily. City officials say their buses were needed because up to 2,000 migrants were arriving daily, including impoverished Venezuelans without family in the United States to pay for onward travel.

Coordination between sending and receiving cities is crucial, according to Theresa Cardinal Brown, a managing director with the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington-based think tank.

"If there's not coordination," she said, "you're basically dropping penniless people who don't speak the language in an unknown city and saying, 'Fend for yourself.'"

Still, El Paso's coordination could be better, said New York City mayoral spokesperson Kate Smart. El Paso informs New York when a bus is traveling to the city, but, she adds, officials from both states should discuss beforehand whether the bus actually needs to go New York and how many migrants are onboard.

Many of those sent to New York are Venezuelans, who have been arrested at the border in higher numbers than ever before. The United States cannot expel them to Mexico under a pandemic-era order as it can other migrants.

El Paso's program is not new: last year, the city hired a handful charter buses to transport migrants to nearby cities, a city official said.

But when overwhelmed U.S. border authorities began releasing hundreds of migrants at a time in El Paso in August and September, the city started busing to New York and Chicago.

'COMPLETELY DIFFERENT'

The buses now depart from a converted warehouse in northeast El Paso that serves as a migrant processing center. On Monday, several hundred migrants waited for buses to New York City and Chicago, among them Frederick Pinango, 28, and his wife and 3-year-old daughter.

The Venezuelan family trekked through the Darien Gap, an often dangerous passage through a jungle separating Colombia and Panama. They worked their way through Central America and Mexico by cleaning bathrooms, emptying trash and begging, according to Pinango.

They took a bus to New York because they had no contacts in the United States and it was free.

"I have faith that they will help us with some shelter, so I can start to work," he said.

Edwin Rico, a 28-year-old Venezuelan who boarded a bus to Chicago on Monday, said the food that El Paso officials provided for the trip was not enough, but he rationed it.

"I don’t have money, so I’m grateful for the help," he said.

El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser, a Democrat, said the city's program is "completely different" than the other busing efforts and that they seek to "treat people with respect."

New York City Mayor Eric Adams, also a Democrat, has slammed Abbott, the Republican governor, for his refusal to share information about bus arrivals. Adams said in a mid-September press conference that Leeser, unlike Abbott, was willing to meet and "figure out a humane way to coordinate."

New York City officials traveled to El Paso last month to watch the process firsthand. During the visit, they discussed adding drop-off points in cities on the way to New York, Leeser said.

El Paso keeps in contact with the Biden administration and is seeking federal reimbursement for busing costs, Leeser said, and a U.S. Department of Homeland Security spokesperson confirmed the coordination.

"This is a federal issue," Leeser said. "They’re not coming to El Paso, they’re coming to the United States."

(Reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington, Paul Ratje in El Paso, Texas, and Kristina Cooke in San Francisco; Editing by Mica Rosenberg and Aurora Ellis)