The buses all had something unusual in common: even though they had traveled the length of the country the luggage compartments were eerily bare.
The vehicles’ giant front windows reared around the corner, faces peeping through tinted glass for a first glimpse of New York City.
It was well before dawn last Friday, the moon still visible, when the first of four buses pulled into a parking lot near the sprawling Port Authority bus terminal.
The Republican governors of Texas, Arizona and even Florida, a non-border state, have been sending people without agreement from the destinations’ authorities in New York, Washington, Chicago, Sacramento and even Martha’s Vineyard.
The passengers usually aren’t told much either, except, misleadingly, that plentiful services and opportunities await them in those Democratic-run places, amid simmering political and legal rows. Some are put on buses, others flights.
On this morning, the cold took many by surprise as they alighted in midtown Manhattan, just a few blocks from the Empire State Building, some carrying their belongings in plastic trash or grocery bags, some entirely empty-handed.
One elderly woman raised both hands, with a victorious smile. Others appeared exhausted and glum. Another woman descended using a crutch.
“Some get injured on their way here,” said Power Malu, a founder of Artists Athletes Activists, which campaigns for social justice in marginalized and underserved communities and is one of several groups turning up regularly to receive migrants.
While the mayor of New York City, Eric Adams, has complained about receiving little or no notice from southern states when asylum seekers are arriving, aid groups complain about lack of liaison from his office, too.
Adama Bah, a civil rights and immigration activist and former asylee, was among several organizers telling the Guardian that communication and cooperation was lacking.
“There’s a very big disconnect with the city and the NGOs that are here,” she said.
— Adama Bah (@Nenealamo) September 28, 2022
Texas Democratic congresswoman Veronica Escobar cited “maliciousness” in Republican governor Greg Abbott’s actions. Beto O’Rourke, who is challenging him in the midterm elections this November, called the unilateral bussing “demonizing people”, though it appears to be boosting Abbott’s campaign.
A family of four emerged from one bus, the mother in just a tank top despite the chill wind, a four-year-old boy in shorts and the father, Andres Merlo, 23, in sandals and T-shirt, holding their one-year-old son.
They followed others to seats in the bus station, where volunteers were waiting to try to match them with spaces in the city’s stretched homeless shelter network. Power Malu said he’s seen people arrive barefoot.
In the coming days, arrivals may expect to be taken to controversial huge tents.
Merlo and his four-year-old sped a yellow toy car across a banister separating them from the ebb and flow of regular passengers.
A volunteer had given the boy the toy car, Merlo said. There were coffee and blankets. Merlo said the family had thought it wouldn’t get cold until December, and they weren’t prepared.
They’d spent two days on the bus and said that before they started their journey from Texas, a woman told them not to get off at all before New York.
They followed her orders and even when the bus stopped for gas, they didn’t get off to buy food or water.
“The kids were hungry,” Merlo said. “There was a bathroom on board, but by the end it smelled really bad.” They were hungry now, too.
Like many thousands, the family have fled economic collapse and political violence in Venezuela, making an arduous overland journey to Mexico, then the US.
After an hour, Merlo was allocated a place at a family intake shelter in the Bronx. Their four-year-old held on tightly to his new toy car all the way, on another bus.
By the afternoon, Merlo was standing outside the shelter, where his son met another little boy on the street, who had arrived with his father, Luis Salazar, 22, the previous day after a bus ride from the border lasting three days and eight hours.
Salazar’s wife is pregnant. “She was really uncomfortable on the bus,” he said. They had then been taken to a motel at 10.45pm, without food, and made to leave again at 7am to go to this shelter, where they were handed frozen bread and pasta, he said.
The two little boys started playing and ran around a fire hydrant, their laughter competing with the characteristic city backdrop of wailing sirens. They poked around sidewalk shrubs, screaming and giggling, as their fathers talked in rapid whispers.
Then the boys carefully pushed the yellow toy car on the rough exterior of a house, making sure it didn’t drop.
Nearby was Andry Alfonso, 23, trying to get in touch with his wife by phone. After crossing the border he was separated from her and his stepdaughter and spent five days in immigration detention in Texas, then three days in the streets after being released, he said.
He and they were taken separately to New York and were trying to reunite.
As he was explaining his circumstances, Alfonso noticed the bag with his belongings, a small blanket and a packet of food, was leaking water. He rushed to it, unpacking the morsels, trying to figure out where the water came from, anxious to protect what little he had.
The three men got talking, discussing how to get work, their flurries of conversation interspersed with silence and tense faces. They will probably wait many months for work permits.
“Anything,” Alfonso said, his voice desperate. He swung his arms vigorously to mimic shoveling.
While they spoke, Merlo and Salazar would occasionally take their sons somewhere around the corner to go to the bathroom; the shelter had a long line, they said, and the kids couldn’t wait that long.