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Texas has spent over $148 million busing migrants to other parts of the country

Immigrants file into a U.S. Customs and Border Protection bus after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border on January 07, 2024 in Eagle Pass, Texas.
John Moore
/
Getty Images
Immigrants file into a U.S. Customs and Border Protection bus after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border on January 07, 2024 in Eagle Pass, Texas.

In April 2022, Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott announced his state was going to start transporting to other states migrants who had been released from federal custody. He saidhe was doing it to prevent the state from shouldering "the burdens imposed by open-border advocates in other parts of the country."

Nearly two years later, Texas has transported over 102,000 migrants to New York, Chicago, Denver, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.

But the initiative has also come with a hefty price tag. Records obtained by The Texas Newsroom under the Texas Public Information Act show that as of Jan. 24, the state has spent over $148 million to bus migrants to predominantly Democratic cities. The price tag grows every day.

"It certainly is a great deal of money to be spent," Ray Perryman, the president of the Waco, Texas-based economic research company The Perryman Group, said.

The amount already spent is less than half of one percent of Texas' $321 billion two-year state budget. However, Perryman wonders if Texas should keep using taxpayer dollars to foot the bill.

"These dollars ... are not a huge percentage of the overall budget so it's certainly something that could be done," Perryman said. "I think the question is, 'Should it be done?'"

Life-changing program for migrants

It depends who you ask.

J. is a 34-year-old migrant from Venezuela who left his country in January 2022. NPR is not using his full name because J. says he's worried about being targeted by immigration enforcement for speaking out.

"I spent New Year's Eve with my family, and on New Year's Day I was ready to leave," he said in Spanish.

J. left Venezuela on Jan. 2, 2022. He had no money with him, and carried a backpack with a few clothing items.

The whole journey to the U.S. took him about two months. It included crossing the Darién Gap — the dangerous jungle between Colombia and Panama. J. eventually crossed the Rio Grande River into Del Río, Texas. That's when he was processed by Border Patrol and he says men wearing military-style uniforms offered him a free bus to Washington, D.C.

"I was scared because I kept asking, 'Are they actually going to take us to Washington?" he said.

He arrived in D.C. three days later.

The bus J. took was paid by Texas as part of Gov. Abbott's Operation Lone Star border security initiative.

The initiative, which also ramped up law enforcement and physical barriers at the border, has cost Texas $10 billion — more than the operating budgets of Delaware and Vermont.

Texas state Rep. David Spiller, a Republican, supports the governor's mission to curtail illegal crossings and says the migrant busing program is worth the cost.

"A lot of people were very critical of Gov. Abbott when he initiated that but we knew here in Texas that that was a very good approach because, if nothing else, [it helps] to raise awareness to the rest of the country of what we happen to deal with here on a regular basis," Spiller said.

Spiller was a sponsor of Senate Bill 4, the Texas law that allows local police to arrest migrants and empowers magistrates to order migrants out of the country. He said the busing program is giving other states a taste of what the Southern border is dealing with.

"They get a busload of folks in New York — say they get 100 people — and they think the sky is falling," Spiller said.

Texas has sent over 37,000 people to New York City alone since April 2022, a small percentage of the total number of migrants who have crossed through the Texas-Mexico border.

According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, 71,048 migrants crossed through the Del Rio sector in Texas in December — that's an average of about 2,300 crossings per day. But crossings through Texas has declined since then — the Del Rio sector saw 16,712 migrant crossings in January.

Evolution of Abbott's busing program

When Abbott's busing program launched, it was received with mixed reactions from immigrant rights groups. Some called it cruel, but others said this was something they've been asking for.

The Val Verde Border Humanitarian Coalition, which helps recently arrived migrants in Del Rio, initially partnered up with the state to help migrants board the buses.

Tiffany Burrow, the organization's operations director, said at first the busing program allowed migrants to get to bigger cities for free, quickly and safely.

"We strictly saw this as an option that benefited the migrants that were coming through," Burrow said.

She coordinated with organizations in the destination cities to help migrants receive food, clothes and assistance navigating the city the busing program wasn't all bad at first. But things changed last year.

Texas stopped honoring certain agreements — like dropping people before 6 a.m. or past 10 p.m., or letting assistance organizations know at what time the buses were arriving.

Burrow said these changes made it unsafe for migrants so she stopped the partnership with the state.

"But I think it's entirely possible that state buses have run their course," she said.

What happens next?

Abbott has said he'll keep transporting migrants to other states.

Other governors have followed Texas' lead: Florida Republican Ron DeSantis and Arizona Democrat Katie Hobbs run their own busing programs.

Meanwhile other states are feeling the burden of the influx.

Last month, Illinois Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzkerbegged Abbott not to send migrants during a winter storm, when the shelters were at capacity.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, also a Democrat,has asked the federal government to send financial aidto states receiving migrants.

Regardless of the politics, J. — the Venezuelan migrant who arrived in 2022 — says the bus ride changed his life.

"I've been able to have things I never had in my country," he said.

After getting to Maryland, J. started working, saved money, and four months later, moved into an apartment.

He's taking English classes, and is participating in a culinary training program. He also got a driver's license.

"I'm so grateful because I've also met wonderful people and doors have opened for me," he said. "When I look back, I'm no longer the same person."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sergio Martínez-Beltrán | The Texas Newsroom