Sep 8, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Democratic mayors prepare to be next Texas migrant busing targets

Illustration of a city bus that says "Next Stop."
Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's efforts to bring the border crisis to Democratic mayors' doorsteps has city hall officials across the country huddling about what to do the moment a bus pulls up.

Why it matters: Critics, including Abbott's Democratic challenger Beto O'Rourke, call it a political stunt, but the migrant busing effort will test the values of so-called sanctuary cities as their mayors grapple with social safety-net issues.

What's happened: Texas has already sent thousands of migrants to New York, Washington, D.C., and Chicago so far, and others could be added to the list.

Officials in Seattle and Washington state — both of which have made a point of welcoming refugees and immigrants in the past — say they aren't aware of any buses heading their way, but they've started talking about what to do if it happens.

  • "...[W]e have been talking with our counterparts in cities that have been the target of Governor Abbott's program, including New York City, to learn about best practices," Hamdi Mohamed, director of Seattle's Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs, said in a statement to Axios.
  • Staffers in Washington Gov. Jay Inslee's office are also "keeping an eye on the issue," spokesperson Mike Faulk told Axios in an email.

Philadelphia has not received any buses from Texas to date and doesn't expect to receive any notice if they are coming, said Kevin Lessard, a spokesperson for Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney.

  • "The city is inventorying existing resources should those seeking safe refuge find their way to Philadelphia," Lessard said.

A spokesperson for Boston Mayor Michelle Wu told Axios her office is "watching the situation at the southern border very closely and already preparing for new asylum seekers to arrive in Boston" and is in conversation with state officials, nonprofits and hospitals.

In Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said the city is prepared for the arrival of more migrants.

  • Lightfoot is leaning on Chicago residents to help. The city has set up a website asking for volunteers and donations of everything from blankets to diapers.
  • Chicago officials say they were game-planning for weeks ahead of the arrival of the first buses.
  • "He [Gov. Abbott] is manufacturing a human crisis, and it makes no sense to me," Lightfoot said Sunday at a press conference.

The other side: "Mayor Lightfoot loves to tout the responsibility of her city to welcome all regardless of legal status," Abbott said last week as he announced the arrival of the buses — and took a jab at Lightfoot — "and I look forward to seeing this responsibility in action as these migrants receive resources from a sanctuary city with the capacity to serve them."

  • O'Rourke, his challenger, didn't respond to an Axios interview request about the busing effort.

Between the lines: "This is a classic example of symbolic politics — it's not meant to solve a major policy problem or issue," James Hollifield, SMU political science professor and director of its public policy center, tells Axios.

  • "It is a move to garner votes, to play to the base and to demonstrate that Abbott is standing up to the federal government, which he sees as failing in its responsibilities, and sticking it to the opposition."

By the numbers: As part of Operation Lone Star, a multibillion-dollar effort to tamp down border crossings, Texas has bused more than 7,600 migrants to D.C. since April and more than 1,900 to New York City since early August. At the end of August the first two buses with over 95 migrants from Texas arrived in Chicago.

  • Chicago officials said they received no notice from Texas state officials about the migrants they were sending north.
  • New York and D.C. officials have said they were overwhelmed by the influx.
  • The effort has cost Texas at least $12.5 million, or close to $1,300 per person per trip, the El Paso Times reported.

The big picture: Big cities have always been magnets for all sorts of immigrants, with long-established aid agencies stepping in to help government offices.

What's next: Regarding which additional cities he plans to target, Abbott is playing it close to the vest.

  • "Stay tuned," his spokesperson told Axios.

Axios Local's Melissa Santos, Mike D'Onofrio and Justin Kaufmann contributed to this story.

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