Have Republican busing schemes made immigration a priority for voters?

Experts say Republican initiatives to bus migrants and asylum seekers north have contributed to voter concerns about immigration in the US.

Migrants and asylum seekers line up outside of a bus in San Diego.
Migrants and asylum seekers leave a processing facility in February and enter San Diego, California, the United States [File: Gregory Bull/AP Photo]

Dallas, Texas – When Daniela peered out of the round aeroplane window, her first thought was that she had been deported.

Her flight was about to land on a small coastal island, rimmed with white-sand beaches. Quaint villages dotted the otherwise rural landscape.

It was not what the Venezuelan mother imagined the northern United States to look like. It was not where she and her 10-year-old son imagined living, after being promised education, housing and career opportunities.

Her story — and that of the roughly 50 other migrants she travelled with — would become national news, as part of a growing trend: Republican governors transporting migrants and asylum seekers north, in an effort to shift the pressures of immigration to Democrat-led areas.

It was September 2022, and Daniela, who asked to use a pseudonym, said she had been deceived into boarding a flight from San Antonio, Texas, to Martha’s Vineyard, a wealthy, liberal enclave off the coast of Massachusetts.

Officials there said they were unaware of the incoming flight and ill-prepared to handle the sudden influx of new arrivals. Democrats decried the flight as a “political stunt”.

But two years later, with a pivotal presidential election fast approaching, experts say the flight — and similar efforts to bus migrants to left-leaning cities — may have succeeded in heightening pressure at the ballot box.

“The busing has increased the margin of disapproval by affecting some more liberal areas that would otherwise have a better framework for discussing this issue,” said David J Bier, the director of immigration at the Cato Institute, a think tank.

“It’s been more effective than I thought it would be.”

Migrants and asylum seekers meet locals in Martha's Vineyard after being flown there by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
Migrants and asylum seekers flown from Texas arrive at the village of Edgartown in Martha’s Vineyard on September 15, 2022 [File: Vineyard Gazette/Reuters, handout]

Immigration a top concern

For the first time since 2019, the research agency Gallup found that US voters this year ranked immigration as the most significant problem the country faces.

Immigration also topped the list of reasons voters disapprove of President Joe Biden’s job performance, as he seeks re-election in November.

Experts told Al Jazeera there is likely a link between such findings and the headline-grabbing transportation schemes spearheaded by Republicans like Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.

“These tactics were a stroke of genius for Abbott and DeSantis, because it took a problem that Texas was deeply familiar with and brought it home to Democratic urban administrations,” said Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.

The busing trend largely began in April 2022, when Governor Abbott ordered the “voluntary transportation” of migrants and asylum seekers out of his state, which shares 2,018km (1,254 miles) of border with Mexico.

“Texans cannot continue to shoulder the burdens imposed by open-border advocates in other parts of the country,” Abbott wrote at the time.

Since then, other Republican governors have followed suit, including DeSantis, who arranged the flight to Martha’s Vineyard. Abbott himself has claimed to have bused more than 105,000 people to Chicago, New York City and several other areas led by Democrats.

Even so, experts say that number is a fraction of the total “unauthorised” immigrant population in the US, estimated to comprise about 11 million people. Many arrive at major cities on their own, without the help of busing schemes.

And Jillson pointed out that, rather than be a burden, immigration is more often a boon to the national economy. He believes a streamlined process for accessing work permits would allow immigration to fuel even more economic growth.

“If the workforce was not growing because of immigration, we would see a workforce in decline,” he said. “The workforce is growing only because we have immigrants coming across the border.”

Greg Abbott speaks from behind a podium that bears his name. Behind him is a screen with the letters NRA.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott launched his busing programme in April 2022 [File: Carlos Barria/Reuters]

Tension with Democratic mayors

Nevertheless, experts say the migrant-busing scheme has contributed to some Democrats criticising their fellow party members.

“We have found ourselves in a situation where it’s not just the left and the right arguing about immigration. It’s now happening between members of the Democratic Party,” said Jorge Loweree, a managing director at the American Immigration Council.

In New York City, for instance, Mayor Eric Adams has launched barbs at President Biden, accusing him of doing too little to stem the flow of immigration to the city.

In a news conference last year, Adams called it a “national problem dropped on the lap of a city” and warned it was straining city resources.

“The national government has turned its back on New York City,” he told reporters. “The president and the White House have failed this city on this issue.”

In a private meeting at the White House, Adams also told a group of Biden administration staffers, “There’s no leadership here,” according to a report published by CNN.

Adams has repeatedly called on Biden to provide more federal aid for migrants and asylum seekers arriving in New York. In May, he joined 39 other mayors in sending a letter asking Biden to streamline work authorisation for new arrivals to the country.

This would allow employers to hire immigrants who might otherwise be forced to rely on government services to make ends meet.

The letter added that “busing operation municipalities” had recently “welcomed thousands of asylum seekers arriving from the US-Mexico border”.

Brandon Johnson of Chicago, a progressive, was one of the mayors who signed Adams’s letter. Though he has been less critical of the president than Adams, he has not shied away from calling for more federal assistance.

In an April meeting with local activists, for instance, Johnson said the Biden administration should provide work permits to undocumented migrants in the US, just as they are offered to asylum seekers.

“We need the president to extend the same economic opportunities to our long-term undocumented brothers and sisters,” he said.

Johnson has also criticised Governor Abbott directly, as flights and busloads of migrants continue to arrive from Texas.

“It’s certainly not acceptable for the governor to continue to send people to the city of Chicago,” Johnson said during a January snowstorm.

Illinois Governor JB Pritzker, meanwhile, denounced Abbott for his “callousness” in an open letter, asking him to “prevent additional deaths” by halting the mid-winter transports.

Abbott claims he has sent more than 33,000 migrants to Chicago so far. Democratic officials expect that number to rise as the party holds its national convention in the city in August — and as Republicans seek to embarrass Biden during the event.

“We’re hoping that with the city’s help, with the state’s help, that we will have a plan in place so that it doesn’t feel like it’s just, ‘OK, we’ve got a bunch of buses coming in,’” Democratic National Convention chair Minyon Moore told the Chicago Tribune in April.

President Joe Biden, looking downward, wears a dark suit and blue tie as he stands in the White House.
President Joe Biden has faced pressure from both Republicans and Democrats to lower irregular migration at the US-Mexico border [File: Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters]

A bipartisan issue

Julia Gelatt, an associate director at the Migration Policy Institute, told Al Jazeera that, while Republicans often blame Democrats for high levels of migration at the border, “any president would be inundated”.

During the last fiscal year, for instance, the US government documented a record of 2,475,669 people travelling irregularly across the US-Mexico border.

Gelatt said one of the underlying issues is that the nature of immigration to the US has been changing in recent decades.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Gelatt explained that the vast majority of migrants and asylum seekers were from Mexico, and many of them had families nearby to lean on for support.

Now, factors like political strife, violence, global warming and poverty have led to an increase in migration from other countries like Venezuela, Colombia and Peru.

Many arrivals also do not have existing family structures in the US to help them, making them more likely to rely on government services upon their arrival.

Some officials have also expressed concern that the rise in migration — and the lack of support and housing resources in general — have worsened the housing crisis in some parts of the country.

“Whether or not Abbott had sent those buses, I think we’d still see migrants presenting their issues,” Gelatt said, referencing the need for housing, among other necessities.

“We’re seeing a lot more needs being presented at the border because of the lack of family structures and the rising instability in their home countries.”

But Gelatt, nevertheless, has observed pressure campaigns and criticism against Biden shifting his platform on immigration.

When Biden ran for the presidency in 2020, he pledged to usher in an end to the heavy-handed immigration policies of his predecessor, former President Donald Trump.

“They came in really wanting to draw a sharp contrast to the Trump administration,” Gelatt said of Biden’s camp.

Upon taking office in 2021, Biden pledged that “not another foot” of border wall would be built under his administration, and he rescinded Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy that led to migrant children being separated from their parents.

He also signed an executive order to nix the so-called “Muslim ban”, a Trump-era policy that barred travellers from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the US.

A bus with an advertisement for rotisserie wings on the side arrives in Philadelphia carrying migrants and asylum seekers.
Migrants and asylum seekers reach Philadelphia in November 2022, arriving on a bus chartered by Governor Greg Abbott [File: Joe Lamberti/AP Photo]

Shifting policy platform

But Gelatt said that, under pressure from the right and from his own party, Biden has adopted immigration stances similar to his predecessor’s.

“More recently”, Gelatt continued, “the Biden administration has been proposing policies that sound a whole lot like policies Democrats decried”.

In 2023, for instance, Biden allowed construction to proceed on the border wall. And that same year, he issued a rule about asylum eligibility that critics say echoed Trump’s.

Similar to Trump’s “safe third country” agreement, the rule barred asylum seekers from applying in the US if they passed through another country first that they could have applied in.

The rule also made migrants ineligible for asylum unless they entered the US at an official border crossing. But experts have pointed out that migrants and asylum seekers often flee desperate circumstances, influencing where they pursue refuge and how they might arrive at the border.

Many times, they are also at the mercy of smugglers who instruct them how, when and where to cross into the US.

In a press release at the time, Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, the president of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, drew a direct line between the Biden administration’s rule and Trump’s.

“This rule reaches into the dustbin of history to reinstitute one of the most harmful and illegal anti-asylum policies of the Trump administration,” he wrote.

The president has also said repeatedly that he was pursuing emergency authority to “shut down” the border if crossings reach a certain level, echoing language used by Trump.

On Tuesday, Biden followed through with that plan, signing an executive order that allows him to turn away migrants and asylum seekers if the weekly average for crossings hits 2,500 per day.

Some experts believe these steps are an attempt to appeal to moderates in the lead-up to the 2024 election.

Loweree, from the American Immigration Council, added that Biden is feeling increased pressure to address immigration because of highly publicised efforts like the busing initiative.

“It’s certainly fair to say the busing tactics have had a profound impact on Biden’s rhetoric and policy,” Loweree said.

He added that left-leaning leaders have “struggled to wrap their minds around” immigration because they are dealing with it on an unprecedented scale. But they are trying.

Denver, for instance, is one of the Democrat-led cities where Texas has bused thousands of migrants.

Until recently, migrants in the city could only stay at local shelters for days or weeks at a time. But under a new programme unveiled in April, the city will offer six months of rental assistance, training for work certification, and free computers and phones, as well as support for asylum applications.

“Contrast that with what’s happening in Texas”, Loweree said, “where they’re shifting people under shadow of night.”

Migrants and asylum seekers rest on mats on the glossy wooden floor of a gymnasium.
Migrants and asylum seekers rest at a makeshift shelter in Denver, Colorado, on January 6, 2023 [File: Thomas Peipert/AP Photo]

The busing initiative in Texas has also sparked a backlash, including in the form of legal complaints from the migrants themselves.

Passengers on the Martha’s Vineyard flight, including Daniela, have joined together to file a civil suit against Vertol, the aircraft company that transported them to the island.

In a statement through her lawyers, Daniela described how she was approached in Texas by a Spanish-speaking woman who convinced her to join the flight.

“Our clients were wandering the streets of San Antonio without food, and a recruiter approached them with an offer to stay in a hotel until getting on a plane to a sanctuary city,” said Mirian Albert, one of the lawyers representing Daniela and the other migrants as part of the group Lawyers for Civil Rights. “They really trusted her.”

Later, when she landed disoriented in Martha’s Vineyard, Daniela tried to telephone the recruiter, whom she said she trusted. But her calls were ignored.

Albert said Daniela’s son has since struggled to get acclimated to his new surroundings, falling behind in school and isolating himself from other students.

“That’s been the case for a lot of migrants who have been part of these transportation schemes: They’ve had a lot of adverse mental health issues,” Albert explained.

She credited some of that to the intense public attention swirling around the migrant flights and busing efforts.

“They tell us how they’ve seen memes of themselves and how that causes so much depression and anxiety,” she said.

Albert’s colleague at Lawyers for Civil Rights, Jacob Love, said the busing efforts have also shattered the migrants’ faith in the US political system.

“A lot of them come from countries where there’s a lot of corruption, and part of the reason they came here is because they felt they can trust our country,” Love said.

“And the first thing that happens when they get here is they’re thrust into a political firestorm.”

Source: Al Jazeera