WASHINGTON – Texas has been putting newly arrived migrants on buses to the nation’s capital for a month, as Gov. Greg Abbott vows to “take the border to Joe Biden.”
As a pressure tactic, it has fizzled.
A three-bus convoy arrived at dawn Wednesday unannounced and unnoticed, a far cry from the bonanza of publicity when the first bus from Texas pulled up outside the Fox News studios a month earlier.
Nearly a dozen migrants, some as young as 3, huddled on a sidewalk a block from the U.S. Capitol, though trees blocked the view and none seemed to notice, or care. Some wore shorts and T-shirts, the only clothes they had when they’d left Del Rio. The lucky ones had Red Cross blankets or a sweatshirt.
“It’s scary, and exciting,” said José Angel, 24, shivering in an Emirates soccer shirt, a foil emergency blanket flapping from his shoulders like a cape.
A merchant marine from Venezuela’s second biggest city, Maracaibo, he’d crossed the Rio Grande just three days earlier with his two brothers and their parents. They were still in detention as he was making his way to New York, fearful they’d be sent somewhere else.
As of Friday, Texas has sent 35 chartered buses carrying 922 migrants since April 13.
Abbott called it a “fun” way to get the president’s attention. Volunteers call it cruel, scoffing that if his aim was to generate pressure on the Biden administration, he’s failed.
Within an hour of their arrival, volunteers had led the newcomers to a nearby church for breakfast. Within a few hours or days, nearly all would be on their way somewhere else. They don’t congregate outside the White House or anywhere else likely to catch the eye of the president or anyone in Congress. There’s been no uptick in crime or homelessness.
“He’s no longer even making a big deal about it. You’re not seeing it on the nightly news. It’s a dud,” said Abel Nuñez, executive director of the Central American Resource Center, one of the groups helping migrants who arrive from Texas. “It’s happening in silence now. This is not giving him the political win that he wanted.”
Abbott’s office stopped publicizing the arrivals after the 10th bus on April 21.
Asked why, spokeswoman Renae Eze cited reports that since the buses started running, federal authorities haven’t been “dumping” as many migrants in “overwhelmed border communities” and are “instructing migrants not to board D.C-bound buses to avoid further embarrassment.”
She noted that Arizona began “following Texas’ example by busing migrations to our nation’s capital” because of Biden’s “blatant disregard for border communities and Americans’ safety.”
The first bus from Yuma arrived Wednesday afternoon. The next morning, Abbott was touting his policy on Odessa talk radio.
“There will be massive busloads going up there….We’ll be sending even more people out of the state of Texas up and make the leaders in Washington DC deal with it,” he vowed.
The threat has been met with shrugs.
“It is absolutely not” having any influence on the White House, said the District of Columbia’s longtime delegate in Congress, Eleanor Holmes Norton. “I think he’s doing it for its own constituents, to show he’s doing something.”
Aid groups scrambled when they caught wind from tipsters in South Texas that the first bus was on the way. They’ve been providing a friendly welcome, temporary shelter, food clothes and a ticket to the next destination ever since.
Thanks to those volunteer efforts, and the fact that hardly any of the new arrivals stay in DC more than a few days, Norton said, there’s been “no strain” on the city’s resources and residents.
“This stunt hasn’t done anything but perhaps hasten these migrants getting to where they want to go in the first place,” she said. “I’m afraid this stunt isn’t working very well.”
They came from Venezuela, Colombia, Nicaragua, Honduras, Angola and Congo, the 97 people who got off the three buses as the sun was breaking over the Washington Monument. Fifteen others had dropped off along the way — though not in Texas, because drivers are instructed not to stop before crossing the state line.
Hector Granadillo was taking his family to New Jersey. He didn’t know a free ride to Washington would be an option when they set off from Venezuela.
It was a very pleasant surprise, though he had only harsh words for their benefactor.
“Abbott is being inhumane,” he said in Spanish. “All of his reasons are political. I hope that he or his family never have to immigrate and experience what this is.”
Granadillo had just shared a bear hug with Nemies Rubio. They called each other hermano — not actual brothers, but bonded tight after working side by side as firefighters in Venezuela.
Rubio works construction in New Jersey and would be playing host for the next few weeks for Granadillo, his wife Karina and their sons, 3-year-old Abdias and his brother Abraham.
It was Abraham’s 6th birthday. He’d spend the first six hours of it on an unmarked white bus.
They weren’t sure where the bus was going when they boarded. One bus was going to Orlando, another to Washington. There was commotion but no announcement.
“I said let’s just get on this bus and go,” Granadillo said.
Some of the passengers, like Antonio Pereira, knew all about the free bus before setting foot on American soil.
“When I was staying in Mexico I checked the news. They said Governor Abbott is taking people to Washington and it was free,” said Pereira, 40.
He’d left behind very little when he left Maracaibo, Venezuela. He has no wife or kids, and there was little use for his master’s degree in engineering. He walked across a dry Rio Grande near Del Rio last Saturday.
Four days later he was on a sidewalk near the U.S. Capitol, just a 9-hour bus ride from his destination: Massachusetts, to stay with a college friend.
“For me it’s lucky,” he said.
Of those on these three buses, 16 intended to stay in Washington, a city of 700,000 in a metropolitan area of 6.3 million. Most already had sponsors or relatives in the area.
That’s “not an avalanche” in a city the size of Washington, Nuñez said.
Homelessness in DC dropped to a 17-year low last month. It hasn’t ticked up since the buses started.
“We have not had an influx of guests involved in this project,” said James Durrah, spokesman for Miriam’s Kitchen.
There’s no surge in crime, either..
“Not that I’m aware of,” said Dustin Sternbeck, spokesman for the city’s police force, the Metropolitan Police Department. “Our exposure to them is very minimal.”
“We have not had any major issues,” said Tim Barber, spokesman for the U.S. Capitol Police, which patrols the side street where the buses drop the migrants.
Amtrak Police have reported nothing amiss at Union Station, where migrants avail themselves of restrooms after the long ride.
That’s across a small park with a Christopher Columbus fountain, Liberty Bell replica, and two dozen tents – “just regular homeless people,” not migrants, according to a security officer whose duties include making sure vagrants don’t linger inside the station.
But there are plenty of complaints from migrant advocates and volunteers, who are apoplectic at Abbott – and scornful.
“He definitely underestimated the willingness and welcomeness of people here in DC,” said Claudia Tristan, immigration director for Mom’s Rising.
Helping to greet buses is not part of her job but she sometimes stops by before work to translate and provide a friendly face.
“The children definitely don’t deserve to be used as political pawns,” she said. “The points he wanted to score, I don’t think are happening.”
Abbott vowed to step up the pace of buses after May 23, when the Biden administration intends to lift Title 42. That’s the public health emergency rule invoked early in the Covid-19 pandemic, to refuse entry to asylum seekers.
“And here’s what’s fun,” Abbott said on the Odessa talk show, recounting the genesis of the bus tactic: local officials in Uvalde and Del Rio telling him of plans to bus migrants dumped by federal authorities to San Antonio. “I said let’s not do that, let’s bus them all the way to Washington, DC.”
Donors from around the country have sent in $105,200 through Friday.
For aid workers in Washington, it’s not so fun.
There’s widespread annoyance that Texas does nothing to assist – not even a heads-up when buses are on the way. For that, they rely on friends from Texas.
“The aid groups have stepped up and are handling the situation,” said Sister Sharlet Wagner, executive director of Catholic Charities’ Newcomer Network, and a University of Texas graduate and immigration lawyer. “We’re just providing the assistance to the people in front of us who need help.”
“It would be helpful to have more coordination,” she said. “They tell us that they were not forced to come. They chose to. I don’t know how much of a free choice they made, because they’re told if you want to go to Miami, you have to pay. If you go to DC we’ll give you a free ride. And they have no money. So they say okay, I’ll go to DC.”
Catholic Charities arranged for temporary lodging at a monastery in the city and other venues.
SAMU First Response, an international aid group based in Spain, is trying to set up a reception center in Washington, and a respite center where migrants can stay for a few days.
“We’re just trying to build up the infrastructure,” said Tatiana Laborde, director of operations at SAMU, which has teams in Romania, Moldova and Poland helping refugees from Russia’s war with Ukraine.
Nuñez’s organization, CARECEN, began as a mutual aid group for Salvadorans who’d fled war in the 1980s. Its usual services focus on financial literacy and help avoiding eviction and foreclosure. The pivot to emergency intake services has been abrupt. It’s spent about $25,000 so far on the Texas castoffs, mostly on train and bus tickets to get them to their final destinations with a bit of cash in their pockets for meals.
“He wants to create chaos,” Nuñez said. “Because we’ve been able to intercede” that hasn’t happened, “but it drains the resources.”
Nuñez readily agreed with Abbott’s contention that the burden on border states is unfair. But he said, “what he’s doing in terms of using vulnerable people to make a political point is disgusting.”