Why Republican governors are relocating migrants across US

GOP defends push that rights groups denounce as political stunt ahead of midterm elections. What exactly is going on?

So far, more than 13,000 migrants have been affected by the Republican legislators' campaign [File: Paul Ratje/Reuters]

Washington, DC, – For months, the Republican governor of Texas has been sending asylum seekers on buses to Democratic-run states – without prior warning or coordination – to draw attention to the rising number of migrants crossing into the United States through its border with Mexico.

Arizona followed soon after, and more recently, the governor of Florida has joined the effort by sending some 50 migrants from Texas on planes to a wealthy island in Massachusetts. Officials say the migrants were promised jobs and financial assistance when there were none.

The Republican governors blame President Joe Biden’s immigration policies for the rise in arrivals at the border and say their campaign is necessary in order to share the burden of hosting the asylum seekers.

But with midterm elections coming up in November, migrant advocates say the move is a cruel political stunt to gain votes.

Al Jazeera looks at what is going on:

How many people have been bussed or flown across the US?

So far, more than 13,000 migrants have been affected by the Republican legislators’ campaign.

Texas says it has bussed more than 8,000 migrants to Washington, DC, and another 2,500 more to New York City since April. More than 600 migrants from Texas also have been sent to Chicago since late August, the state said.

Arizona has bussed 2,000 migrants to the nation’s capital, according to local media reports.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis also took credit for flying approximately 50 migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard earlier this month.

Where are the migrants from?

According to officials and volunteers, many of the migrants are from Venezuela, which has seen a mass exodus in recent years amid dire socioeconomic conditions and a rise in violence.

Others have been from Nicaragua, Colombia, Cuba, and Haiti, among other countries.

How do the Republican legislators justify their campaign?

Texas Governor Greg Abbott has said the Biden administration is to blame for the growing number of migrants crossing the US-Mexico border, and that northern, Democratic-run states should share the burden of hosting them.

Texas, which borders Mexico, is often the first state asylum seekers land in.

“The Biden-Harris Administration continues ignoring and denying the historic crisis at our southern border, which has endangered and overwhelmed Texas communities for almost two years,” Abbott said in a statement on September 15.

A group of mainly Venezuelan migrants was taken by bus from Texas to the home of US Vice President Kamala Harris in Washington, DC, this month [File: Marat Sadana/Reuters]

How are people being moved across the US?

Abbott and Arizona Governor Doug Ducey have been sending buses to transport the migrants and asylum seekers in more than 30-hour journeys to other parts of the country.

The campaign intensified this month, however, when Florida’s DeSantis put migrants on private planes to Martha’s Vineyard.

That has raised questions about the legality of these transfers of migrants, as US media have reported that the people sent to Massachusetts – most of whom were from Venezuela – were recruited by another migrant in Texas and misled into believing that upon reaching the island they would be given housing, work and other assistance.

So is this legal?

It remains unclear if any US or international laws were broken, but the effort is already being challenged in court.

Earlier this week, a county sheriff in Texas announced that he had opened a criminal investigation into the migrant flights to Martha’s Vineyard. Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar told reporters that the 48 migrants were “lured under false pretences” and “stranded unceremoniously in Martha’s Vineyard … for nothing other than a photo op”.

The following day, Alianza Americas, a coalition of 53 migrant-led organisations, and three migrants who were flown to Massachusetts filed a class action lawsuit against DeSantis and other Florida state officials for what they said was a “premeditated, fraudulent, and illegal scheme” that was aimed at “advancing their own personal, financial and political interests”.

But DeSantis has defended the flights. “Immigrants have been more than willing to leave Bexar County after being abandoned, homeless, and ‘left to fend for themselves.’ Florida gave them an opportunity to seek greener pastures in a sanctuary jurisdiction that offered greater resources for them, as we expected,” his office said in a statement.

Martha's Vineyard migrants
Migrants waiting outside the City of San Antonio Migrant Resource Center in San Antonio, Texas [Jordan Vonderhaar/Reuters]

How have receiving cities responded?

Washington, DC, New York and Chicago have struggled to cope with the arrivals. Local leaders have denounced the Republican governors and called on the Biden administration to provide federal assistance.

On Thursday, New York City Mayor Eric Adams announced that the city would open so-called “Humanitarian Emergency Response and Relief Centers” to support the migrants coming from Texas. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot set up a website for donations and volunteers.

Earlier this month, Muriel Bowser, the mayor of Washington, DC, declared a public health emergency over the arrivals and on September 20, the city council voted unanimously to set up a new $10m Office of Migrant Services.

Bowser said the new office will be charged with welcoming the migrants and giving them temporary shelter, food, medical support and transport to their final destinations. Earlier, she had made two requests for help from the National Guard, but both were denied by the Pentagon.

Why have those cities been singled out?

Washington, DC, New York City, and Chicago are run by Democratic Party leaders.

They also are so-called “Sanctuary Cities”, which means that city officials will not ask residents about their immigration status or deny them services on the basis of that status, nor will they share such information with federal immigration authorities.

Sanctuary cities were targeted by former US President Donald Trump, who threatened to pull funding over their immigration policy.

What has Biden said about the current Republican campaign?

Biden has blasted the effort, calling it “reckless” and “un-American”.

“Republicans are playing politics with human beings, using them as props,” he said on September 15. “What they’re doing is simply wrong … And we have a process in place to manage migrants at the border. We’re working to make sure it’s safe and orderly and humane.

“Republican officials should not interfere with that process by waging these political stunts,” Biden added.

Migrants boarding a Border Patrol van after being processed in Eagle Pass, Texas [File: Brandon Bell/Getty Images via AFP]

How have the migrants been treated?

Local organisations, charities and volunteer groups have stepped in to provide food, shelter, transportation and other forms of assistance to the migrants and asylum seekers. Many people have also donated items and money or volunteered to host migrants in their homes.

But the journey, especially for young children and the elderly, has been gruelling, and several people have required hospitalisation upon their arrival. Most migrants are travelling with very few belongings and little money, which makes them reliant on aid.

How have migrant rights groups responded?

Advocacy groups have blasted the Republican governors – as well as the Florida-funded flights, in particular – for a campaign they say is cynical and cruel.

“This is nothing but a cruel political stunt. Seeking asylum is a human right and legal under US and international law,” Paul R Chavez, the senior supervising lawyer for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) Immigrant Justice Project, said in a September 16 statement.

“The abuse of desperate children and families as political pawns is a failure of leadership and not in keeping with our nation’s values.”

America’s Voice, a pro-immigration advocacy group, also called the effort a deliberate attack on people of colour. “Shipping vulnerable migrants, including children, across the US is a calculated systematic attack on a targeted population – here immigrants of color, many of whom are lawfully in the U.S. as asylum applicants,” David Leopold, a legal adviser with the group, said in a statement.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott has defended the bussing campaign [File: LM Otero/AP Photo]
Source: Al Jazeera