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WASHINGTON — Gov. Greg Abbott’s state-funded program to bus migrants to cities run by Democrats reached a national fever pitch on Thursday, with buses dropping people off outside of Vice President Kamala Harris’ D.C. residence.
What started in the spring as a publicity stunt to draw the attention of the White House has caught fire, with other Republican officials in Arizona and Florida following suit. On Wednesday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis set off a national frenzy after chartering two flights of migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, an affluent vacation spot in Massachusetts. Meanwhile, Texas has ramped up its own busing efforts, sending more migrants to other Democrat-run metropolitan areas where local officials say their social services are being pushed to the limits.
The latest moves by Abbott and DeSantis this week have triggered outrage among immigration rights’ groups and Democrats who have accused the Republicans of engaging in human trafficking and treating migrants like “human cargo” to score political points.
Early Thursday morning, Abbott gleefully took credit for sending between 75 and 100 migrants to the Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C., where Harris and second gentleman Doug Emhoff reside. The move was in apparent retaliation for her comments on NBC’s “Meet the Press” in which she called the border “secure,” stoking conservative anger nationwide.
“We did [send them],” Abbott said to Lubbock radio station KFYO. “She’s the border czar, and we felt that if she won’t come down to see the border, if President [Joe] Biden will not come down and see the border, we will make sure they see it firsthand. … And listen, there’s more where that came from.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
But Abbott said his office was not responsible for the two chartered planes that carried approximately 50 migrants from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard on Wednesday.
DeSantis claimed credit for the planes leaving Texas. He told NPR and other outlets that it was part of the state’s program to relocate migrants to a “sanctuary destination.” It’s unclear whether the migrants in the planes had any connection to Florida. The Florida Legislature set aside $12 million for the state’s migrant relocation program.
“Our office has had conversations with Governor DeSantis and his team about supporting our busing strategy to provide much-needed relief to our overwhelmed and overrun border communities,” said Renae Eze, Abbott’s spokesperson. “Though we were not involved in these initial planes to Martha’s Vineyard, we appreciate the support in responding to this national crisis and helping Texans. Governor Abbott encourages and welcomes all his fellow governors to engage in this effort to secure the border and focus on the failing and illegal efforts of the Biden-Harris Administration to continue these reckless open border policies.”
DeSantis’ office did not respond to a request for comment.
Migrants landing in Martha’s Vineyard told reporters that they didn’t know where they were, that they thought they were going to different destinations or that they were lured on to the planes with the promise of being able to get work papers. Local officials said they were given no advanced warning about the migrants but would be providing resources to support them.
Migrants in Martha's Vineyard spoke with reporters from the Vineyard Gazette in interviews that were shared with The Texas Tribune.
Uvaldo Arcalla told a reporter he was in San Antonio in a shelter where four people slept in a room. He said they were told they would go to Martha’s Vineyard but didn’t get any concrete information like who would host them or what they would be doing there.
"It was a big surprise for everyone," he said.
Elias Erales Perche said he was in Texas for four days when someone told him he would get food and shelter on Martha’s Vineyard. Another man who asked not to be identified said he came to the United States with his eight family members from Venezuela. He has an immigration court date on Sept. 21 in Los Angeles. He said he’s not sure why he was sent to Martha’s Vineyard but is now worried about how to make his immigration court date in California.
"I think this is all a ploy to get us to miss our court dates so we get in trouble with the law and they can deport us," he said.
Democrats were incensed by the reports from Massachusetts.
“The Department of Justice needs to investigate Governor DeSantis for using fraud and deception to lure people out of state only to abandon them without fulfilling his false promises. Same for Greg Abbott,” U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, said in a tweet.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, tweeted that the state is “fully capable of handling asylum seekers” but that “exploiting vulnerable people for political stunts is repulsive and cruel.”
The League of United Latin American Citizens, the largest Hispanic civil rights organization in the U.S., held a news conference near the Harris residence Thursday afternoon and claimed two of the migrants on the buses had to be hospitalized after they arrived. One was a person with diabetes who went into shock and another was a baby who experienced health issues, according to Domingo Garcia, the group’s national president.
“These are human beings, these are fellow Christians,” Garcia said in front of the Apostolic Nunciature in Washington, D.C. “They are being treated like human cargo. I think it’s time that President Biden and Congress and the Senate provide humanitarian relief.”
Garcia said the migrants were being helped by a religious nonprofit.
To date, Abbott’s office says it’s transported at least 10,000 migrants to Washington, D.C., New York and Chicago — self-proclaimed sanctuary cities run by Democrats. Records show Texas has spent at least $12 million to find the rides. The trips are under the umbrella of his more than $4 billion border security initiative dubbed Operation Lone Star, intended to curb border crossings.
Republicans frequently refer to those taking the trips as “illegal immigrants,” but many of them are asylum-seekers who have been allowed to enter the country pending the outcome of their legal cases. The program initially started with bus trips to Washington, D.C., as a way to antagonize Biden over his border policies and the increase of migrants entering into Texas. But Abbott, who is running for his third term as governor on a border security platform, expanded the busing program to additional cities as he has leaned in to national attention he’s received for stoking fights with Democratic mayors, who are complaining about migrants straining their city resources.
Those complaints play right into Abbott’s favor, as he’s called those Democrats hypocrites and noted that Texas’ border communities are bearing the same strain felt by the larger metros.
New York City Mayor Eric Adams said in a statement Wednesday that the city’s safety net for receiving the migrants “is nearing its breaking point.” Adams suggested the city, which has a “right to shelter” law, may need to rethink how it can continue to support migrants upon arrival.
“In this new and unforeseen reality, where we expect thousands more to arrive every week going forward, the city’s system is nearing its breaking point,” Adams said. “As a result, the city’s prior practices, which never contemplated the busing of thousands of people into New York City, must be reassessed.”
Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser declared a public health emergency last week to deal with the migrants, creating a new government office in the process to coordinate their arrivals, which will cost an initial $10 million.
Leaders of those cities have complained that Texas is not coordinating with them or giving them notice of when buses will arrive. Advocates and aid workers who support migrants along the border, meanwhile, have said that despite the political motivations driving the initiative, Abbott is actually providing many of the migrants a useful service by offering them free and safe transportation to their final destinations.
In May, Arizona started busing migrants from the state to Washington, D.C., which has cost the state $3 million in its first three months, according to AZFamily. El Paso, a Democrat-led city, sent a bus of 35 migrants to New York in late August.
While the migrant transportation policy elicited a polarized response nationally, recent polling from Texas suggests a majority of the state’s voters support the governor’s initiative to bus migrants to other parts of the country. According to the polling, 51% approved of the policy and just 35% opposed it.
Patrick Svitek, Matthew Choi and Uriel Garcia contributed to this report.
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