Gov. Greg Abbott expands Texas’ migrant busing plan to Philadelphia

Migrants transported from Texas get off their bus in Philadelphia on Nov. 16. (Reuters/Bastiaan Slabbers, Reuters/Bastiaan Slabbers)

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Gov. Greg Abbott said Tuesday that Philadelphia has been added to the list of Democrat-led cities where Texas will bus migrants, with the first bus set to arrive in the Northeastern city on Wednesday morning.

For months, Texas has sent buses of migrants to Washington, D.C., New York and Chicago in an effort to pressure Democratic President Joe Biden to stiffen his immigration policies, which Republicans say have led to record-high numbers of border crossings.

“Since April, Texas’ busing strategy has successfully provided much-needed relief to our border communities overwhelmed by the historic influx of migrants caused by President Biden’s reckless open border policies,” Abbott said in a statement. “Until the Biden Administration does its job and provides Texans and the American people with sustainable border security, Texas will continue doing more than any other state in the nation’s history to defend against an invasion along the border, including adding more sanctuary cities like Philadelphia as drop-off locations for our busing strategy.”

Abbott’s news release added that “Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney has long-celebrated and fought for sanctuary city status, making the city an ideal addition to Texas’ list of drop-off locations.”

In a statement Tuesday night, Kenney said his city welcomed the migrants and that city departments had worked with community partners since the summer to prepare for the possibility of Texas sending migrants on buses to Philadelphia.

“As a proud welcoming city, we will greet our newly arrived neighbors with dignity and respect,” said Kenney, adding that the city had been told a week ago that buses could be sent to the city from Del Rio. “Philadelphians know that diversity is our strength, and we want to acknowledge the generosity and compassion we have already seen from residents and community partners since we were alerted to a possible bus arriving in Philadelphia. It is possible for government and local communities to work together to strengthen systems of support for newcomers and that has always been this administration’s vision and commitment.”

But Kenney also blasted Abbott for continuing the busing program.

“It is truly disgusting to hear today that Governor Abbott and his Administration continue to implement their purposefully cruel policy using immigrant families—including women and children—as pawns to shamelessly push his warped political agenda,” he said.

Abbott’s expansion of his migrant busing program comes a week after he won a third term as governor by handily defeating Beto O’Rourke, the Democrats’ brightest gubernatorial prospect in nearly a decade. Abbott made immigration and border security a foundation of his reelection campaign, promising to build a state-funded border wall, deploying thousands of National Guard service members and DPS troopers to the border, and spending more than $4 billion in state funds on border security.

Through Monday, Texas had bused 13,200 migrants to Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C. The Texas Division of Emergency Management, which manages the busing program, has spent $26 million since the program began in April, the agency’s chief, Nim Kidd, told lawmakers on Tuesday.

The program has been widely criticized as a political stunt by opponents but defended by its supporters as a way to share the immigration burden with other states. State officials have emphasized that migrants get on the bus voluntarily after they have been processed by the Department of Homeland Security. Most are seeking asylum and aim to continue their immigration process once they arrive in their destination cities.

Abbott was criticized by the leaders of destination cities for failing to coordinate the arrival of the migrants when Abbott first started sending buses to their cities. Yet Texas and city officials failed to communicate in the months after Abbott began sending the buses, leaving nonprofits to step up and coordinate the migrants’ arrivals.

Kenney said Abbott had similarly not contacted the city of Philadelphia to coordinate about the arrival of the buses. But in a change to his previous announcements of new destinations, Abbott gave a public, one-day notice to the city of Philadelphia about the bus headed to the city. He also announced publicly where the buses would arrive: William H. Gray III 30th Street Station.

In the past, the migrants would be dropped off without notification, with city officials and nonprofits learning of their arrival on social media or conservative news outlets like Fox News.

But Kenney said the city was alerted about the impending arrival of buses by nonprofit partners in Philadelphia and Texas. The Texas Division of Emergency Management does not coordinate with destination cities and largely leaves it to nonprofit groups to coordinate the arrivals.

One of the nonprofits helping to coordinate the migrants’ arrival said the arrival of buses to Philadelphia has been smoother than in other cities. Tiffany Burrow of the Val Verde Border Humanitarian Coalition said the buses left Texas Monday night with 31 people on board. Burrow said her group has already arranged for nonprofits in Philadelphia to welcome the migrants when they arrive in the city and guide them toward local resources and they have been given an estimated time window for the arrival. She said the city of Philadelphia has also been notified.

But of the 31 migrants on their way to Philadelphia, only three had the city as their final destination. The rest were planning to continue their travel to other states.

Peter Pedemonti, co-director of the New Sanctuary Movement in Philadelphia, said his group is part of a coalition in the city that has been preparing for the possibility that Texas would send buses to Philadelphia for months. The coalition includes community groups, advocacy organizations, refugee resettlement groups, legal services and the city’s immigrant affairs office.

On Wednesday morning 23 adults and five children arrived at the city at 6:00 am.

Kenney’s statement said the city’s immigrant affairs and emergency management offices have been meeting regularly with nearly 15 community groups to prepare for the arrival of buses from Texas. The city is preparing a “triage center” for any arriving migrants who need medical care. On Wednesday, Kenney announced the creation of a Philadelphia welcoming fund at a press conference.

“We have a pretty solid plan,” Pedemonti said. “We’ll have a group of folks as well as the city being ready to make sure people have food, warm clothes and also seeing if people are continuing on in their journey or need temporary place to stay until they get to their next spot.”

“The heads up was very helpful,” he added. “I’m really grateful for Tiffany and her group for having that coordination.”

During the Wednesday meeting, city officials gave further updates on efforts to provide for the newly arrived migrants, including helping people reach their final destinations. Amy Eusebio, executive director of the Office of Immigrant Affairs, said some people had already been picked up and about 14 adults and two children remained in a temporary housing facility. The city is also providing legal advisers.

“I know there are many questions about legality, so our legal partners are orienting their rights and helping them understand the asylum application process,” Eusebio said.

Karen Brooks Harper and Jesus Vidales contributed to this report.