Months after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R-Texas) began sending buses of asylum seekers to liberal cities, President Joe Biden addressed the matter publicly for the first time on Thursday.
“Republicans are playing politics with human beings ― using them as props,” Biden declared during remarks at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute gala in Washington, D.C. “What they’re doing is simply wrong. It’s un-American. It’s reckless.”
It’s not the first time that a White House official has spoken up on the matter. Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre had a similarly critical message when asked about it in July, and again on Thursday, noting that many of the asylum seekers – arriving overwhelmingly from Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Cuba – “are fleeing communism.”
But Biden had not yet said anything. His decision to finally condemn Abbott – and now, other Republican governors who have followed Abbott’s lead – came hours after the GOP executives took the stunt to a new level.
Two buses of asylum seekers, sent by Abbott, arrived at Vice President Kamala Harris’s D.C. residence on Thursday. And Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) corralled asylum seekers in Texas into a charter plane on false pretenses and dropped them off at Martha’s Vineyard, a Massachusetts island known for its affluent, liberal vacation crowd.
Although the White House had been quietly deploying federal resources to assist Washington, New York City and Chicago absorb the asylum seekers sent by Abbott, DeSantis and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R), until Thursday, Biden was apparently wary of giving oxygen to an election-year public relations maneuver mounted by GOP governors. That vacuum was mostly filled by Democratic-elected officials from New York City and Washington, D.C., who were eager to denounce Abbott, in particular – and to call his bluff by welcoming the new arrivals.
Biden’s initial refusal to take Abbott on directly was a smart political choice, said Ian Russell, a Democratic ad maker who previously served as political director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
“Why accept their terms of the debate? It would only help them,” Russell said. “Don’t let your opponents pick the battlefield.”
Biden’s comments on Thursday mark a shift in tactics that reflects a view that Republicans have overplayed their political hand ― akin to their overreach on abortion restrictions. And it comes as a welcome development to many of his progressive allies.
“The White House is right to call Governors DeSantis and Abbott out for their cruelty,” Tyler Moran, a former Biden administration immigration policy adviser, told HuffPost. “While Democrats are working to make the immigration system more fair and humane, DeSantis and Abbott are using people fleeing authoritarian regimes as props. Not very smart for a party trying to build inroads with Latino voters.”
Abbott and his peers are engaged in a cruel partisan theater, but they are nonetheless responding to a genuine problem with a complex set of causes and no easy, short-term solutions.
Under U.S. law, anyone who arrives on U.S. soil to seek asylum from persecution based on their religion, nationality, race, membership in a social group, or political opinion, is entitled to have that claim assessed in a U.S. court. In recent years, large numbers of migrants from the impoverished and turbulent “northern triangle” countries in Central America – El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – have paid smugglers to take them on a treacherous route to the U.S.-Mexico border in hopes of receiving asylum.
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, however, then-President Donald Trump invoked Title 42 of the U.S. Code, a rule that allows Customs and Border Patrol officials to immediately turn away asylum seekers to minimize the risk of disease transmission during a public-health crisis.
The Biden administration has sought to allow the rule to expire, but several Republican-led states sued to keep it in place and a federal judge sided with them in May.
Immigration experts believe that Title 42 remaining in effect has accounted for part of the surge of attempts in unauthorized entries at the border since migrants often try again shortly after being turned back.
The newest wave of asylum seekers is largely from Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba – countries relatively unaffected by Title 42, which helps explain why the United States must still admit them. The United States has very limited diplomatic relations with those three nations – all run by self-styled, “left-wing” authoritarian governments – and thus, no repatriation agreements that would allow the U.S. to immediately return the asylum seekers to their home countries.
An infrastructure of nonprofit institutions in towns along the U.S.-Mexican border has arisen to help asylum seekers complete the proper forms to apply for asylum, seek temporary shelter, and move on to other destinations in the interior where they may have family members.
But the sheer volume of people arriving in recent months has strained the capacities of both border patrol authorities and the towns that typically host these asylum seekers.
“The worst thing that could happen is that a Venezuelan is given a court appearance in Houston and they are transported somewhere else entirely.”
“There is no legal responsibility that the federal government or the state government have to take care of people who enter the United States illegally or to seek asylum,” said Ariel Ruiz Soto, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute. “In the end, this places pressure on the border or border cities.”
For example, the city of El Paso, where Democrats dominate local government, is running out of shelter beds, leaving many asylum seekers living on the streets in destitute conditions.
That has given Republican governors like Abbott political ammunition to troll liberal cities by testing how much they are willing to back up their pro-immigrant rhetoric with welcoming policies.
“Your recent interest in this historic and preventable crisis is a welcome development — especially as the president and his administration have shown no remorse for their actions nor desire to address the situation themselves,” Abbott wrote in an Aug. 1 letter to New York City Mayor Eric Adams and Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser in which he invited them to witness the situation at the border themselves.
The idea of providing asylum seekers transportation to the interior of the United States – albeit, usually by plane – to “decompress” communities at the border is not inherently troubling to immigrant rights groups.
“Discussions have taken place about how to safely and voluntarily make sure that asylum seekers have a safe way to get to other parts of the country,” said Naomi Steinberg, vice president of U.S. policy for HIAS, a global Jewish nonprofit that helps refugees. “That is not a foreign concept.”
Steinberg and other critics of Abbott’s actions object, however, to how he and other governors are transporting people, often by issuing misleading threats to asylum seekers and without properly informing them of their rights.
Abbott also refuses to communicate about the timing of the buses’ departures and arrival, New York City officials told HuffPost. And immigration experts fear that asylum seekers who have pre-existing court dates in Texas may have difficulty sorting out their paperwork.
“The worst thing that could happen is that a Venezuelan is given a court appearance in Houston and they are transported somewhere else entirely,” Ruiz Soto told HuffPost.
Early in the morning on Sept. 9, HuffPost attended the reception of two buses of asylum seekers that Abbott sent to New York City from Texas.
City officials informed reporters and nonprofit workers that they were expecting buses of asylum seekers to arrive at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in midtown Manhattan between 6 and 8 a.m.
But with only incomplete information about when the buses had left Texas, no one was sure when the new contingent of asylum seekers would arrive. The first bus eventually came in around 8 a.m. and the second bus followed shortly thereafter. Ambulances with paramedics were on hand in the event that anyone arriving needed emergency medical attention.
Once inside the bus terminal, the city government and nonprofits offered asylum seekers free pairs of sneakers, food and water, and the opportunity to consult social workers and other professionals about the next steps they must take to apply for asylum. Other volunteers were on hand to help asylum seekers purchase bus tickets to other cities.
“It’s a little, mini-Ellis Island,” said Alexander Rapaport, founder of Masbia, a kosher soup kitchen and relief organization that provides all new arrivals with pairs of sneakers. “There’s enough people willing to share, that have the means to share.”
Citing the United States’ history of welcoming immigrants and benefiting from their contributions to society, Rapaport added, “This is not a burden on us – it’s a help.”
Once adequately acclimated, empty city buses were standing by to transport asylum seekers to New York City’s intake center for people without homes seeking shelter. From there, they would receive transportation to homeless shelters.
Amid all of the joy – and pride in showing New York City’s willingness to welcome asylum seekers – the whiff of politics lingered in the air outside of the Port Authority Bus Terminal. After shaking the hands of migrants as they arrived in Midtown Manhattan, Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.) and top city government officials addressed reporters. Espaillat lit into Abbott for failing to properly inform asylum seekers about the choices at their disposal.
“He is engaging almost in what I would call human trafficking,” Espaillat told a group of reporters outside the bus terminal. “Because when you take someone and take them somewhere else without their full consent – maybe they don’t know where they’re going, maybe they should go somewhere else where they have a family member, but they are bamboozled into coming here because he wants you guys to cover it.”
At a men’s homeless shelter in Manhattan’s Kips Bay neighborhood on Thursday, HuffPost caught up with two of the asylum seekers who arrived in the city on Sept. 9. They described being misinformed by authorities in Texas about their right to stay anywhere in the United States while applying for asylum.
Elier, 28, a native of Barcelona, Venezuela, who declined to provide his last name, said he had been told he could get a bus to New York City or Washington, D.C. If he refused, he was told he would be sent back across the border to Mexico.
Fernando Luna, 30, from Managua, Nicaragua, said he was told that he could go anywhere in the United States as long as he left Texas. He chose the free bus ride to New York City and is hoping to pull together enough money for a bus ticket to Los Angeles, California, where his sister already lives.
Luna and his friends have their complaints about conditions in the homeless shelter. For example, they don’t appreciate that other residents smoke marijuana in the building. But he said it was still significantly better than the “freezing-cold” border patrol facility in Texas where Luna found it very difficult to sleep.
Earlier that day, Adams, city commissioners and other Democratic lawmakers celebrated the inauguration of a new “navigation center” in midtown Manhattan to serve as a centralized social and legal services hub for asylum seekers.
“The reason we’re doing this is because we’re all immigrants – we all came from somewhere,” Adams said at a press conference announcing the opening of the new center.
But after absorbing 11,000 asylum seekers who arrived on buses from Texas – 8,000 of whom are already in the city’s crowded shelter system – Adams has also signaled that there may eventually be limits to what New York City can provide new arrivals without additional aid.
That’s in part because New York City is one of the only cities in the country where individuals have a “right to shelter,” requiring the government to provide a place to sleep to people who ask for it.
“The city’s system is nearing its breaking point,” Adams said in a Wednesday statement, referring to the “right to shelter.” “As a result, the city’s prior practices, which never contemplated the bussing of thousands of people into New York City, must be reassessed.”
It’s not clear exactly what Adams meant. Brendan McGuire, Adams’ chief counsel, said at the Thursday press conference that the city is not wavering in its commitment to provide shelter in light of these asylum seekers. But it is considering changing the “practices” that accompany the provision of shelter.
Already, the Legal Aid Society accused the men’s shelter in Kips Bay, which HuffPost visited, of denying 60 asylum seekers beds in the facility.
Calls for additional aid from Biden are likely to ramp up as cities strain to accommodate asylum seekers. At Thursday’s press conference with Adams, Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine (D) called for the city to be afforded the same reimbursements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) that Texas is currently receiving.
“What has been missing so far is a concrete plan of action to manage better the resources that it has, to provide new ones, and to use executive authority to create bigger support for some of the systems that are needed,” Ruiz Soto said.
The Biden administration has invested significant funds in helping alleviate the refugee crisis from Venezuela and other troubled nations so that they can receive relief before they even reach U.S. soil. The White House announced another $314 million in “new humanitarian, health, economic, and development assistance for Venezuelan refugees and vulnerable migrants across the hemisphere” in June.
In the near term, one potential solution is a better organized and more transparent effort to transport asylum seekers from communities on the border into the interior of the country. The city of El Paso has already begun modeling what that kind of approach might look like, funding buses of asylum seekers to New York City in coordination with New York City officials.
The Department of Homeland Security’s standard practice for alleviating crowding at specific entry points along the U.S.-Mexico border is to move some migrants to another area along the border. The agency generally does not transport migrants further inland, because in the event that the federal government rejects an asylum claim, it is easier to locate and deport them from the border region.
Some Department of Homeland Security officials, however, have urged the White House to develop a national strategy for transporting asylum seekers into the interior of the country in a faster and more organized fashion. Those officials have grown frustrated that their entreaties have not been heeded, according to internal communications obtained by NBC News.
Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, addressed the NBC News report during her daily press briefing on Friday.
There’s always conversations happening about how to deal with changing circumstances at the border and improve border processing systems. I don’t have any new policies to preview from here.
In his remarks on Thursday evening, Biden insisted that his administration already has a functional system for handling the influx of asylum seekers.
“We have a process in place to manage migrants at the border,” Biden said. “We’re working to make sure it’s safe and orderly and humane. Republican officials should not interfere with that process.”