Editor’s Note: Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and a member of the USA Today board of contributors. Follow him on Twitter @RaulAReyes. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
For weeks now, migrants have been arriving by the busload in New York City and Washington, sent there by Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, in a cynical ploy that is overwhelming public services in both cities.
Abbott said he targeted the two cities run by Democrats quite deliberately. He is sending asylum-seekers north to draw attention to the influx of migrants in his state.
Washington was chosen because of its role as the seat of the US government, where federal immigration policy is forged. And in recent days, Abbott and New York Mayor Eric Adams have traded barbs over immigration, prompting the Texas governor to send many of his state’s migrants to the Big Apple.
“In addition to Washington, D.C., New York City is the ideal destination for these migrants, who can receive the abundance of city services and housing that Mayor Eric Adams has boasted about within the sanctuary city,” Abbott said in a statement. “I hope he follows through on his promise of welcoming all migrants with open arms so that our overrun and overwhelmed border towns can find relief.”
The Texas governor said that migrants are taking these bus rides voluntarily and that they sign a waiver of consent. (It is important to note that these asylum-seekers are exercising their right to claim humanitarian relief.) Adams, however, has said many of the migrants are being put on the northbound buses involuntarily.
Even those who agree to leave Texas don’t necessarily fully understand what awaits them at the end of their 30-hour or longer bus ride, when they are dropped off in an unfamiliar city with limited funds and no place to stay. Officials in both New York and the US capital have been scrambling to provide lodging, food and support services to the new arrivals.
Abbott’s busing plan is not just heartless; it’s also bad policy – but that appears to be by design. His state is sending migrants to New York and Washington without coordination with authorities there. This is deliberately cruel, as some migrants arrive not just with emergency housing needs but with health issues.
In his statement this month, Abbott announced that he was busing migrants to the two cities “because of President (Joe) Biden’s continued refusal to acknowledge the crisis caused by his open border policies.”
But in truth, the federal government has been aggressively tackling immigration. The Biden administration has been wrestling with multiple immigration matters, such as Title 42, a public health policy used to keep migrants out under the pretext of stopping the spread of Covid-19, and the “Remain in Mexico” program, a Trump-era policy that the Supreme Court recently ruled could be ended. The administration also has launched measures aimed at cracking down on human trafficking and smuggling. Last year, Biden advised potential migrants, “Don’t come. … Don’t leave your town.”
In short, for Abbott to suggest that Biden does not recognize the seriousness of the situation at the border is false. The governor may not like the Biden administration’s policies, but Abbott is not president. He does not get to mandate our national immigration policy.
And as a matter of fact, the Texas governor’s actions are legally questionable: The Supreme Court has been clear that immigration matters fall under the jurisdiction of the federal government. Abbott is walking a fine legal line in taking immigration matters into his own hands.
A spokesperson for the commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs in New York said that the bus company transporting migrants had a nondisclosure agreement that kept it from communicating with city officials. It’s almost as if Abbott actually wants to catch New York and Washington officials off guard and unprepared to receive people properly. Meanwhile, those paying the price for such pettiness are the migrants compelled to adjust to a strange new city with limited support or services.
Arguably the most distinctive feature of Abbott’s busing plan is not what it does, but what it doesn’t do. It doesn’t deter unlawful migration, advance immigration reform or promote the humane treatment of asylum-seekers. And it certainly does not solve any “border crisis.”
One thing it does do, however, is give Abbott national attention, which could help him win reelection this November in a tightening gubernatorial race. A Quinnipiac University poll in June found challenger Beto O’Rourke within 5 points of the governor. Abbott, it would seem, needs to act tough on immigration to shore up his conservative base. In short, the Texas governor is using vulnerable people to raise his national profile and to help his reelection campaign.
Meanwhile, Abbott has gotten quite good at political deflection: Highlighting immigration is one way to distract from other issues, such as the law enforcement failures at the Uvalde mass shooting, public concerns over the Supreme Court’s abortion ruling and Texas’ ongoing problems with its power grid.
Here’s one more thing that Abbott’s cruel actions on immigration will do: Inspire other governors to employ the same heartless policies.
The conservative media coverage that his stunt has received is likely encouraging other officials to follow his lead. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, for one, has already joined in. His state began sending migrant buses to Washington in May.
Of course, there are significant challenges at our southern border. US Customs and Border Protection said in its monthly operational report that there were 207,416 encounters at the US-Mexico border for June, down 14% from the previous month, but significantly higher than the 188,829 people encountered on the border in June 2021.
One thing is clear: If the numbers fall, it won’t be as a result of Abbott’s draconian busing plan.
If Abbott were serious about addressing migration issues, he would be working with, not against, the Biden administration to do so. In exploiting migrants for his personal gain, the governor is stooping to a new low. Asylum-seekers deserve respect and dignity – not to be used as campaign props for political theater.