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Busing migrants out of Texas affecting small cities in Republican-led states

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Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
Gov. Abbott, a Republican, announced in April the state was going to start sending unauthorized migrants — released by the federal government while pending a court hearing — out of Texas to the nation's capital to send a message to the Biden administration.

Gov. Greg Abbott has directed thousands of migrants bused out of Texas to Washington, D.C., and now New York, putting a strain on the East Coast.

But officials report migrants have also disembarked in other cities along the way, including Chattanooga, Tenn., creating an impact on smaller local governments.

“It's just surprising because it seems like such an absurd kind of thing for a government to do, it's so disorganized,” said Joda Thongnopnua, the chief of staff for the City of Chattanooga. “We were caught off guard by the fact that you had a state government just acting so irresponsibly.”

Thongnopnua told The Texas Newsroom that at least three buses carrying migrants from Texas had stopped in Chattanooga and allowed some to leave.

He said there had been rumors about this happening over the last few weeks, but it was not until last week that the city — in partnership with multiple immigrant rights groups — was able to respond and make contact with some migrants “to basically make sure that all of these folks get the resources they need to arrive at their destination safely, to connect with family, and to meet their basic needs, including food and shelter.”

Lisa Sherman Luna, the executive director of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, told The Texas Newsroom, “Abbott is trying to create chaos and use people as political pawns here in Chattanooga.”

Her offices in Nashville have also received migrants who claimed to be on buses from Texas.

Sherman Luna said the city is showing it has the resources and willingness to treat migrants with dignity.

“Welcoming asylum seekers or people who are fleeing persecution and violence is nothing new for Tennesseans — we've been doing that for decades,” she said. “I think what is different in this situation is the way that people are being dumped or left here in Chattanooga, without the proper infrastructure, support or coordination with the local government.”

Busing policy

Gov. Abbott, a Republican, announced in April the state was going to start sending unauthorized migrants — released by the federal government while pending a court hearing — out of Texas to the nation's capital to send a message to the Biden administration.

Earlier this month, Abbott announced that buses were also arriving in New York. But his office never mentioned that migrants had the opportunity to get off elsewhere.

Abbott spokesperson Renae Eze told The Texas Newsroom in an email that over 15 buses carrying more than 900 migrants have departed for New York City.

When asked about buses stopping in Chattanooga and elsewhere, Eze confirmed that migrants are able to get off buses early.

“Migrants are allowed to disembark at any of the stops on the way to New York City or Washington, D.C., as they have been processed and released by the federal government,” Eze said.

Abbott’s proposal to bus migrants has been controversial among Democrats and, to a smaller scale, Republicans.

The mayors of the cities where the buses are arriving have said the program is misleading and exploits migrants.

But even some Republican leaders, including former Texas GOP chair Allen West, have criticized Abbott. West called the idea in April “stuck on stupid.”

Outside of Texas, other Republican governors have praised Abbott.

In a statement, Casey Sellers, a spokesperson for Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee said: “The border is out of control, and we commend Gov. Abbott for holding the federal government accountable.”

Sellers also said Lee’s administration has “no reason to believe buses from Texas are dropping migrants off in Tennessee ahead of their final blue state destinations.”

But Chattanooga officials say that’s not true.

Impact in smaller towns

Since April, there've been a handful of reports of migrants debusing in other states on their way to the East Coast.

Thongnopnua, with the City of Chattanooga, said the news reflected how unorganized Abbott’s program is.

“I actually think that, unfortunately, Gov. Abbott — who had this intention to conduct a political stunt that caused chaos in Washington, D.C., and New York — it kind of backfired on him, because he didn't really think all the details through,” Thongnopnua said.

Migrants have also arrived unexpectedly in Georgia. Last Wednesday, conservative Fox News host Tucker Carlson interviewed the sheriff of Dade County, Ga., Ray Cross.

Cross said that last week his department received a 911 call from a store manager claiming a bus had dropped migrants at his store.

Cross said he responded and saw the bus pulling away and migrants following the bus.

“I stopped the bus, went on to the driver, and asked him what he was doing,” Cross told FOX News. “And he said, ‘Well, I can’t stop them from getting off the bus.’ And I said, ‘Well, you are not leaving them here. They have no resources; we have nothing for them here in Dade County.’”

Cross said migrants, through a translator, claimed they were being coerced by the driver of the bus to get off in Dade County.

But none of the latest reports seem to make Abbott slow down the policy.

Eze, Abbott’s spokesperson, said in an email Thursday, “Texas will continue stepping up to protect Texans and provide relief to our overwhelmed border communities by busing migrants to New York City and our nation’s capital.”

Sergio Martínez-Beltrán is the Texas Capitol Reporter for The Texas Newsroom. Got a tip? Email him at smb@kut.org. Follow him on Twitter @SergioMarBel.
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