How Texas Gov. Greg Abbott divided Democrats on immigration with migrant busing

CHICAGO — Texas Gov. Greg Abbott knows he’s wreaking havoc by sending busloads of migrants from his border towns to sanctuary cities. 

The signs are evident. 

New York says it’s at a breaking point. Chicago is running out of time and space before a harsh winter sets in. Washington, D.C. says its housing is at capacity. Other cities, like Denver, have declared states of emergency. 

But if Abbott has made one thing clear, it’s this: He’s not stopping. 

For more than a year, Abbott has regularly sent busloads of migrants to cities that have deemed themselves sanctuaries to immigrants. It’s a controversial practice, with officials on the receiving end saying the busing comes without warning or coordination and with an intent of creating chaos. Since April 2022, the Abbott administration has bused some 75,500 migrants from Texas to six cities, according to the governor’s office.

Abbott has said it all began from sheer desperation while overseeing small border towns bursting at the seams with migrants. That’s something he blames on President Joe Biden’s border policies, which he says are lax. 

Along the way, however, a different phenomenon has taken over — Democrats are raising the alarm on immigration, with the leaders of sanctuary cities and blue states thousands of miles from the southern border now warning their situation is dire. Democrats are calling on the White House for more funding and to seize control over the interior operations to ensure migrants are sent to areas that have the capacity to take them in.

It has all added up to a shift in the immigration debate, where Democrats are calling out the president of their own party to do more to contain what they call a crisis. And this winter could make it worse.

Asked if the busing would continue through the winter months in cold-weather places like Chicago and New York, Abbott spokesperson Renae Eze said in a statement to NBC News, “Until President Biden does his job and secures the border, Texas will continue busing migrants to sanctuary cities to provide much-needed relief to our overwhelmed border towns.”

Abbott says that he isn’t alone; other organizations that receive federal funding, including Catholic Charities, send migrants in buses and planes to places like Chicago and New York City. Eze, the spokesperson, said Texas can’t be blamed for the bulk of the migrants sent to sanctuary cities, saying the numbers of migrants the state sent only make up a fraction of the migrants arriving in those cities. 

Already, New York City Mayor Eric Adams has warned that the migrant crisis could “destroy New York City.” Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson’s administration is warring with fellow Democrats — both in the city council and at the state level — over where to house migrants over the winter. And on phone calls and even while on Air Force One with the president, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Biden ally, has repeatedly implored him to take action on border issues, according to the governor’s office, particularly with federal funding, because he says his state is overwhelmed and running out of resources.    

From Abbott’s standpoint, it’s a shift that’s long overdue.

“Before we began busing illegal immigrants up to New York, it was just Texas and Arizona that bore the brunt of all of the chaos and all of the problems that come with it,” Abbott said in an interview with ABC News’ “Nightline” a year ago. “Now the rest of America is understanding exactly what’s going on.”

In some parts of Texas, there’s firm support for Abbott. 

“He’s doing the whole country a good service,” said Dallas-based George Seay, the co-founder of Annandale Capital and an Abbott friend and supporter. “My first impression was, ‘I don’t really get where this is going and I’m not sure how substantive this is.’ And I look back on it and I think it’s a stroke of genius on his part. He woke a whole lot of people up.”

“This is not a political thing,” Seay continued, saying Abbott’s actions were akin to dumping a bucket of ice water on the tops of officials in northern states. “It is a nonpartisan and nonideological, national crisis that has to be handled better.”

Brendan Steinhauser, a Texas-based Republican strategist who also serves in the Texas State Guard, was among the first to execute a gubernatorial order to deploy groups of migrants on buses, he said. Steinhauser noted that if a city as large as Chicago was feeling the impact of immigrants sent by the hundreds, imagine the impact on tiny border towns that are regularly seeing migrants by the thousands.

“What you’re seeing with these numbers is that some of the blowback is from communities that feel like they’re now competing for resources, competing for services with those folks,” Steinhauser said of northern states struggles with migrant influxes. “It’s now hitting the Democratic party in a Democratic-run city and creating a wedge within the Democratic party.” 

It’s indeed creating a wedge. Not only have there been flare-ups between local Democratic leaders calling on Biden to do more, but the competition over resources is an explosive issue in Chicago, where Black and brown communities have been at odds over the location of migrant camps.

Frost sets in 

As winter bears down in Chicago, Democrats in the city are at odds with their counterparts at the state level over the latest site for a migrant camp badly needed before the worst of season hits. The city began preparing for a site to accommodate the thousands of migrants arriving mostly from Texas, only for the state to raise environmental concerns it says it already warned about. 

“While the City might be comfortable placing asylum seekers on a site where toxins are present without a full understanding of whether it is safe, the State is not,” a governor’s office spokesperson said in a statement this week. “This site will not move forward as a shelter with State involvement.”

The scramble that ensued afterward prompted several aldermen to call for the resignations of a slate of city officials. 

The governor’s office has called on the Biden administration to do more to curtail Abbott’s ability to control where the migrants are sent, suggesting it could activate the Office of Refugee Resettlement to transport the migrants.

Not only are Democrats warring with each other, there are signs that the party is losing the public’s faith in whether it can handle the issue better than Republicans. A September NBC poll showed that 50% of the registered voters surveyed said that the Republican Party was better at dealing with border security, compared to 20% of voters who chose Democrats. And 18% more registered voters in that survey chose Republicans over Democrats when asked who they thought was better at dealing with immigration overall. 

But even as the intraparty clashes ensue, Democrats point the finger down South, directly at Abbott. Asked about Seay’s comment that Abbott’s busing operation was a “stroke of genius,” Pritzker’s chief of staff scoffed.

“I don’t think it’s a stroke of genius, I think it’s a stroke of cruelty,” Anne Caprara, Pritzker’s chief of staff said in an interview. “I’d have a lot more sympathy for Greg Abbott if he approached this in a way of, ‘We’re running out of capacity in Texas, and we’re incapable of handling this, so we need help. And so we’re going to coordinate’ … as opposed to the stunts, the not being willing to coordinate, not being willing to talk, not being able to try to help accommodate these people in a way that makes sense.” 

Caprara said Texas has had zero communication with Illinois at any level. Left in the middle, she said, are migrants who fled desperate situations in their home countries. She referenced episodes where buses dropped off migrants in the middle of the night. In one case, a child died en route to Illinois from Texas as part of Abbott’s busing program, she noted.

“I’ve never heard from his chief of staff, I’ve never heard from the director of an agency. The governor himself has never picked up the phone and called my boss,” Caprara said. “It actually in a lot of cases seems that they direct buses to drop off points to the places where there’s going to be the maximum amount of chaos.”

The White House, too, has rebuked Abbott’s practices, citing one of Abbott’s bus deployments dropped off families outside of Vice President Kamala Harris’ residence on Christmas Eve last year.

Why Abbott says he does it

Abbott’s reasoning for the busing, a review of his public comments over the last year show, is that the Biden administration isn’t enforcing immigration laws already on the books. With a record number of migrants coming over the border and seeking asylum, systems are overwhelmed in Texas. Abbott has deployed groups of migrants after they’re processed by Border Patrol to places where he says there’s more room. He’s chosen sanctuary cities because they are supposed to be welcoming to immigrants, he says, and insists no newcomer to the country is forced to get on a bus; only those who raise their hands to travel to other cities are sent. 

But Dylan Corbett, executive director of the El Paso-based Hope Border Institute, called it a “very gray, murky area” on whether migrants were voluntarily agreeing to transportation to specific cities. 

“Are people being forced against their will? I don’t have any intel that suggests that that’s the case,” Corbett said. “Are people always told with eyes wide open, with clarity, ‘This is what’s happening, this is where you’re going, this is how long it will take?’ No, that doesn’t happen either.”

As for the lack of coordination, Abbott has countered that he’s doing what’s been done to him, without warning or adequate assistance from the federal government.

John Wittman, a former communications official who previously served in the Abbott administration, said the governor has helped shift the conversation about immigration in the country with places like New York, Chicago and Boston talking about the border. 

“There is no doubt that the busing strategy is having an impact,” Wittman said. “All of a sudden, there does seem to be some actual bipartisan support for securing the border, which, before this busing strategy the governor implemented, I don’t think anyone saw coming.

“Who would have thought Eric Adams would be calling on the Biden administration to do something about the border?”

Now, Abbott argues that Chicago, New York and other big cities see the emergency for what it is.

“This is something that’s unsustainable. Those are the words of your mayor,” Abbott told a New York City crowd at the Manhattan Institute in September. “Those are the words of the mayors of Chicago and L.A. Those are the words of the governor of Texas.”