When weary migrants arrive in Denver on buses from the city of El Paso, Texas, on the U.S.-Mexico border, officials offer them two options: temporary shelter or a bus ticket out of there.
Nearly half of the 27,000 immigrants who arrived in Denver since November 2022 chose bus, plane or train tickets to other U.S. cities, city data show. In New York and Illinois, taxpayer money is also spent on tickets, creating a mix of migrants in the interior of the United States who need shelter, food and medical assistance while they wait for rulings on asylum cases that can take years.
Migrant transportation has gained momentum since Republican governors in Texas and Florida began chartering buses and planes headed to Democratic-led cities in what critics called a political stunt. More than a year later, some of those cities, with their dwindling resources, are eager to help migrants move to their final destinations.
The efforts show the growing pressures cities face as more migrants from around the world arrive at the United States’ southern border, often fleeing economic hardship. Illegal border crossings surpassed 2 million during the government’s fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, the second-highest number on record. With many migrants in shelters or living on the streets, the next phase of the challenge is getting them to their families, friends or to court proceedings, said Mario Russell, director of the Center for Migration Studies of New York. .
That “has sort of been dropped on inland cities without much preparation, without really much forethought at any level,” Russell added.
Denver alone has spent at least $4.3 million in municipal funds to send migrants to other U.S. cities, freeing up shelter beds for new arrivals and boosting numbers in other Democratic-led cities such as Chicago and New York. , which already have difficulties housing those seeking asylum—mostly from Venezuela.
Data for New York was not yet available, although the city offers one-way airfare to anywhere in the world.
Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago has used state funds to help buy tickets for more than 2,500 immigrants who have family, friends or sponsors elsewhere in the country, according to Mary Krinock, chief of staff. .
Cities say they buy tickets only for immigrants who want to move and do not force anyone to leave. Texas and Florida have chartered buses and planes to take migrants only to certain cities. They say people approach them voluntarily.
“People who are desperate, who come here looking for shelter and assistance, we’re not going to turn those people away,” said Jon Ewing of Denver Human Service. “But at the same time we have to make it very clear to them that there is a limit to what we can do.”
Advocates who work with immigrants say many come to Denver on their way to other cities because of its relative proximity to the border, its reputation for being welcoming and cheaper bus fare.
But charities are feeling the pressure as the weather turns colder and migrants end up sleeping in tent camps.
“It breaks my heart. It’s like we have so many children and little ones that we know we can’t even help,” said Yoli Casas, founder and executive director of ViVe Wellness, an organization that works with new immigrants in Denver.
“There is simply no more space. There is no more financing. There is nothing. We are not prepared,” she added.
Denver has bought about 3,000 tickets to Chicago and 2,300 to New York, almost half of the more than 12,000 tickets the city has bought for immigrants since November 2022. The vast majority were bus tickets, but Denver also bought a few 340 plane tickets and 200 for train transfers.
Approximately 1,000 tickets were destined for Texas and Florida, whose governors have chartered buses and planes to send immigrants to “sanctuary cities” led by Democrats who limit their cooperation with federal immigration authorities.
Russell, of the Center for Migration Studies, said more communication is needed between cities to ensure “people go where it’s most appropriate rather than potentially going around and around from one city to the next.”
“That doesn’t help anyone,” he added.
Tensions flared between political leaders in January when Colorado’s Democratic governor, Jared Polis, chartered buses to transport migrants to Chicago. Lori Lightfoot, then-mayor of Chicago, and Eric Adams, the mayor of New York City, wrote a letter urging Polis to stop doing so, saying “overburdening other cities is not the solution.”
Cities such as Denver, New York, Chicago, Houston and Los Angeles have recently presented a united front, and their mayors have traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with President Joe Biden and ask for more help.
“There are mayors across the country who are struggling with this international crisis and we need the federal government to do more,” Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson, who took office in May, told reporters this month.
Ewing gave a similar message about transporting migrants on buses to Denver from El Paso, saying that the two cities have been in communication.
“They were overwhelmed,” Ewing declared. “We certainly don’t encourage it, but we understand it.”
El Paso’s mayor is a Democrat, and the city’s practice of chartering buses for immigrants is separate from that of Greg Abbott, the governor of Texas, whose office says he has bused more than 50,000 immigrants in total to Washington, D.C. , New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Denver and Los Angeles from August 2022 to highlight Biden’s border policies.
Abbott spokesman Andrew Mahaleris said the governor is acting “to provide relief to our overwhelmed border cities.”
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis drew attention last year by flying immigrants from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. This year, state lawmakers approved $12 million in funding for Florida’s migrant resettlement initiative.
In Denver, the millions of dollars spent on migrant tickets have reduced shelter costs, which reached more than $31 million, coming mainly from federal aid with state support. But the city also recently instituted bed limits at shelters.
Immigrants without children have two weeks in city-run shelters, while families have more than five weeks. The city has also sent fliers to border cities warning immigrants that housing in the Rocky Mountain metropolis is expensive and there is no room in shelters.
In Massachusetts, Democratic Gov. Maura Healey set a threshold of 7,500 families in emergency shelters. New York City and Chicago also limit immigrants’ stays in shelters.
A few members of the Chicago City Council want to gauge voter support for ending “sanctuary city” status by repealing an ordinance that prohibits city workers from questioning immigration statistics, law enforcement from cooperating with federal authorities of immigration, and that ensures that city services are available to all.
“We have other Democratic cities, Denver, California, Los Angeles, that send their people to Chicago, New York. They are sending their immigrants to Chicago. Because? Because they’re saying, ‘We can’t take any more.’ Chicago has yet to say, ‘We can’t take any more,’” Councilman Anthony Beale, who supports the ballot measure, said at a recent council meeting. “We have to set a limit at some point.”
Associated Press writer Sophia Tareen contributed from Chicago.
Bedayn is a corps member for The Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.