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Encore: Why some Democrats are on board with busing migrants away from border states

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

When Texas and Arizona's Republican governors began busing immigrants out of their states last year, they said it was in protest of Democrats' federal immigration policies. At the time, some Democrats railed against the practice, especially when migrants were misled about where they were going. Now, NPR's Laura Benshoff reports on why some Democrats have now also adopted busing too.

LAURA BENSHOFF, BYLINE: It's cold, dark and very early when buses from the southern border pull up in Philadelphia. It's one of the cities led by Democrats where Texas Governor Greg Abbott has been dropping off immigrants.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

BENSHOFF: City and nonprofit staff greet the passengers. Some shuffle on to a waiting city bus, where there are blankets and hot coffee. A woman named Selena (ph) is not done traveling yet, though she already had a very long ride.

SELENA: (Speaking Spanish).

BENSHOFF: NPR has agreed not to use her full name because her immigration case is pending. She's Dominican, but had been living in Chile.

SELENA: (Speaking Spanish).

BENSHOFF: Selena says she took this bus because she didn't know it otherwise would have cost her 500 bucks to get here from the border. Now she's got one more bus to catch to meet her brother-in-law in New Jersey. When these trips started last year, Republicans like Abbott said they were just responding to the, quote-unquote, "reckless border policies." Democrats criticized the tactic as dehumanizing to migrants and chaotic for the receiving cities. But Muzaffar Chishti, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, says people have always traveled within the U.S. once they apply for asylum at the border.

MUZAFFAR CHISHTI: People would typically move to a family connection or to a business connection, and they would send them a bus ticket from the border town to come and travel.

BENSHOFF: But in 2022, Customs and Border Protection encountered a record number of people trying to come to the U.S. While many were expelled, the nonprofits and aid groups at the border had trouble meeting basic needs for all of the arrivals. Chishti says, while busing was originally viewed as a political response, that started to change.

CHISHTI: Something that looked like a punitive thing towards immigrants, done for political gains, suddenly turned itself on the head because migrants are rational people. They realized, my God, this is actually a free ticket.

BENSHOFF: Busing, it turns out, can be helpful to migrants and border communities. Cities and states led by Democrats started joining in, with some tweaks. In December, thousands of people from the border started showing up in Denver.

JOSH ROSENBLUM: We had no indication this was going to happen.

BENSHOFF: Josh Rosenblum is a city spokesperson. Denver set up shelters. But that month, it also bought individual bus tickets for 1,900 people, helping them get to 35 states. Here's Rosenblum again.

ROSENBLUM: It goes along with food and shelter and clothes and toiletries. Those bus tickets are part of this huge humanitarian effort.

BENSHOFF: But the politics are still tricky. Colorado's Democratic governor started chartering buses from Denver to other cities. But the mayors of Chicago and New York asked him to stop, saying they were already overburdened. In Arizona, the new Democratic governor, Katie Hobbs, says she's going to keep, but update, the busing program started by her Republican predecessor.

KATIE HOBBS: I think we need to look at that practice and make sure that it's effective. If we're spending the money to bus people, why not just get them to their final destination?

BENSHOFF: She may have time to work on that update. Preliminary federal data show a drop in the number of people crossing into the U.S. so far this year.

Laura Benshoff, NPR News, Philadelphia.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Laura Benshoff
Laura Benshoff is a reporter covering energy and climate for NPR's National desk. Prior to this assignment, she spent eight years at WHYY, Philadelphia's NPR Member station. There, she most recently focused on the economy and immigration. She has reported on the causes of the Great Resignation, Afghans left behind after the U.S. troop withdrawal and how a government-backed rent-to-own housing program failed its tenants. Other highlights from her time at WHYY include exploring the dynamics of the 2020 presidential election cycle through changing communities in central Pennsylvania and covering comedian Bill Cosby's criminal trials.