Migrants’ Experiences on Greg Abbott’s Buses to Washington

TAs the rain stops, the first migrants arrive in a bus covered with white. About 50 people, including children, were released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, (CBP), custody on a humid August morning in Del Rio. They are all smiling, despite being forced to board in a desert storm.

These migrants have been traveling for weeks from Venezuela, Colombia, Colombia and Honduras. They are now allowed to travel on U.S. soil without being detained by the government. Their next step is upon them. For many, it will mean stepping onto yet another bus— and into a national political debate over which American communities host them.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott is a Republican and has been chartering buses that transport migrants across the border to Del Rio, Eagle Pass and to major cities such as Washington D.C. and New York City. It’s a political salvo to Democratic leaders: liberal “open border” policies, Abbott says, are overwhelming Texas, and he wants to give them a taste of what Texas communities are going through by shuttling migrants to their cities instead.

More than 7,700 migrants have been dropped off in Washington on more than 185 buses since April, according to Abbott’s office, and more than 2,100 people have been sent to New York City. Those cities’ Democratic mayors have struggled to respond to the flow of migrants who may not be able to secure their own housing, health care, or transportation. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has twice requested help from the National Guard to support the arrivals, blaming Abbott for using “desperate people to score political points.” New York City Mayor Eric Adams called busing “horrific” and accused Texas officials of forcing migrants onto buses.

The busing—part of Abbott’s Operation Lone Star, a controversial initiative to secure the Texas-Mexico border that launched in March 2021— has cost Texas taxpayers more than $12 million as of mid-August, according to the Texas Division of Emergency Management, while Abbott has raised more than $303,000 in private donations to fund the effort. For migrants, they are also free. Many travelers have found the transport to be a pleasant surprise beneath all the political gamesmanship.

Migrants arrive at the Val Verde Border Humanitarian Coalition carrying plastic bags tagged with Department of Homeland Security baggage check forms and missing shoelaces in Del Rio, Texas, on Aug. 15, 2022. (Kaylee Greenlee Beal for TIME)

At the Val Verde Border Humanitarian Coalition, migrants arrive with bags marked Department of Homeland Security bag check forms, and their shoes in Del Rio (Texas) on Aug. 15, 2022.

Kaylee Greenlee Beal is for TIME

Fifteen migrants who spoke to TIME in Del Rio and Washington said they were thrilled for the option of free transportation, and were surprised to learn that Abbott’s intentions were less about accommodating them than inconveniencing his political opponents. “It’s great that he helped us,” says Oliver, a 26-year-old migrant, in an interview conducted at his arrival in Washington on July 26. Oliver, whose surname TIME is withholding because he fears for his family’s safety in Venezuela, knew the bus was organized by Abbott, but he didn’t know why, nor did he understand the political overtones.

Other states are beginning to follow Abbott’s lead. According to C.J., Arizona began a busing program that sent more than 1,600 migrants from Arizona to Washington in 45 buses. Each bus cost $83,000. Karamargin was the communications director for Arizona Governor Doug Ducey. El Paso, Texas, a city led by Democrats and historically considered welcoming of immigrants, has decided to charter its own buses independent of Abbott’s operation, to send migrants to New York City and Chicago. Florida officials also considered the possibility.

Never before have state governors taken it upon themselves to bus migrants, and the move means they’ve inserted themselves in immigration processing that is typically handled by the federal government. Meanwhile, Congress has failed to act on significant immigration measures, and the population attempting to cross the border has shifted from primarily single adult Mexican men who the government can quickly return to Mexico, to families from countries they can’t be easily returned to.

They have so far failed to convince the federal government that the states were trying to change immigration policy. But in the process, they’ve provided a service to thousands of migrants seeking homes in the United States.

‘I consider them the U.S.’ responsibility’

Local nonprofit Val Verde Border Humanitarian Coalition, (VVBHC) is available to accept migrants from Del Rio when they arrive at their headquarters on August 15.

VVBHC, the only county organization that works with CBP or the Texas National Guard in order to process immigrants to board Operation Lone Star busses, is the only one. Tiffany Burrow, VVBCH’s director of operations, ushers the migrants inside one of the buildings to receive an orientation about their two options: either pay for travel arrangements themselves, or take one of Abbott’s free buses bound for New York City later that day.

Most migrants who cross the border don’t have much cash on hand and never intended to stay in Del Rio. Many migrants are looking to reconnect with their family and friends from other areas of the country. When orientation is over, the migrants come back outside into the rain, each carrying a yellow folder with the name of their destination handwritten over the top—Chicago, New Jersey, Miami, Washington D.C. More than half of the 273 people who arrived that day decided to take the Operation Lone Star Bus.

People who choose to ride the bus will be ushered in a Texas National Guard-managed building. “As soon as they step foot in the U.S., I consider them the U.S.’s responsibility,” says one of the Guardsmen, who spoke under condition of anonymity because he isn’t authorized to speak to the media. It isn’t political to him, he says, but rather about helping people on American soil.

It is becoming more difficult to cross the border. VVBHC provided assistance to approximately 233,000 people crossing the U.S. Mexico Border in 2021. This number grew to close to 32,000 between January and August. VVBHC handled 4,500 cases in August.

The protocols at VVBHC were very different when it was established in 2019. CBP would release the migrants at local churches, or drop them off at drop-off locations. This would allow them to decide their next steps. Burrow says the organization was created as a temporary solution to help migrants. “When I hear that Washington D.C. is overwhelmed with people, I’m not sure they really realize what they’re saying,” she says. “They haven’t been to the border. They are not seeing what my eyes are seeing here.”

While the migrants wait for their charter bus to arrive, many make use of VVBHC’s portable showers. It’ll be their last chance to wash before the two-night journey to New York City. Five minutes later, a guard wearing a camo pattern rain poncho comes to their door and rushes them out. “Buena suerte,” he tells them: “Good luck.”

‘Thank God they’re helping us’

VVBHC receives the first Operation Lone Star bus around noon. Before boarding, each of the migrants is fitted with a white wristband imprinted with a barcode—a way for Texas to monitor people who use the program. Burrow distributes sweatshirts and scans the wristbands of travelers as they board buses. The bus’s 52 seats fill up quickly. The bus’s 52 seats are quickly filled. Even through the tinted windows, it’s easy to see hands waving goodbye.

Jhason, a 27-year old Venezuelan citizen, will be sleeping upright for the next two nights. He and the other passengers are fed pink packages of food resembling military MRE’s. “HUMANITARIAN DAILY RATION,” the wrapping reads in all capital letters. Beneath the image of an American flag it says: “Food Gift From the People of the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.”

An official scans Jhason's assigned barcoded wristband required to travel on an Operation Lone Star bus to either Washington, D.C. or New York, New York, from the Val Verde Border Humanitarian Coalition in Del Rio, Texas, on Aug. 15, 2022. (Kaylee Greenlee Beal for TIME)

Official scans Jhason’s barcoded wristband to allow him to board an Operation Lone Star bus from Del Rio, Texas to Washington, D.C. on August 15, 2022.

Kaylee Greenlee Beal is for TIME

“The food isn’t that good, but thank God they’re helping us with this,” Jhason, who is being identified only by his first name because he fears for the safety of his family in Venezuela, tells TIME in Spanish via WhatsApp from aboard the bus. Jhason said he traveled across seven countries for 43 days in order to reach the U.S. border with Mexico. He has no family or friends in the U.S., but he decides to hop off the bus in Washington because it sounds like a good place to find work, and because he’s looking forward to a cold winter.

The passengers on the bus share the same objective, according to Jhason: “To be safe and well emotionally, physically, and psychologically, and even financially.”

A bus transporting migrant families from Yuma, Ariz. arrives at Washington D.C.’s Catholic Church on August 26. Volunteers help migrants to plan their journey to final destinations and offer food, clothing and the chance to shower.

Jimmy, Jennifer, and Jimmy will be traveling together with their three kids (ages 16-13 and 9). The couple is trying to reach Boston, where their cousins live. Jennifer was threatened by a local gang member and her family fled Peru. Jennifer, who is being identified only by her first name because she fears retaliation, shows TIME a recording she took on her phone of the gang member threatening to kill his wife, who is one of Jennifer’s friends. Jennifer claims that the gang member threatened Jennifer for helping him to collect evidence after Jennifer discovered the recording.

After that frightening ordeal, a safe, free bus that would take her family closer Boston was a “blessing,” she says while her youngest child plays with a stuffed animal gifted to her by the church. And the food wasn’t too bad: “We ate hamburgers every day,” she says with a laugh. Tatiana Laborde, managing director of SAMU First Response, the international nonprofit leading the Washington operation, says migrants on the buses from Arizona often have more amenities than those arriving from Texas— better food than Jhason’s rations, for example, and paramedics onboard. “Texas is Texas,” Laborde says.

Complex political climate

These migrants are now part of a debate about immigration policy, which only intensified during the week leading to midterm elections. Politicians on the right have cast people like Jennifer, Jhason, and Oliver as part of an “invasion” at the Southern border. The left signal a more welcoming position, but many Democratic politicians are wary about being accused of lax enforcement of immigration laws, especially in border state. The leaders of liberal cities that have received Operation Lone Star buses are finding it difficult to cope with this influx.

The public emergency was declared by Washington’s Mayor Bowser on September 8th in an effort to stop the busing. Mayor Adams claimed in New York City that the local homeless shelters were overwhelmed with migrants. This is a claim made by local immigrant advocates. Abbott’s latest busing destination is Chicago, a move Mayor Lori Lightfoot called “racist” during a press conference.

family stand for an anonymous portrait outside Saint Peter’s Church on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Friday, Aug. 26, 2022. (Shuran Huang for TIMEJennifer and her)

family stand for an anonymous portrait outside Saint Peter’s Church on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Friday, Aug. 26, 2022.

Shuran Huang, TIMEJennifer und her

Busing so far has not resulted in policy changes. Only a few people have been allowed access to this program compared with the number permitted to cross the border. Experts and migrants see the potential benefits to the system regardless of its intent. If done ethically, it can spread some of the strain of thousands of new arrivals away from over-stressed border towns, they say, and it can help individuals with few resources reunite with family or connections elsewhere in the U.S. “If it weren’t for the politics…then yes, [busing is] a solution,” says Theresa Cardinal Brown, managing director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington think tank. “From a practical standpoint, if it’s helping migrants on their onward journey… and they understand what’s going on, and they don’t feel like they are being misused or maltreated in any way, then, okay.”

The operation’s unprecedented complexity means that politicians, immigrants experts, advocates and migrants are all trying to figure it out. Many travelers leave the country with only seconds to decide their fate.

Amparo, a Peruvian immigrant of 29 years, arrived in Washington, D.C., on 26 August from Yuma. As she worries about her family’s safety, Amparo is being identified with her first name. TIME sees the scarlet mark on her right temple which she said she suffered when a Peruvian officer beat her with a baton. Amparo decided to travel to the U.S. to meet a relative in Atlanta. Amparo could choose to fly to Atlanta herself or take the bus to Washington. She decided to use the bus because her credit card had been declined.

“I had nowhere else to go,” Amparo says. She says that the bus proved to be a blessing: a flight from Washington to Atlanta was $300 less than expected. “Everyone here is so grateful.”

Julia Zorthian/New York, and Mariah Espada/Reporting

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