How Gov. Greg Abbott exported a border crisis to New York City
New York City was not initially a destination when the Texas governor began busing asylum-seekers east. That changed after NYC Mayor Eric Adams launched his war of words against Abbott, who’s now sending hundreds to the Big Apple.
This story was published in partnership with THE CITY, a nonprofit, nonpartisan, digital news platform dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.
When he appeared on Fox News’ “Hannity” last week, Gov. Greg Abbott kept smiling.
Four months prior, he had announced that the state of Texas was planning to bus migrants from near the Texas-Mexico border to Washington, D.C., a move that drew mixed reviews — even among conservatives — and soon fell off the political radar. But then New York City Mayor Eric Adams began raising alarms about the impact on his city.
“This just shows the hypocrisy of these liberal leaders up in the northeast who think, ‘That border crisis created by Joe Biden, that’s fine as long as Texas has to deal with it,’” Abbott told the host, Sean Hannity. “But as soon as they have to deal with the real consequences of Biden’s border-caused crisis, they are up in arms.”
For days, Abbott had denied Adams’ claims that Texas was even sending migrants to New York. But that Wednesday night, he told Hannity that he was looking at “new cities to send them to.”
“Well, New York sounds like a good one,” Hannity said. Then one of the highest-rated hosts in cable news reminded his viewers the importance of reelecting Abbott this fall.
Two days later, Abbott announced the arrival in New York of the first bus from Texas. And ever since, the two politicians have traded barbs through the media. For Abbott, the bickering has been a political boon. It’s an opportunity to turn the focus on an issue that he views as a strength for him in the state, while Democrats try to energize voters over abortion rights, the state’s precarious power grid and the fallout from the Uvalde school shooting.
Meanwhile, in New York, Adams continues to ring the alarm about the real human cost of sending the migrants on a cross-country trek, though there are signs the shelters he says are being strained faced overcrowding problems before any migrants arrived on a bus from Texas.
“I think that Gov. Abbott, what he’s doing is just so inhumane,” Adams said Monday at an unrelated news conference, accusing Abbott of “putting them on a bus for the 44-hour ride, very few breaks, no food, no direction and clear information.”
Adams then vowed: “Our goal is every asylum-seeker that comes to New York, we're going to give them shelter and support that they need.”
New York’s mayor has been scrambling to deliver on that promise — relying on volunteer mutual aid groups and notorious for-profit homeless hotel operators to provide the basics of clothing, food and shelter.
Counting on the Grannies
With three buses carrying asylum-seekers set to arrive in Manhattan on Wednesday morning, New York City immigration and social service officials waited inside the Port Authority Bus Terminal in a makeshift barricaded welcome area.
Joining them in the cordoned-off space were volunteers from the immigrant aid group Grannies Respond. With no communication between the state of Texas and New York City, the nonprofit organization has become a key link in the Adams administration’s chain of response.
Grannies Respond was founded in 2018, when 30 people from upstate Beacon, New York, formed a caravan to the southern border, said Catherine Cole, its executive director. She said Grannies Respond now has a presence in at least 13 states.
Ilze Thielmann, director of Team TLC NYC, a Grannies Respond affiliate, corresponds with the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs whenever she learns of a new bus headed to New York.
“That’s the only way the city is finding out about these buses, through me personally,” she said.
During a New York City Council hearing Tuesday, the commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, Manuel Castro, acknowledged that the Adams administration was completely in the dark about when the buses were arriving and how many passengers they carried because the bus company doing the transporting refused to communicate with New York officials.
Thielmann said she has a lot of different sources of information through the Grannies Respond volunteer network and others, but she and Cole declined to share the specifics of how they’re finding out about the bus arrivals.
Meanwhile, a band of volunteers, including members of South Bronx Mutual Aid and No ICE NYC, set up an ad hoc distribution center Wednesday on the Eighth Avenue sidewalk, loaded with clothes, menstrual products, COVID tests and other supplies the new arrivals might need. Volunteers said city officials did not allow them into the welcome center inside the terminal.
Ninety-two asylum-seekers landed in the city Wednesday, according to MOIA, the most to come to NYC in a single day since Abbott announced the first New York City-bound bus Friday.
One of the travelers, Luis Villegas-Alvarado, 36, carried with him papers issued by the Department of Homeland Security after he was apprehended on Aug. 7 at the border, listing two New York addresses. One is for the immigration office in lower Manhattan, where he has an October check-in date, and the other for a men’s homeless shelter on West 168th Street in Manhattan — listed as his local address. (In fact, single men can apply to enter the system only at a different location miles south on 30th Street in Manhattan.)
That means the federal government under President Joe Biden made the first move to send Villegas-Alvarado to New York City.
“I’ve always wanted to get to know the United States, and more so this city,” he said in Spanish. “In my country if you’re against the government, they’ll tell you you’ll follow the rules or here are the doors of the prison open for you. With that pressure you prefer to leave the country voluntarily so nothing bad happens to you.”
Castro excoriated Abbott outside of the bus terminal after the buses arrived.
“Governor Abbott is weaponizing the situation, trying to cause as much harm, disruption, by not communicating with us,” said Castro. “So the nonprofit organizations that are working both in Texas and along this journey who communicate with us are essential in knowing when the buses will be arriving and the people that are boarding and really understanding the situation.”
Abbott has said he’s sending the buses north so that the Biden administration “will be able to more immediately address the needs of the people that they are allowing to come across our border.”
The plan came in response to Biden’s attempt to lift Title 42, a pandemic-era policy that allows authorities to turn away migrants, including those seeking asylum.
The arrival of asylum-seekers to New York City came into focus when the mayor said in late July that they were the primary reason for a sudden rise in the number of people looking for shelter beds. At the time, Abbott denied sending any migrants to New York. He sent a letter to Adams and Bowser inviting them to the Texas-Mexico border region to “see firsthand the dire situation.” Adams declined the invitation, saying Abbott should focus on helping “asylum-seekers in Texas as we have been hard at work doing in New York City.”
The first busload of migrants arrived soon after.
“In addition to Washington, D.C., New York City is the ideal destination for these migrants, who can receive the abundance of city services and housing that Mayor Eric Adams has boasted about within the sanctuary city,” Abbott said. “I hope he follows through on his promise of welcoming all migrants with open arms so that our overrun and overwhelmed border towns can find relief.”
For Abbott, who is running for reelection this year and is considered a potential presidential candidate for 2024, the busing appeals to a national audience, said Jeronimo Cortina, an associate professor of political science at the University of Houston.
“It’s trying to elevate his political stance in the sense of being a governor that gets things done,” Cortina said.
Cortina said the busing program will be popular among the far-right enclave of the GOP party, particularly those in former President Donald Trump’s voter base. Trump, after all, was one of the first to raise the idea of busing migrants to so-called sanctuary cities, saying in 2019 that Democrats were “unwilling to change our very dangerous immigration laws.”
“If you’re talking about the MAGA GOP, I think it’s going to be extremely, extremely, extremely popular,” Cortina said. “I mean, it’s one of the greatest hits, perhaps within their top five policy preferences.”
And the subsequent fighting with the mayor of a city that looms large in the imagination of a lot of conservative Texans is an added bonus. Adams has at times played into that with his criticism.
“I already called all of my friends in Texas and told them how to cast their vote,” Adams quipped Tuesday when asked if he would campaign for Abbott’s Democratic gubernatorial rival Beto O’Rourke, according to the New York Daily News. “I am deeply contemplating taking a busload of New Yorkers to go to Texas and do some good old-fashioned door knocking.”
The governor shot back in another appearance on Fox News on Wednesday, saying New York is “flummoxed” now that they’re “getting a taste of what we’re having to deal with.” He said the New York City and Washington mayors are engaging in “rank hypocrisy.”
Clogged shelter system
When Adams first claimed Texas was busing migrants to New York, his administration was already aware of a homeless shelter bed shortage that had been taking shape since late spring, in a city with a legal right to shelter on demand.
The number of families in shelter began climbing from around 8,100 in mid-May to top 9,400 by July 19. At that point, the family shelter vacancy rate had dropped to around 1%, well below the 5% rate the city strives to maintain.
This was the backstory when on July 19, Adams suddenly came forward to claim a dramatic spike in the number of asylum-seekers was triggering a crisis in New York City’s shelter system.
For the first time, Adams alleged that “in some instances, families are arriving on buses sent by the Texas and Arizona governments.” In some cases it appears nonprofit groups in Washington had sent asylum-seekers on to New York.
Advocates for homeless people have persistently questioned Adams’ claim about the scope of the migrant exodus to New York. They attributed much of the wave to the usual spike in families applying for shelter that occurs every summer, along with the end of the state’s pandemic-related eviction moratorium.
The capacity crisis, they contend, was caused not by an increase in migrants but by the Adams administration’s failure to plan ahead to maintain an adequate supply of beds.
The focus by City Hall on asylum-seekers was, they say, misdirection to divert attention away from what was already happening on the ground. It coincided with revelations that families were forced to sleep overnight on chairs and the floor in a Bronx intake center — in violation of city laws requiring that all families that arrive at the center by 10 p.m. be placed in shelter by 4 a.m.
“They knew they had a problem a long time ago. That’s the thing that’s shocking to us,” said Shelly Nortz, deputy executive director for policy at the Coalition for the Homeless. “The accusation of the governor sending asylum-seekers — without proof, when it wasn't happening — that just adds to the problem. That’s just not how the system should be operating.”
In a sense, Nortz said, Adams got gamed by Abbott. Responding to Adams’ claim of a Texas-sponsored asylum-seeker pipeline to the Big Apple, Abbott apparently decided to turn Adams’ fictional narrative into nonfiction.
“As far as I’m concerned,” she said, “if politicians accuse politicians of something they’re not doing, they run the risk of them doing it.”
Department of Social Services Commissioner Gary Jenkins told the Council on Tuesday his agency was performing a “reconciliation” that had “confirmed” the number of asylum-seekers requesting shelter by inquiring about whether they have an out-of-state address and fear returning to their home country.
For months, the Adams administration had been placing homeless families in hotel rooms paid for by city government, including some whose owners have a history of substandard conditions — undoing years of city efforts to stop using hotels as shelters. As of last week, 11 hotels across the city are involved.
And more are coming. Scrambling to fill the need for more beds, the mayor waived competitive bidding rules to hire providers who will open what he said would be shelters specifically designated for asylum-seekers. A Department of Homeless Services request for providers asks for up to 5,000 units “in facilities such as commercial hotels or other similar facilities throughout NYC.”
City Hall is now negotiating with New York Gov. Kathy Hochul’s administration to waive state regulations to quickly open new shelters — though as of Thursday, a day after vendors’ deadline to submit proposals, the Adams administration had yet to submit a specific request to the state.
“When a formal proposal is submitted, OTDA will undertake a detailed review and coordinate with the city to ensure individuals and families can access the services they need,” said state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance spokesperson Anthony Farmer.
Both Adams and Hochul have been pressing the Biden administration for federal funding to address the emergency.
“Just doing our best”
In the meantime, it’s the Spanish-speaking aid group volunteers who are ensuring new arrivals get their bearings in a strange city after their lengthy ride and find their way to the city-run shelters. Some are growing increasingly frustrated with the Adams administration — with one displaying a handwritten sign at the bus station reading: “Eric Adams has no plan!”
On Wednesday, Team TLC NYC and Grannies Respond helped escort migrants off the buses and into Port Authority, provided them with boxed meals, helped them fill out forms, offered them medical care and let them fill bags with toiletries.
On the sidewalk, volunteers sorted the travelers into small groups and supplied them with rides to their next destination, including Uber trips booked with city-provided codes.
Ariadna Phillips, founder of the South Bronx Mutual Aid, said that as of 6 p.m. Wednesday, she and her colleagues were still with the asylum-seekers to ensure that they were accepted into the shelter system — nearly 11 hours after the volunteers had arrived.
“We don’t work for the city,” she said. “We’re just doing our best.”
She sees Adams’ efforts as falling far short.
“There needs to be a coordinated government response to handle this responsibly — this is urgent, this is time-sensitive — or we're going to have a massive humanitarian crisis on our hands in the city,” Phillips said.
Disclosure: University of Houston has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
The full program is now LIVE for the 2022 The Texas Tribune Festival, happening Sept. 22-24 in Austin. Explore the schedule of 100+ mind-expanding conversations coming to TribFest, including the inside track on the 2022 elections and the 2023 legislative session, the state of public and higher ed at this stage in the pandemic, why Texas suburbs are booming, why broadband access matters, the legacy of slavery, what really happened in Uvalde and so much more. See the program.
Information about the authors
Quality journalism doesn't come free
Perhaps it goes without saying — but producing quality journalism isn't cheap. At a time when newsroom resources and revenue across the country are declining, The Texas Tribune remains committed to sustaining our mission: creating a more engaged and informed Texas with every story we cover, every event we convene and every newsletter we send. As a nonprofit newsroom, we rely on members to help keep our stories free and our events open to the public. Do you value our journalism? Show us with your support.Yes, I'll donate today