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A bus carrying 28 immigrants sent to Pennsylvania from Texas pulled up outside Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station in the cool fog of Wednesday morning. The bus was sent by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in what he said was an effort to bring the challenges of the border to northern cities.
Immigration advocates in Philadelphia called the bus ride a cruel trick played on innocent people who are legally in the United States.
Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney called Abbott’s administration “cruel and racist” for sending the bus to the city with little notice and no plan to help the families once they arrived.
“It is sad and outrageous that Gov. Abbott and his administration continue to implement their cruel and racist policies using immigrant families — including children — as pawns to shamelessly push their warped political agenda,” he said.
Immigrants, who an advocate said came mostly from Colombia in addition to the Dominican Republic and Cuba, began disembarking into the cold Philadelphia morning at about 6:15 a.m. The families were given winter coats, blankets and hot chocolate by volunteers. City Council member Helen Gym greeted a woman who had a baby with a hug and words of welcome. There were at least two infants in the group that made the trip from Texas.
“Seeking asylum is a human right,” Gym said. “Our country has always welcomed people seeking refuge here, and we have flourished because of that. … Our city and country are strongest when we embrace and welcome people searching for a better life.”
Dobin Garmendia, 23, came to the United States from Nicaragua. He said in Spanish that people who he believed were Texas officials offered to bring him and others to Philadelphia for free if they had no money for the trip. He described the bus trip as generally smooth.
”I need to find work,” he said of his plans for the next few days, “and report to immigration.”
By 6:25 a.m., the bus had departed 30th Street, leaving 19 people to board a Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority bus to take them to a welcome center set up by the city in North Philadelphia. One of the children was being treated at a local hospital after arriving with a high fever.
Only one person will be staying in the city, according to Pennsylvania state Rep. Amen Brown, who met with the families in North Philly.
”The mood is good,” he said of the arrivals. “They’re excited to see family members. Philly stepped up.”
Georgina, who was picked up from the welcome center by family before she could give her last name, described in Spanish being on the bus for about two days and said travelers were given a small packaged meal. The 24-year-old said she felt “super good” and was looking forward to spending time with family in Philadelphia.
Emilio Buitrago, founder of Casa De Venezuela, said everyone still at the welcome center was being screened and fed.
”It’s not the Four Seasons,” he said. “They have a room to rest, they have a little TV, a microwave, their basic needs are gonna be covered right now.”
City officials and immigrant-assistance groups have been readying for days to meet the bus, carrying people originally from Central and South America.
“Time and time again, immigrants are used as tokens to advance the political agendas of individuals who have no interest in our communities’ wellbeing,” said Erika Guadalupe Núñez, executive director of the Juntos advocacy group. “Governor Abbott’s busing efforts serve as a ploy to wreak social discord and spread misinformation over the human right to seek asylum and what it means to be a Welcoming City. We will not be fooled by his efforts.”
Kenney pledged the arrivals would be treated with dignity and respect, and shared a “How you can help” briefing, which can be read here.
“It’s disgusting that Gov. Abbott’s administration continues to implement their purposefully cruel policy using immigrant families as political pawns,” the mayor said Tuesday.
Texas has been sending migrants to northern cities in what it says is an effort to relieve pressure at the border; others call it a political stunt that harms and confuses innocent people.
Philadelphia officials said they would be ready with food, water, emergency health screenings and shelter. Abbott confirmed Tuesday that along with Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C., “sanctuary city Philadelphia will now be a drop-off location for the state of Texas busing strategy.”
Most of the people arriving in Philadelphia are expected to be traveling on to meet family members. All have legal means to be in the United States. Many, if not all, are seeking asylum and have passed “credible fear” interviews in order to be released into the interior United States.
That standard requires that immigrants show they face a real danger of being harmed in their homeland, or that they’ve already been harmed. And they must have been harmed for a certain reason, such as their race, religion or politics.
“The Lone Star State,” Abbott tweeted, “will continue doing more than any state in history to secure our border, including adding more sanctuary cities as drop-off locations for our busing strategy.”
Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy director at the American Immigration Council, estimated that Texas has spent more than $2,166 per migrant to bus people to Washington, New York and Chicago. “At that price,” he tweeted, “Texas could have bought each person multiple first-class plane tickets.”
Abbott’s office said he was sending the bus as “part of the governor’s unprecedented response to President Biden’s open border policies overwhelming border communities in Texas.”
“Until the Biden Administration does its job and provides Texans and the American people with sustainable border security, Texas will continue doing more than any other state in the nation’s history to defend against an invasion along the border, including adding more sanctuary cities like Philadelphia as drop-off locations,” Abbott said in a statement.
He cited Kenney’s advocacy for Philadelphia’s role as a sanctuary city for “making the city an ideal addition to Texas’ list.” The Kenney administration fought and won a major lawsuit over the Trump administration’s effort to withhold grant money unless the city helped enforce federal immigration laws.
Sanctuary jurisdictions such as Philadelphia aim to treat undocumented migrants the same as everyone else when they come in contact with in the legal system. Those cities and states say it’s illegal for them to detain migrants for arrest by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, absent a judge’s order.
In the spring, Abbott directed the Texas Division of Emergency Management to charter buses to transport migrants from Texas to Washington, D.C., and in August the governor added New York City and Chicago as destinations. Thousands of migrants have been sent to those cities, he said, “providing much-needed relief to Texas’ overwhelmed border communities.”
Immigration advocates call the buses a cruel trick, played on people who are pursuing legal immigration remedies and are simply trying to find their way to their families.
“Greg Abbott should be the loudest advocate for a humane immigration reform plan in Congress,” Gym tweeted over the weekend. “Instead he’s spending $$ on these buses as a sick political stunt because he’s more invested in exploiting a problem than figuring out a real solution.”
Staff writer Rodrigo Torrejón contributed to this article.