Texas officials on Wednesday transported a group of Latin American migrants and asylum-seekers recently released from federal custody to Washington, D.C., as part of an intensifying effort by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott to rebuke the Biden administration's policies along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Twenty-four migrants from Colombia, Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela were transported by bus from the Texas border to the heart of the nation's capital, where they were dropped off by state officials, Abbott's office said. The migrants had been previously processed and released by federal border officials to continue their asylum cases in the U.S.
For many of the migrants, their arrival in the nation's capital after a 30-hour bus trip paid for by Texas was a layover in their journey to other destinations across the U.S. where they have family members or friends, according to Sister Sharlet Wagner from the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington.
"They're moving on to other cities. They're not choosing to stay in Washington, D.C.," Wagner told CBS News, noting her group scrambled to receive the migrants after becoming aware of their arrival on Tuesday night.
Citing her conversation with Venezuelan asylum-seekers, Wagner said the migrants knew they were going to be transported to Washington — and that the trip was not mandatory. "While it was voluntary, they felt it was the only way to get out of Texas," she said. "I don't know how much choice they were given."
Wagner said her group is providing migrants food and a change of clothing and purchasing bus tickets to their respective destinations, noting that they cannot board trains or airplanes because they lack valid documents. Wagner said she assisted 13 migrants on Wednesday morning.
"They're arriving very tired and hungry," she said. "So they're looking at another 40-hour bus ride, having arrived with the clothes on their back and no change of clothing."
For two years, U.S. border agents have been expelling the vast majority of adult Mexican and Central American migrants to Mexico or their home countries without processing their asylum claims, citing a pandemic restriction known as.
However, the Biden administration has struggled to apply Title 42 to many migrants, partly because Mexico generally only accepts the return of its citizens and nationals of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
Strained diplomatic relations with the authoritarian governments in Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela also severely limit U.S. deportations to those countries. Because of this, migrant adults and families from these countries are either sent to long-term detention centers or released with a notice to appear in court.
The busing of migrants to Washington is the latest initiative undertaken by Republican officials in Texas in a broader effort to challenge the Biden administration, which they have accused of lax border enforcement.
Texas has filed numerous lawsuits against the Biden administration's immigration agenda, convincing conservative federal judges in the state to halt several programs and even revive Trump-era policies, including a rule that requires migrants to await their asylum hearings in Mexico.
Abbott has also authorized the arrest of migrants on state trespassing charges, deployed National Guardsmen to the southern border, stopped licensing federal shelters for migrant children, instructed Texas officials to stop vehicles suspected of carrying migrants and ordered state inspections of commercial trucks.
Texas said the migrant bus effort is a response to the Biden administration's decision toin late May, a prospect that alarmed Republicans and several centrist Democrats who don't believe U.S. border officials are prepared for a sharp increase in migrant arrivals once the rule is lifted.
"One thing that's perfectly clear, and that is the Biden administration and a lot of leaders in Congress have no idea about the chaos they have caused by their open border policies," Abbott said during a press conference on Wednesday. "And they refuse to come down and see firsthand and talk to the people who are really most adversely affected. And if they're not going to come to the border, I'm going to take the border to them in Washington, D.C."
Abbott vowed there "will be more [migrants] that will be arriving whether by bus or plane" to the nation's capital, but declined to offer a specific number of planned trips.
In a statement Wednesday, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said migrants who are not transferred to detention centers are still placed in removal proceedings and expected to attend court hearings. While they wait for those hearings, DHS said, they are "voluntarily permitted to travel elsewhere."
"Through its Southwest Border Coordination Center, DHS is executing carefully designed plans to manage the processing and transport of noncitizens arriving at the border," said DHS spokesperson Eduardo Silva. "Any individual state's interest in assisting in our plans' execution should be carefully coordinated with us."
During her Wednesday briefing, White House press secretary Jen Psaki echoed DHS's comments, saying the migrants are free to come to D.C.
"These are all migrants who have been processed by [Customs and Border Protection] and are free to travel, so it's nice the state of Texas is helping them get to their final destination as they await the outcome of their immigration proceedings, and they're all in immigration proceedings," Psaki said.
Krish O'Mara Vignarajah, president of the Maryland-based Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, said migrants are being used as "political pawns" to stage a "shameless publicity stunt."
"After the perilous journey they have made to seek safety and opportunity, they certainly do not deserve to be subjected to a carefully coordinated political ploy," Vignarajah said.
Abbott's office and Texas state agencies did not immediately respond to several questions about the busing effort, including how many buses are expected to arrive in Washington, D.C., and the accommodations provided to migrants during the hours-long trip.
Abbott's busing campaign is his second effort to challenge the Biden administration's border policies this month. On April 6, he directed the Texas Department of Public Safety to conduct "enhanced safety inspections" of commercial trucks crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.
The move has snarled cross-border traffic in Texas and led to the closure of some of the busiest international border crossings due to protests staged by truckers frustrated by the additional inspections, federal officials said.
It has also angered the White House, business leaders and even Texas' Republican agriculture commissioner Sid Miller, who called the truck inspections directive a "catastrophic policy" that would raise the cost of food and exacerbate supply chain shortages.
While Abbott has suggested his "enhanced" inspection directive is designed to curb drug and migrant smuggling, state authorities are only authorized to check trucks for mechanical issues. All trucks entering the U.S. through ports of entry are inspected by CBP to ensure they're not smuggling migrants, illicit drugs or banned products and food.
On Wednesday, Abbott announced he had ordered a halt to the enhanced truck inspections near the port of entry connecting Texas and the Mexican state of Nuevo León, citing a new security agreement with his counterpart there.
But Abbott said the state truck inspections would continue along other border crossings in Texas until Mexican officials in other states agree to similar agreements to bolster security measures.
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