Inside the El Paso Operation Busing Thousands of Migrants from Texas to NYC
Mayor Oscar Leeser, a Democrat, offers asylum-seekers who just crossed the Rio Grande a free bus ride out of town — as long as it’s to New York or Chicago. Police recently evicted an encampment of people who refused.
EL PASO, TEXAS — As New York City strains to house immigrants coming from the U.S.-Mexico border, with hundreds of asylum-seekers arriving from Texas daily, Mayor Eric Adams announced last week that massive tents in the parking lot of Orchard Beach in The Bronx will serve as temporary shelters.
But while Adams has focused his fire on Republican Gov. Greg Abbott for sending thousands to New York, more than 50 buses have brought more than 2,000 people courtesy of the Democratic mayor of El Paso — a city that is 82% Latino, overwhelmingly Democrat, home to liberal icon Beto O’Rourke, and literally walking distance from Mexico.
Since July, El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser has offered new arrivals from across the border a free bus trip to New York City or Chicago. Until recently, migrants who haven’t wanted to take these rides have ended up living in open-air squalor, in an ad hoc encampment downtown, near the Greyhound bus station.
Last week, after months of planning, the city opened a processing center to greet new arrivals. Migrants who have money, friends and family in the U.S. get assistance making bus and plane reservations to leave town. Then, the center provides trips to airports and bus stations.
People who lack resources get offered the free long-haul bus ride — provided they sign a document that says, in English, that the City of El Paso is not responsible for personal injury, property damage or any other misfortune on the bus.
On Thursday, reporters were invited to visit for an hour and freely interview migrants. Hundreds of men, women and children had just walked in after being dropped off by Border Patrol agents who’d processed them after they waded the Rio Grande River into the U.S.
Now, with big charter buses idling in a parking lot outside, several people who had accepted free trips to New York hunched by their meager belongings, waiting to depart. Collectively, their mood ranged from mildly upbeat to frankly glum.
“I don’t really want to go to New York.”
“I don’t really want to go to New York,” said Eduard Colmenares, 35, of Venezuela. But his brother had arrived a few months earlier on a bus sent from south Texas by Abbott. The brother was still in a New York City shelter and not happy there.
Colmenares’ 22-year-old partner, Angela Rodriguez, didn’t think the couple and their 3-year-old daughter, Camila, would like it either. Plus, she’d heard that New York is expensive. “Most people would prefer going to Miami,” she said. (That city has the largest Venezuelan population in the U.S.) Still, Rodriguez continued, “New York is said to have a lot of work.” The family was willing to take a chance — and a free bus ride.
Venezuelan Giormerlin Ortiz said she and her 2-year-old son, Enmanuel, are fleeing domestic violence. She knows no one in the U.S. and has no money. New York’s shelters are the draw for her, but Ortiz’s paperwork suggests she may have been rushed into her decision.
Ortiz said that a priest at a Catholic shelter had asked her the day before to sign a form. In English, it said the signatory agreed that the City of El Paso would not be liable for any damages suffered during the two-day trip to New York. The release contained no Spanish translation.
Ortiz said she signed without understanding a word of it. When asked what she thought it was about, she guessed it was an application for admission to a New York shelter.
Conversations with the migrants revealed subtle pressure to ride the buses. Many said they had little choice. They said they were trying to get to other parts of the country. El Paso’s busing program to New York and Chicago started in early August, and until this week, most who refused the trips were told the city would not fund tickets elsewhere.
With no other recourse, dozens of migrants then gathered in the impromptu encampment downtown, stranded and broke. They slept amid piles of donated clothing, trash, and the smell of urine until police evicted them on September 18. After that they wandered nearby streets.
One of the wanderers, Juan Carlos Oropeza, had been trying to collect money to go to Tennessee. He had joined other Venezuelan men who waited in the morning for a man to drive up in a truck and take them to pick onions on a farm, for pay. Women, too, were stranded. Jelin Lozada and her cousin are mothers to a total of five children. They’d been offered the free trips to New York or Chicago but wanted to go to San Antonio.
They sat on a bench in downtown El Paso last week after the camp eviction, speaking politely with passersby and reporters, hoping for help. On their first day, an American couple took the whole group to an elegant hotel, where they bathed, watched TV and ate breakfast buffet. Next day they were back on the street. At night a man they’d never met took them to his apartment. On the third day, when asked who they thought their next host would be, Lozada said, “Probably God.”
Catherine Cole is executive director of Grannies Respond: Abuelas Responden. Based in New York State, it’s a group of mostly elderly Americans who began doing political and humanitarian support work for immigrant families separated at the border during the Trump administration. With the affiliate Team TLC NYC, they meet people alighting from the buses. and offer services, such as a welcoming meal and personal accompaniment to shelters. Interviewed by phone, Cole said that migrants who do accept the free trips often seem uninformed and confused when they arrive, if not misled.
“Some wanted to come,” she said, “and maybe their [asylum court] hearings are scheduled here. But some have ICE appointments scheduled in other states and they want to go to those states. Apparently the volunteers in Texas think that if they send people to New York, at least they’ll be closer to where they want to go even if it’s not New York. But some want to be far away, including even in Texas! We have to re-ticket them.”
Cole said her group spent at least $24,000 in August alone to buy travel for these misplaced passengers. “The problem is accelerating,” she said.
El Paso leaders suspected months ago that their community would see a huge, long-term increase in migrants needing shelter, but they were slow to respond. One reason for the delay was the community’s near total dependence on charity and volunteerism to assist immigrants.
Ruben Garcia, the city’s best known and most experienced nonprofit migrant shelter organizer, has run the Catholic shelter system Annunciation House for decades. He has complained that El Paso has shirked its civic responsibility to assist refugees, leaving the work to struggling groups like his. “El Paso is behind,” Garcia told The Texas Observer. “I’m really disappointed.”
The shelters are vulnerable to the vicissitudes of charity giving and unpaid labor. Garcia’s largest shelter — able to house 1,500 people a day — closed in early August due in part to a lack of volunteers needed to run it.
El Paso County Commissioner David Stout suspects aid workers are suffering from what he calls “volunteer fatigue” after years of caring for immigrants traumatized by former President Donald Trump’s hostile policies.
Then, in July, Venezuelan immigration into Texas skyrocketed. By early September, most of it was coming though El Paso. By then, about half of the 1,300 to 1,400 immigrant encounters that El Paso was seeing daily were Venezuelans. The shelters overflowed. Customs and Border Patrol started dropping people onto the streets. During one week, 900 were released with no place to go.
A New Bureaucracy
The new city-run processing center largely replicates what the nonprofits used to do — but with 50 paid staff, a new bureaucracy feeding the buses to New York. As many as eight per day have been sent from El Paso since August. Four is not uncommon.
According to Deputy City Manager Mario D’Agostino, El Paso is now sending workers into the streets to give some stranded migrants bus tickets to destinations other than Chicago and New York.
If the homeless Venezuelan population near the Greyhound station is any indication, this policy is spotty. On one bench Thursday sat a young Venezuelan who’d been there two days. At the welcoming center, he’d said he wanted to go to Las Vegas but was told he would not get city help. He then departed for Nevada, after a Good Samaritan gave $100 in cash to another Good Samaritan, who drove to the bench and helped the young man buy a bus ticket.
Meanwhile, another young Venezuelan, Carlos Valero, said government workers had driven by the night before and saw him limping from a severe foot fungus that he picked up in the jungles of the Darien Gap. The workers asked what was wrong. When Valero said he’d been sent away from the welcoming center after indicating he needed to travel to a friend in California, the workers went into the Greyhound station and bought him a ticket to San Bernardino. They paid not with charity but with taxpayer money. Valero had organized a gallon jug of water for the 2-day trip but had no food.
But still, New York remains the number-one destination. The El Paso trips are organized by the city, and Stout, who serves the overlapping county, complains that immigrant services between the two government entities are not well coordinated.
Meanwhile, two passengers on different buses that left El Paso last week told THE CITY they and their children were given only one small sandwich and a bag of potato chips apiece for the 43-hour bus trip, and after a few hours on the road many started to suffer from increasingly intense hunger. In addition, they said several young children vomited and one suffered an epileptic seizure, with no medical treatment available.
“If my husband, my 12-year-old son and I had known what that trip was going to be like,” said a woman who asked to be called only by her first name, Wuelsy, “we would not have gotten on the bus.”
Stout worries that El Paso’s free trips to New York constitute dumping. “We might as well be working with Greg Abbott,” he said. “It’s the same shit.”