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Texas has reportedly spent $148 million busing migrants out of the state since 2022

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The state of Texas has bused more than 100,000 migrants to cities like Chicago, New York and Denver. It is part of Texas Governor Greg Abbott's border security initiative. But the transportation is costing the state millions of dollars. The Texas Newsroom's Sergio Martinez-Beltran reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEPHONE RINGING)

SERGIO MARTINEZ-BELTRAN, BYLINE: Hola.

J: (Speaking Spanish).

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: (Speaking Spanish).

J: (Speaking Spanish).

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: That's J. The reason you hear some background noise is because he's calling in from his car as he gets ready to start his delivery job in Maryland. We're only using J's first initial because he worries about being targeted by immigration enforcement for speaking out. He's one of hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans who have taken a dangerous journey to cross into Mexico and later into the U.S. It all started in January 2022.

J: (Speaking Spanish).

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: He spent New Year's Eve with his family in Venezuela and later left for the U.S. He had no money with him and was only carrying a backpack with a few clothing items. The whole journey took him about two months. It included crossing the Darien Gap, the dangerous jungle between Colombia and Panama, and the Rio Grande River into Del Rio, Texas. That's where J was processed by Border Patrol and was later offered a free bus to Washington, D.C.

J: (Speaking Spanish).

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: J says he was scared at the beginning because the buses were guarded by men in military gear. He wondered if they were going to take him to D.C. or to a military camp. He arrived in the nation's capital three days later. The bus J took was paid by the state of Texas as part of Governor Greg Abbott's Operation Lone Star Border initiative. Since the inception of the busing program in 2022, Texas bused over 102,000 migrants. Records obtained by the Texas Newsroom showed that as of the end of January, Texas has spent over 148 million taxpayer dollars on this. That number is growing significantly every day. The cities that have received the highest number of migrants are New York City, Chicago and Denver.

RAY PERRYMAN: Well, it's certainly a great deal of money to be spent.

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: Ray Perryman is the president of the Waco-based economic research company The Perryman Group. Texas' two-year budget is $321 billion, and while busing migrants is a small portion of that, Perryman wonders if the state should keep using taxpayer dollars to foot the bill.

PERRYMAN: Well, obviously, as long as the legislature is willing to allow it and the governor wants to do it, then these dollar amounts, as you pointed out, are not a huge percentage of the overall state budget. And so it's certainly something that could be done. I think the question is, should it be done?

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: It depends who you ask. Texas State Representative David Spiller, a Republican, supports the governor's mission to bus migrants to Democratic-led cities.

DAVID SPILLER: We knew here in Texas that that was very good approach because - if nothing else, then to raise awareness to the rest of the country of what we're having to deal with here on a regular basis.

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: And as for the cost, Spiller says the money spent is creating an impact on the nation.

SPILLER: They get a busload of folks in New York - say they get a hundred people - and they think the sky is falling. We get 100 people every 15 minutes.

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: For the record, in December, some sectors along the Texas border saw about 2,300 daily migrant crossings, but those numbers significantly decreased in January. Meanwhile, Texas has sent over 37,000 people to New York City alone since April 2022.

TIFFANY BURROW: This allowed them to get them there quickly and safely.

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: Tiffany Burrow is the operations director at Val Verde Border Humanitarian Coalition, which helps recently arrived migrants in Del Rio. Initially, she coordinated with organizations in arrival cities so migrants were received with food, clothes and respect. She says at first, the busing program wasn't all bad.

BURROW: We strictly saw this as an option that benefited the migrants that were coming through.

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: But she says things changed last year. Texas stopped respecting certain agreements, like dropping off people before 6 a.m. or past 10 p.m. or even letting organizations know at what time buses were arriving. Burrow says these changes made it unsafe for migrants, so she stopped the partnership with the state.

BURROW: But I think it's entirely possible that state buses have run their course. The numbers are so - they're drastically lower right now.

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: But Governor Abbott says he'll keep transporting migrants to other states. And other governors have followed Texas' lead. Florida Republican Ron DeSantis and Arizona Democrat Katie Hobbs run their own busing programs. Meanwhile, other states are feeling the burden of the influx. Last month Illinois Democratic Governor J. B. Pritzker begged Abbott not to send buses during a winter storm, when the shelters were at capacity. Colorado Governor Jared Polis, also a Democrat, has asked the federal government for financial resources to states receiving migrants. But regardless of the politics of it all, the bus that J took definitely changed his life.

J: (Speaking Spanish).

MARTINEZ-BELTRAN: He started working and saving money. He moved out of the shelter and now has an apartment. He also has a driver's license. And the bus program has also changed the lives of J's mother and four siblings. They all took a bus from Texas after he did and landed in New York City for free. For NPR News, I'm Sergio Martinez-Beltran in Austin.

(SOUNDBITE OF NATHANIEL DREW X TOM FOX'S "REVERIE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sergio Martínez-Beltrán | The Texas Newsroom