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Closing Argument

Thousands of Migrants Are Now Pawns in Immigration Politics

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s policy of busing migrants to other states has ignited heated political debate. People are caught in the middle.

 A group of about 15 people stand in line with their backs facing the camera, in front of a bus.
Migrants transported by bus from Texas listen to volunteers offering assistance after being dropped off in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 11. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has been bussing migrants to Washington, New York City and Chicago to highlight his criticism of the Biden administration’s immigration policies.

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Two buses chartered by the state of Texas arrived in Chicago late Wednesday evening, carrying 75 asylum-seekers detained at the U.S. southern border. Some were confused as they disembarked and many were hungry and tired, according to news reports. Naydelin Guerrel, a 19-year-old Panamanian, told the Chicago Tribune she was scared on the journey but that she “couldn’t wait to get to Chicago.” Like most of those she traveled with, Guerrel said she was fleeing from extreme poverty and violence and seeking economic opportunity and a better life.

Guerrel is one of thousands who have now been shuttled hundreds — or thousands — of miles north from the border in a months-long campaign by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. Since April, the state has bused more than 8,000 people to New York City, Washington, D.C., and now, Chicago. Arizona has shuttled another 1,500 people to Washington, D.C., in an effort that CNN reports has cost the two states at least $16 million combined.

Abbott claims the move is meant to force Democratic politicians, like New York Mayor Eric Adams and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, to “walk the walk” on their pro-immigration rhetoric. Both Adams and Lightfoot have fired back at Abbott for roping real people’s lives into what they and others have characterized as a political stunt. “They’re not cargo. They are not chattel. They’re human beings,” Lightfoot said Wednesday. Washington, D.C. has received the most migrants of the three cities, and Mayor Muriel Bowser has requested (and been denied) National Guard assistance in managing the influx.

Immigrant rights advocates in all three cities have complained that Abbott’s efforts seem to have been intentionally designed to sow chaos. Murad Awawdeh, the executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, described how his organization began receiving court notices to appear on behalf of clients they did not even represent. Then, migrants began showing up at their offices, saying that border officials had told them that the organization would provide them with shelter services and care.

While some migrants, like Guerrel, were happy with their destination, Awawdeh noted this isn’t always the case. He estimated that between 30% and 40% of migrants arriving in New York do not want to be there, often because they have family or other support networks elsewhere in the U.S. According to Pew Stateline, some people have started getting off the buses at stops along the way, in places like Tennessee and Georgia.

Historically, the vast majority of migrants attempting to cross the U.S. southern border have been from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. But a CNN analysis found that a dramatic increase in migrants from other counties, including Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela, is fueling the jump in border arrivals. The high numbers are one reason why the Biden administration has been rapidly turning to a parole system — granting migrants freedom from deportation and a one-year window to formally apply for asylum — in lieu of detention. It’s one of several changes the administration has pursued, in contrast to the Trump administration’s aggressive, zero-tolerance approach.

But while many more migrants than ever before are being paroled, tens of thousands still remain in detention centers, and the outcomes can be tragic. Kesley Vial, who came from Brazil seeking asylum, died by suicide in a New Mexico detention center last week. Local advocates and civil rights attorneys blamed “abhorrent conditions and treatment by ICE and CoreCivic, the private company that runs the detention center.”

A separate CoreCivic detention facility in Georgia was sued last week, with allegations that the company violated federal anti-slavery laws by forcing people to work by threat of punishment, including solitary confinement. CoreCivic denied the allegations in a statement.

Meanwhile, GeoGroup — CoreCivic’s largest competitor for immigration detention contracts — is facing allegations that staffers at a California detention center put four people in solitary confinement as punishment for supporting a labor strike in the facility. GeoGroup also denied the allegations. The claim came right before the state senate advanced a bill that would make California the first state to restrict the use of solitary confinement in detention centers.

Jamiles Lartey Twitter Email is a New Orleans-based staff writer for The Marshall Project. Previously, he worked as a reporter for the Guardian covering issues of criminal justice, race and policing. Jamiles was a member of the team behind the award-winning online database “The Counted,” tracking police violence in 2015 and 2016. In 2016, he was named “Michael J. Feeney Emerging Journalist of the Year” by the National Association of Black Journalists.