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Democratic-led cities pay for migrants’ tickets to other places as resources dwindle

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DENVER (鶹ýapp) — As weary migrants arrive in Denver on buses from the U.S.-Mexico border city of El Paso, Texas, officials offer them two options: temporary shelter or a bus ticket out.

Nearly half of the 27,000 migrants who arrived in Denver since November 2022 have chosen the bus, plane or train tickets to other cities in the U.S., city data shows. In New York and Illinois, taxpayer dollars also are being spent on tickets, creating a shuffle of migrants in the interior U.S. who need shelter, food and medical assistance as they await rulings on asylum cases that can take years.

What to know:

  • Some Democratic cities are spending taxpayer dollars on bus, plane and train tickets for migrants to move on to other places.
  • The transfer of migrants has gained momentum since Republican governors in Texas and Florida started chartering buses and planes to Democratic-led cities in what critics waved off as political stunts.
  • More than a year later, some of those cities, their resources dwindling, are eager to help migrants move on to their final destinations.
  • Also: Donald Trump will return to the U.S.-Mexico border for a visit Sunday as he promotes a hard-line immigration agenda that would be far more expansive than the policies he pursued during his first term as president.

The transfer of migrants has gained momentum since Republican governors in Texas and Florida started chartering buses and planes to Democratic-led cities in what critics waved off as political stunts. More than a year later, some of those cities, their resources dwindling, are eager to help migrants move on to their final destinations.

The efforts show the increased pressures cities are facing as more migrants from around the globe are coming to the U.S. southern border, often fleeing economic turmoil. Illegal border crossings topped 2 million during the government’s fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, the second-highest number on record.

With many migrants in shelters or living on the street, the next phase of the challenge is getting them to their families, friends or court cases, said Mario Russell, director at the Center for Migration Studies of New York.

That “has been in a sense dropped into the laps of interior cities without much preparation, without much forethought really at any level,” Russell added.

Denver alone has spent at least $4.3 million in city funds to send migrants to other U.S. cities, freeing up shelter beds for new arrivals while adding to the numbers in other Democratic-led cities such as Chicago and New York that are struggling to house asylum-seekers, mostly from Venezuela.

Data wasn’t yet available from New York, though the city is offering one-way plane tickets to anywhere in the world. Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago has used state funds to help buy tickets for more than 2,500 migrants who have family, friends or sponsors elsewhere, according to Chief of Staff Mary Krinock.

The cities say they buy tickets only for migrants who want to travel and they do not coerce people to leave. Texas and Florida have chartered buses and planes to take migrants only to certain cities. They say people board them voluntarily.

“The people who are desperate, who are coming here for shelter and assistance, we’re not going to turn those people away,” Jon Ewing of Denver Human Service said. “But at the same time we have to make it very clear to them that’s there’s only so much we can do.”

Advocates working with migrants say many come to Denver on their way to other cities because of its relative proximity to the border, reputation for being welcoming and the cheaper bus fare.

But charities are feeling the pressure as the weather turns colder and migrants end up sleeping in tent encampments.

“It breaks my heart. It is like we have so many children and little ones that we know we can’t even help,” said Yoli Casas, executive director of Vive Wellness, which works with new migrants to Denver.

“There’s just no more room. There’s no more funding. There’s no nothing. We’re not prepared,” she said.

Denver has bought nearly 3,000 tickets to Chicago and 2,300 to New York, almost half of the more than 12,000 tickets the city has purchased for migrants since November 2022. The vast majority were bus tickets, but Denver also purchased about 340 tickets for flights and 200 for train rides.

Roughly 1,000 tickets were bound for Texas and Florida, whose governors have sent chartered buses and planes of migrants to Democratic-led “sanctuary cities” that limit their cooperation with federal immigration authorities.

Russell of the Center for Migration Studies said greater communication among cities is required to ensure “people go where it’s most appropriate rather than potentially going in circles and circles, from one city to the next.”

“That doesn’t help anybody,” he added.

Tensions flared between political leaders in January when Colorado Democratic Gov. Jared Polis chartered buses for migrants to Chicago. Then-Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and New York City Mayor Eric Adams penned a letter urging Polis to stop and saying “overburdening other cities is not the solution.”

Cities including Denver, New York, Chicago, Houston and Los Angeles recently have presented a united front, with their mayors going to Washington, D.C., to meet with President Joe Biden and ask for more assistance.

“You have mayors across the country that are struggling with this international crises and we need the federal government to do more,” Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson, who took office in May, told reporters this month.

Ewing gave a similar message regarding El Paso’s busing of migrants to Denver, saying the two cities have been in communication.

“They were overwhelmed,” Ewing said, “We certainly didn’t encourage it, but we do understand it.”

El Paso’s mayor is a Democrat and the city’s practice of chartering buses for migrants is separate from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, whose office says it has bused more than 50,000 migrants total to Washington, D.C., New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Denver and Los Angeles since August 2022 to highlight Biden’s border policies.

Abbott spokesperson Andrew Mahaleris said the governor is acting “to provide relief to our overwhelmed border towns.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis got attention last year by flying migrants from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. This year, state lawmakers approved $12 million in funding for Florida’s migrant relocation initiative.

In Denver, the millions spent on tickets for migrants has reduced shelter costs, which reached upward of $31 million, largely from federal aid with support from the state. But the city also recently instituted shelter bed limits.

Migrants without children have two weeks in city-run shelters, while families have more than five weeks. The city also has sent flyers to border towns warning migrants that the Rocky Mountain metropolis has expensive housing and no shelter space.

In Massachusetts. Democratic Gov. Maura Healey set a threshold of 7,500 families in emergency shelters. New York City and Chicago also are limiting migrants’ shelter stays.

A few Chicago City Council members want to gauge voter support for ending “sanctuary city” status with a nonbinding ballot measure in the March primary. Strong backing could help efforts to limit Chicago’s decades-old sanctuary status. Among other things, city employees aren’t allowed to ask about immigration status and law enforcement are barred from cooperating with federal immigration authorities.

“We have other Democratic cities, Denver, California, L.A., sending their people to Chicago, New York. They’re sending their migrants to Chicago. Why? Because they are saying, ‘We can’t take anymore.’ Chicago has yet to say, ‘We can’t take anymore,’” Alderman Anthony Beale, who has backed the ballot measure, said at a recent council meeting. “We have to draw the line somewhere.”

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Associated Press writer Sophia Tareen contributed from Chicago.

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Bedayn is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

Bedayn is a statehouse reporter for APbased in Denver. He is a Report for America corps member.