Introduction and summary
In September 2022, in a political stunt by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL), about 50 migrants were flown from San Antonio, Texas, and dropped off in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, by Florida authorities.1 Many of the migrants were reportedly told they would be flown to Boston, where they would be able to get documentation to work.2 Authorities on the ground in Martha’s Vineyard had no idea these individuals were arriving on the island, and local shelters and nonprofit organizations were not initially prepared to meet their needs.3 Since at least April 2022, thousands of recently arrived migrants have been bused from border cities and elsewhere in the United States to various cities across the country, such as New York; Washington, D.C.; Philadelphia; and Chicago.4 Many of these migrants were dropped off in these cities without any coordination between the sending and receiving jurisdictions.5 This has created challenges for mayors and governors in receiving cities and states: Despite their willingness to assist the asylum-seekers, they lack the resources to provide the necessary support, given the large number of individuals in need of assistance and the lack of coordination and notification by sending cities and states.6
Initially, the most highly publicized uses of state-funded busing efforts were uncoordinated and appeared to be carried out for political reasons.7 As a result, busing on the whole was understood by the public simplistically and only in political terms.8 But over time, as greater numbers of mayors and governors in border cities, and even within the U.S. interior at times, have begun to transport recently arrived migrants by bus to places around the United States—and to provide advance notice to local governments and nongovernmental service providers on the ground—a more complex understanding of busing has emerged. It has since become clear that busing can be a useful tool for responsibility-sharing as well as a way to help such migrants get more quickly to the places where they have supports available to them and can move forward with any immigration proceedings they may be involved in.9
The federal government should be responsible for the relocation of migrants to ensure better coordination between sending and receiving jurisdictions.
Despite the challenges this issue poses, practical solutions exist at the local, state, and federal levels to turn these challenges into opportunities.10
This report first provides examples of initiatives from cities and states across the country that support recently arrived migrants and underscores how other jurisdictions that receive migrants can use these as models. It then offers four recommendations to better address the needs of migrants and asylum-seekers and the jurisdictions supporting them:
- Increasing coordination between the federal government and local jurisdictions to help efficiently assist migrants and asylum-seekers in border communities as well as in receiving cities and states
- Boosting federal funding and resources to assist receiving jurisdictions in meeting the needs of migrants and asylum-seekers
- Expediting work authorization at the federal level for recently arrived migrants
- Addressing the root causes of migration to ultimately help curb the flow of migrants arriving at the border.
These practical solutions will also ensure that the use of busing can become a durable approach for border communities—perhaps even one that can be scaled up if the need grows.11
Cities and states across the United States have taken steps to support recently arrived migrants
Migrants have been arriving in various cities and states across the country long before the politicized busing of migrants began in spring 2022.12 By the time migrants reach the United States, many of them are in need of food, shelter, and medical care—and receiving cities and states across the country have taken various initiatives to respond to their needs.13 These efforts at the local and state level have been crucial in helping meet recently arrived migrants’ pressing needs and can be used as a model for jurisdictions across the country that continue to receive migrants.14
California has been assisting migrants arriving at the state’s border with Mexico even before the politicized busing of migrants began in spring 2022:15
- In 2019, the state began assisting migrants when U.S. Border Patrol agents started releasing them in San Diego without coordinating with local shelters.16 The California State Senate and Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) allocated $5 million to support nonprofit organizations assisting migrants arriving at the border, a portion of which was allocated to the San Diego Rapid Response Network (SDRRN), a coalition of local organizations working to support migrants in the San Diego border region, with support from San Diego County and the state of California.17
- SDRRN’s migrant shelter in San Diego takes a holistic approach by providing a range of services, from legal assistance to medical care.18 It also helps migrants with travel arrangements to other parts of the country.19 In sharp contrast to other border states’ approach to migrants’ arrival, California has taken a state-run approach while collaborating with local governments and nonprofit organizations to protect migrants arriving at the border.20 While California has stepped up to the task, the state has also called on the federal government for a comprehensive approach to deal with migration at the border.21
New York City
New York City has also been leading the way in its humanitarian response to assisting migrants and asylum-seekers who recently arrived in the city:
- In September 2022, the city opened its first Asylum Seeker Navigation Center, operated by Catholic Charities of New York, to support recently-arrived migrants and asylum-seekers.22 Since then the city has opened 12 additional asylum seeker resource navigation centers across all five boroughs to help support the more than 90,000 migrants who have arrived in the city since last spring.23 The centers, which offer migrants legal assistance, medical care, case management, and immigrants’ rights workshops, are run by community-based organizations that have the language and cultural skills to provide services to asylum-seekers and migrants.24 As of February 2023, these centers have assisted nearly 15,000 asylum-seekers.25
- In addition to opening asylum-seeker navigation centers, New York City has also opened 92 emergency shelter sites and 12 humanitarian emergency response and relief centers over the past year to provide shelter to migrants and asylum-seekers.26 As of July 2023, more than 54,000 migrants were in the city’s care.27 Furthermore, in March 2023, New York City Mayor Eric Adams (D) released “The Road Forward: A Blueprint to Address New York City’s Response to the Asylum Seeker Crisis,” which outlines the next phase of the city’s response to asylum-seekers arriving in the city.28
In September 2022, Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) established an Office of Migrant Services to assist migrants who are being bused from border states.29 Its goal is to provide migrants with basic necessities such as food, transportation, and medical care.30 And in May 2023, the Chicago City Council voted to spend $51 million to help support migrants who have been bused to the city.31 This funding comes in addition to the $20 million that the Illinois Legislature approved in January 2023 to support migrants who have been bused to Chicago since summer 2022.32
The high costs associated with supporting asylum-seekers affects receiving cities’ and states’ resources.
While these are all good examples of state- and city-funded efforts to assist migrants and asylum-seekers arriving in jurisdictions across the country, the high costs associated with supporting asylum-seekers affects receiving cities’ and states’ resources.33 For instance, as of early May 2023, New York City officials estimate that providing services for migrants arriving in the city costs approximately $8 million per day.34 In order for receiving cities and states to successfully meet the needs of all migrants and asylum-seekers arriving in these cities—and prevent these localities from bearing a severe funding burden—further funding and resources is required, especially at the federal level.
While the busing and relocation of migrants and asylum-seekers across the United States poses various challenges to receiving jurisdictions, there are practical solutions at the local, state, and federal levels to turn these challenges into opportunities.
This section outlines four actions that the federal government and Congress can take to support jurisdictions receiving newly arrived migrants.
Bolster coordination between local jurisdictions and the federal government
The lack of coordination between the jurisdictions sending migrants and those receiving them has created challenges for the latter, which may not be informed about the arrival or specific needs of migrants and asylum-seekers. Increasing coordination between sending and receiving cities and states would help ensure that they can meet migrants’ needs upon their arrival.
There are various ways the federal government, sending jurisdictions, and receiving cities and states can work together to enhance coordination. For instance, the federal government, rather than individual cities and states, should be in charge of relocating migrants,35 as the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and the federal government in general, is better suited than individual states and localities to ensure the safe and efficient transportation of migrants to the interior of the United States.36
Migrant processing at the Southwest Border
When migrants arrive at the Southwest Border, whether at a port of entry or between ports of entry, they are interviewed and screened by DHS personnel. Many of these migrants are placed into expedited removal proceedings—an accelerated process through which DHS officials can quickly remove noncitizens deemed inadmissible. In cases where migrants indicate to a CBP official that they fear returning to their country or may face persecution or torture if they return, they are instead referred to a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) asylum officer for a credible fear interview to determine their preliminary eligibility for asylum.37 DHS personnel also may choose to process individuals by issuing them a notice to appear (NTA) and placing them in removal proceedings.38 In some cases, DHS may parole individuals into the country and order them to comply with various reporting requirements. In all these instances, DHS officials obtain migrants’ mailing addresses at which they can be contacted.
These interviews and release determinations could involve some consideration of whether the individual needs assistance reaching their destination to enable the individual to comply with any post-release requirements—including checking in with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and appearing in immigration court.
In the appropriations process, Congress should not only direct DHS to include migrant transportation considerations in its interviews and post-release decisions but also allocate sufficient funding to DHS to facilitate transportation in such circumstances.
The federal government should also take into account legal considerations. For instance, the transportation of migrants by states could be considered an infringement on the federal government’s authority over immigration matters.39 Furthermore, the current lack of coordination between sending and receiving jurisdictions means that many of these localities cannot meet migrants’ needs—including housing, food, and other services such as medical care—upon their arrival. To ensure that receiving cities and states are well prepared for the arrival of migrants, it is crucial that the federal government oversee relocation efforts.
Increase federal funding and resources for cities receiving migrants and asylum-seekers
Mayors and governors in receiving cities have called on the federal government to step in and assist cities and states to address this crisis.40 One way the federal government has already provided some assistance to receiving cities and states is with Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funding—specifically through the agency’s Emergency Food and Shelter Program (EFSP), which provides funds to local governments and nonprofit organizations that offer food, shelter, and other services to individuals and families experiencing hunger and/or homelessness.41 In November 2022, FEMA awarded $75 million in funding to EFSP to allocate to local organizations assisting migrant families encountered by DHS at the Southwest Border.42 Some of these funds have since gone to both local governments and service organizations located at the border, while other funding was allocated to non-border entities that assist migrants as they relocate to other parts of the country.43
In addition to the EFSP, the fiscal year 2023 omnibus bill provides $800 million to be transferred from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to FEMA to establish a new Shelter and Services Grant Program (SSP).44 The funds are intended to be distributed as grants to cities, states, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) providing services to recently arrived migrants as well as to enhance CBP’s management of migrant processing and prevent overcrowding in CBP border facilities by shifting some of this management to FEMA.45 While the new SSP program is being finalized, the funds will be made available through FEMA’s EFSP-Humanitarian (EFSP-H) program.46 In March 2023, FEMA awarded $350 million to EFSP-H—the first major portion of the $800 million in FY 2023 omnibus funding to be allocated.47 Most recently, in May 2023, FEMA announced that it would allocate $332.5 million through its EFSP-H program to 35 local governments and organizations.48 New York City will receive $30 million of this funding, which is a fraction of the $350 million in federal aid it had applied for.49
Increasing federal funding to EFSP as well as enhancing the SSP can help alleviate resource constraints among receiving communities and cities/states. Congress should fund this promising program long term to ensure that the federal government continues to provide the necessary support for receiving states.
Importantly, while this funding is crucial to support local jurisdictions’ efforts to meet the needs of recently arrived migrants, the current crisis is the result of years of congressional inaction. The dearth of viable legal pathways for individuals to migrate to the United States and Congress’ failure to adequately fund the asylum adjudication system, including USCIS, combined with periodic spikes in arrivals due to political, economic, and environmental crises around the world, have snowballed to create this crisis.
Expedite work authorizations for recently arrived migrants
Both New York City Mayor Eric Adams (D) and New York State Governor Kathy Hochul (D), along with the entire New York City congressional delegation and other elected officials across the country, have called on the administration to expedite work authorizations for migrants. Specifically, they have asked the administration to allow individuals to apply for employment authorization prior to the regulatory 150-day wait period between the filing of the asylum application and the application for work authorization.50
Generally speaking, the noncitizens arriving today are not able to apply for work authorization—with the exception of individuals who were paroled into the country for an appreciable period of time or those who have applied for asylum either with USCIS or in immigration court. Those who have applied for asylum will only be able to receive work authorization after a minimum of 180 days.51 However, due to current backlogs in the adjudication of work authorization applications with USCIS, many of these asylum-seekers might not be legally authorized to work for additional months past the 180 days deadline.52 Expediting work authorizations would allow recently arrived migrants to better support themselves and help alleviate the financial pressure that localities as well as NGOs are facing with the increasing cost of caring for newly arrived migrants. Congress must increase funding to address processing capacity issues within USCIS and to ensure that recently arrived migrants are able to legally work as soon as they are eligible.
Address root causes of irregular migration
While the number of migrant encounters between ports of entry has decreased significantly since the end of Title 42, the demographic characteristics of those arriving at the border overall have significantly changed over the years.53 In FY 2022, for the first time in history, CBP apprehended more Venezuelans, Nicaraguans, and Cubans than migrants from northern Central American countries.54 CBP also saw a significant increase in the number of Brazilians, Ecuadorians, and Haitians, as well as extra-continental migrants coming from as far as Ukraine, India, and Turkey.55 Many of these migrants and asylum-seekers are fleeing violence, political instability, food insecurity, extreme weather-related disasters, and economic hardship, among other things.
In addition to considering shorter-term solutions to improve border management and strengthen the capacity of states, cities, DHS, and the immigration courts to address migrants’ legal and shelter needs, Congress must invest in durable long-term policies to address the root causes of irregular migration.56 Only more permanent solutions will ultimately make a long-term difference in irregular migration.
The uncoordinated busing and relocation of migrants and asylum-seekers from border states poses a new set of challenges to destination cities and states that lack the resources and preparedness to meet the basic needs of the thousands of migrants arriving in their jurisdictions.
However, with the allocation of greater resources and better coordination between all stakeholders, this crisis can become an opportunity. Most migrants do not wish to remain in the border states they first arrive in; they would rather travel to other cities and states across the country where they can join families and friends. Even those who do not have families and friends in the country usually prefer to be in bigger cities with more resources and access to jobs. Thus, the relocation of migrants can be a great opportunity to help alleviate the pressure on border communities and transport migrants to their final destinations, if done appropriately.
The federal government should be responsible for the relocation of migrants to ensure better coordination between sending and receiving jurisdictions. This will help ensure cities and states can meet migrants’ and asylum seekers’ needs upon their arrival and allow the local communities to be better prepared for future humanitarian needs.
The author would like to thank Silva Mathema, Debu Gandhi, Tom Jawetz, Nate Fowler, Nicole Prchal Svajlenka, and Will Roberts for their review of this report.