Advocacy and community groups in Arizona said they are putting Republican Gov. Doug Ducey on notice about his state-funded effort to transport busloads of migrants and asylum seekers to Democratic-led cities in the eastern United States, which has emerged as a new front in the political battle over immigration and border security.
Ducey is one of three Republican governors — Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and now Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis are the others — who have been paying to bus migrants processed along the U.S.-Mexico border to cities such as Washington, D.C., New York and Chicago.
Ducey has said the state is providing humanitarian assistance to migrants and to the community organizations receiving them, while placing a share of the responsibility to care for them on communities away from the Arizona-Mexico border, often in what they refer to as sanctuary cities.
David Villa Hernandez, the Arizona state director for the League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC, said Ducey, as governor, has a responsibility to stop dehumanizing migrants.
In recent weeks, several elected officials and political candidates for the GOP in Arizona have likened the migrants’ arrival to an invasion or referred to them as criminals, leading to criticism that they’re posturing and using migrants for political gain.
“Everything he says from this point on will be critiqued even more so than ever before. So we’re going to hold him to a standard,” Villa Hernandez said. “We’re putting him and the people that follow him on notice that we want some answers and we want people to be treated with dignity and respect.”
The efforts by Republican governors to transport migrants have ignited heated exchanges with Democratic elected officials in those cities and states and have drawn some public criticism, particularly after DeSantis paid to bus migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard on Sept. 14.
DeSantis has borne the brunt of the criticism, with congressional investigations underway to determine if he violated any laws by potentially coercing or misleading migrants or paying for the transportation using funds intended to address COVID-19.
Advocacy groups in Arizona are asking the federal government to look into whether Ducey may have also broken any similar rules or statutes.
The Uncage and Reunite Families Coalition sent a letter to the FBI and the Department of Justice earlier this month citing “several anecdotal reports that the refugees who Ducey sent by bus were also given false information about where they were going,” the letter read.
That’s something the Ducey’s office vehemently refutes.
The office has been working with the Regional Center for Border Health in Somerton to help arrange the transportation of migrants released in the Yuma area to Washington, D.C. To date, they have transported 1,967 migrants on 55 buses at a cost of about $83,000 per bus.
C.J. Karamargin, a spokesman for Ducey, said allegations of coercion or misleading information are unfounded, and that their efforts differ from what the governors in Texas and Florida have done.
“They may be confusing what’s happening in Arizona with other states,” he said. “The program that we’ve undertaken is completely voluntary.”
But the lingering concerns about how transportation is arranged and what information is shared with migrants signals the mounting scrutiny Republican governors face over their efforts.
In particular, Ducey, because he also chairs the Republican Governors’ Association.
In an analysis published Wednesday, the nonpartisan think tank Migrant Policy Institute said the transportation of migrants has opened a new partisan front in the deeply polarized political climate, with just more than a month before congressional midterm elections and state races for governor in Arizona, Texas and Florida.
In its analysis, the institute said Texas and Arizona since April have sent approximately 13,000 migrants from the border to cities in the eastern U.S. The majority of them were processed and released in Texas.
Texas has spent about $12.7 million to pay for the buses. Meanwhile, Arizona has spent about $3 million to date, according to the report.
The Arizona Legislature allocated an additional $15 million in the most recent state budget to help pay for the transportation of migrants and asylum seekers. The lawmakers set aside $10 million for emergency health care and testing along the border.
Advocacy groups said they are concerned about migrants being coerced or being transported to locations far from their intended destinations, where they are then required to check in with immigration authorities.
They also questioned the use of taxpayer money, saying the $15 million set aside for transportation could instead be given to the nonprofits along the border that have borne the brunt of the humanitarian response.
The Migration Policy Institute said transporting migrants has produced some upsides. Mainly, it has benefitted migrants who are headed to destinations along the eastern U.S. who no longer have to pay for transportation.
It has helped nonprofits such as the Regional Center for Border Health which struggled initially to transport migrants, but has since developed a coordinated system with other nonprofits in Arizona and in Washington.
The Regional Center for Border Health since February 2021 has been helping migrants processed and released by Border Patrol in the Yuma area.
The Yuma area has become one of the busiest crossing routes along the U.S.-Mexico border. Since October, Border Patrol has processed and admitted about 250,000 migrants to the U.S.
The center began assisting migrants released in Yuma at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, taking on the responsibility to administer tests and find transportation options out of Yuma and to other cities in Arizona and California where they could access buses and flights to their final destinations in the U.S.
The center has charted six buses that transport about 300 migrants and asylum seekers daily out of Yuma. Starting in May, Ducey’s office began sending about three buses per week to the center to transport them to Washington.
Migrants who decide to go on the buses receive three meals, snacks and toiletries, and have paramedics on board as well, according to the center.
Amanda Aguirre, the CEO of the center and a former state lawmaker, said they coordinate closely with nonprofit groups in D.C.
“This is a humanitarian effort, some of these families have no money to travel onward, Arizona is not their final destination,” she said in a written statement. “We would not be participating if this were in any way similar to what Texas or Florida Governors are doing. This is 100% voluntary to safely get the families and children that much closer to home.”
According to Ducey’s office, of the 1,967 migrants they have transported to Washington, D.C., so far, nearly two-thirds planned to go to New York, New Jersey and Florida.
Nearly half of them came to the U.S. from Colombia, with significant numbers from Peru and Venezuela taking the option to board the buses, Ducey’s office said.