In summary

Even with border encounters sharply down this year, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has so far sent seven buses of asylum seekers to Los Angeles to make a disgraceful and cynical point about the country’s immigration debate.

The first bus pulled into Los Angeles on June 14. It carried 43 men, women and children. They had arrived days earlier in Texas, presented themselves to authorities and asked for asylum in the United States. There, state officials, who have no jurisdiction in immigration matters, put them on buses and sent them to Los Angeles.

The second bus pulled into Los Angeles on July 1 with 41 passengers aboard. The third on July 13. The fourth on July 18. All told, seven buses so far have made the trip to L.A., bringing a total of 283 people from the Texas border to the nation’s second-largest city. They have come from around the world: Colombia, Chile, Peru, Venezuela, Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Brazil, Haiti, El Salvador, Cuba, China, Cameroon and, of course, Mexico.

The reception given these migrants in Texas and in Los Angeles could not be more different. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has done everything possible to make these people feel unwanted, placing buoys and razor wire in the Rio Grande to make entry dangerous – even lethal – and his office has instructed authorities to withhold food and water from the families trying to make their way to safety. 

In Los Angeles, Mayor Karen Bass and her administration regard those migrants as people in need of help rather than as a blight to be eliminated.

When the busloads arrive in Los Angeles, they are met by the “LA Welcomes Collective,” which provides the services that Abbott’s administration deliberately denies. The asylum seekers barely exit the bus before they are given a quick medical check and offered food, water and hygiene kits. Volunteer lawyers brief them on their legal rights, and they are quizzed about family who might take them in. 

Travel is arranged for those who have connections in the United States, whereas those without a place to go are offered shelter until more permanent arrangements can be made. Volunteers give toys to bedraggled and bewildered children, some as young as 4 months old.

What is perhaps most notable about this shuffle is the fact that these migrants arrive unannounced. There is no call from Abbott’s office to say a busload is on its way, no coordination between the Texas governor who ships people like cattle and the local authorities who take on the responsibility of caring for those they regard as human beings seeking safety and opportunity of America. 

If this were genuinely an attempt to share resources and responsibly address the issues that arise from people crossing the border, officials in different states would be working together. The fact that there is no such effort speaks volumes to what is really going on.

This is not an effort to address immigration but rather a political opportunity. In fact, border encounters – contacts between law enforcement and migrants – are sharply down this year, dropping from 252,000 last December to 145,000 in June. Moreover, the largest number of those in the country illegally settle in California already, so shipping migrants from Texas to California isn’t some cynical form of burden-sharing. 

What’s ratcheted up in recent months is not the problem itself but rather Abbott’s exploitation of it. The governor dispatched the first buses of migrants to Washington, D.C., in September 2022 to Vice President Kamala Harris’ house. He has expanded his program over the past year, directing thousands of immigrants to New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Denver and Los Angeles.

“Texas’ small border towns remain overwhelmed and overrun by the thousands of people illegally crossing into Texas from Mexico because of President Biden’s refusal to secure the border,” Abbott said after announcing the first bus to L.A. “Los Angeles is a major city that migrants seek to go to, particularly now that its city leaders approved its self-declared sanctuary city status.”

Abbott is correct that Los Angeles recently declared itself a sanctuary city, but a word about that is in order: Immigrants who are in Los Angeles illegally are not protected from deportation. In 1979, Los Angeles’ famously – or infamously, some would say – conservative police chief Daryl F. Gates barred LAPD officers from acting as immigration authorities, preventing them from inquiring about a person’s immigration status or stopping them solely on suspicion of being in the country illegally. 

That was intended not to offer sanctuary but to encourage cooperation with police – to come forward as witnesses, for instance. 

The L.A. City Council recently expanded on that notion, and Los Angeles does not spend any city resources to enforce immigration law. But that’s in part a recognition that immigration is enforced by the federal government, not the city. Migrants who live in Los Angeles illegally are subject to deportation, just as they are in Brownsville, Texas.

Abbott’s work, then, adds to the challenges that Bass already faces in governing Los Angeles, and for no apparent gain other than to bring the Texas governor a little attention and strengthen his credentials with those who demonize immigrants, fantasize a border crisis and award points for cruelty.  

“This is a political strategy to make Democratic cities look like they’re helpless,” Bass recently told me. It is coordinated and amplified by the helpful ideologues at Fox News, she added, noting that the bottom line is to “make sure that things get worse” and that Democrats get blamed.

“This is a political strategy to make Democratic cities look like they’re helpless.”

Karen bass, mayor of los angeles

Gov. Gavin Newsom agrees. He believes in borders and is frustrated by illegal immigration, too. California, after all, is home to 2.7 million people without legal status – more than Texas and Florida combined. 

But he sensibly pointed out that throwing people onto a Greyhound bus hardly solves anything.

“I get why people are upset about this, and they have a right to be,” Newsom told me an interview this spring. “But they shouldn’t be upset with state and local governments and elected officials who are trying to keep people healthier, safer and more educated.” 

Abbott’s bus campaign – which Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has played along with, too – is just ramping up in Los Angeles, but its full effects are more visible in New York City, where buses have been arriving for months. There, Mayor Eric Adams has buckled under the amount of people pouring into the city – some 79,000 in total. Like Los Angeles, New York has tried to manage those arrivals with compassion, but the influx has overwhelmed city services. 

Immigrants in New York are sleeping in shelters and even parks. As with Los Angeles, officials are trying to connect the new arrivals to loved ones in the United States, and even those efforts have brought Adams some grief. One especially dense piece in Politico equated Adams’ relocation of 114 migrant households – some in Florida and Texas – to the influx of some 9,700 migrants that Abbott has sent to New York, calling Adams’ efforts “something similar” to those of Abbott.

That’s just bad reporting, but it’s evidence that Abbott’s campaign is working, at least to some extent, as Adams’ response to the Texas governor’s provocations has left him politically isolated: He’s angry at President Biden for not offering more help at the same time that he’s furious with Abbott for keeping up the bus parade. 

Bass, by contrast, has focused her ire on Abbott. That may help preserve her relations with the White House, which is important to Bass on a number of levels. Just as importantly, it separates Bass from Abbott’s deplorable political gamesmanship, a charade that ignores the humanity of those crossing the border and reduces those men and women – and their children – to talking points in America’s cynical immigration debate.

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Jim Newton is a veteran journalist, best-selling author and teacher. He worked at the Los Angeles Times for 25 years as a reporter, editor, bureau chief and columnist, covering government and politics....