Arizona has spent millions to bus more than 1,000 asylum seekers to Washington, D.C., with much more to come

The border wall in Sasabe, Arizona, near the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge in 2021.
Stacey Barchenger
Arizona Republic

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey's program to bus asylum seekers from the state's southern border to the nation's capital has cost taxpayers about $1 million a month and sparked a new political feud with Democratic mayors in some of the nation's biggest cities.

And despite criticism, the Grand Canyon State has committed to continuing the program, with lawmakers earmarking $15 million for transportation in the state budget that funds operations through June.

When the transportation program began in May, Ducey's office billed it as a humanitarian effort to relieve the crush of demand an influx of migrants was placing on nonprofits that provide shelter and other services.

But it also served to add political pressure on the Biden administration, becoming the latest effort in Ducey's ongoing campaign to push President Joe Biden to do more to secure the border.

While the White House has resisted the effort, dismissing the busing of people seeking asylum as a "shameful" political play and last week announcing it would end the remain in Mexico policy, other Democratic leaders have felt the pressure. Mayors of New York City and Washington, D.C., where many of the asylum seekers end up, are now left calling on the federal government for aid to absorb the influx.

That's spun off a battle of its own, with Mayor Muriel Bowser of Washington, D.C., saying the "cruel political gamesmanship" of Ducey and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who also began transporting asylum seekers from his border state earlier this year, had led to a crisis in her city.

"They too are now experiencing the indifference of the federal government," said Ducey spokesman C.J. Karamargin.

“People are paying attention. This is not just an Arizona problem to have an unsecure border, where people are allowed to enter your country at random. As the governor has said many times, this is a national problem."

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Costs for buses likely to grow

Ducey revealed the state would use taxpayer dollars to help ferry people seeking asylum from Arizona after the first bus already chugged beyond state lines. At the time, the cost of the program wasn't known.

The Arizona Republic filed a public records request for the state's contract with AMI Expeditionary Healthcare of Virginia in May and received the 59-page document in August, almost three months later. Asked about the delay, Karamargin said it was "unacceptable."

About 1,400 people seeking asylum have left the state in 38 busloads, according to Ducey's office. At $82,000 a trip, the cost outlined in the contract, that amounts to over $3 million spent since Ducey started the bus trips three months ago.

While the state already has spent millions to transport people to Washington, D.C., costs are likely to grow with demand.

“The cost of this program pales in comparison to the burden imposed on Arizona's communities by the federal government's inability or unwillingness to secure the border," Karamargin said, though it is hard to quantify if the buses have had a meaningful impact in lowering demand on food banks and nonprofit organizations that specifically serve people seeking asylum.

The Governor's Office has said it will seek reimbursement from the Biden administration. Given that a White House spokeswoman has also called the bus trips a "political tool," that reimbursement check with Biden's signature may never get cut.

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Democrats — not Biden — pressured

Ducey's pressure campaign on Biden has instead landed at the feet of Bowser, the mayor in Washington, D.C., and New York City Mayor Eric Adams.

While Texas began busing asylum seekers to the Big Apple earlier this month, Arizona's buses only travel to Washington, D.C. Over a quarter of people who climb aboard buses in Arizona ultimately head to New York City, though, and the mayor's office there has estimated about 5,000 asylum seekers have sought shelter there in recent months. Not all 5,000 are traveling from Arizona and Texas.

Bowser asked the federal government to send in the National Guard to help deal with the flood of people to her city. The request was initially declined, but renewed last week, according to CNN.

"Our ability to assist people in need at this scale is very limited," Bowser wrote in a letter requesting National Guard support. "Instead of rolling up their sleeves and working with the Biden/Harris administration on a real solution, governors Abbott and Ducey have decided to use desperate people to score political points."

Ducey has tried many means to urge the Biden administration to secure the state's southern border. He's gotten meetings with U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials and formed a coalition of 26 Republican governors to call for action. This year's state budget includes over $500 million for border issues, including some to build physical barriers at the border, and Ducey's office announced Friday the state would using shipping containers to fill gaps in the wall on federal land southwest of Yuma.

He's also, with other governors, created a list of steps he believes Biden should take. Those measures include larger deployments of the National Guard, deportation of all criminals and not just the gravest offenders, increased capacity in immigration courts, and requirements that asylum seekers wait for court proceedings in Mexico, among other proposals.

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Opposition, support at home

Incoming criticism from mayors on the other side of the country echoes critiques that Ducey continues to face closer to home.

Karina Ruiz, executive director of the Arizona Dream Act Coalition, said she believed the transportation effort was a waste of resources that could be better spent in Arizona. Ruiz said dropping people off in Washington, D.C., only part of the way to family members or sponsors on the East Coast, was evidence of the program being a political stunt.

According to figures from the Governor's Office, asylum seekers continued on to Florida, Georgia, New Jersey, North Carolina, and other eastern states. The majority of asylum seekers, about 800, came from Colombia, while others came from Peru, Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua.

Ruiz cautioned that it was not those individuals who should receive blame for the cost of busing, fearing doing so would bolster already divisive rhetoric over complex immigration issues or further what some Republican candidates call an "invasion" at the border.

“The rhetoric that’s being used is putting the blame onto migrants for the spending that the state is doing," she said. "We really don’t have control over how this money is allocated, nor are they consulting the communities who are directly impacted.” 

Meanwhile Amanda Aguirre, a Democratic former state lawmaker who is now president of the Regional Center for Border Health, said Ducey's program has helped fill a need and served to get asylum seekers closer to their families on the East Coast.

The Regional Center for Border Health and other nonprofits were already aiding asylum seekers who enter Arizona with transportation, busing or flying them to sponsors in other states, even before Ducey's office began to put state funds behind the effort. Now, the regional center is partnering with Ducey's administration directly.

Without transportation, asylum seekers could end up homeless in Arizona's border communities, Aguirre said, dismissing criticism from mayors and others that Ducey's motivation was political.

"It's part of that humanitarian effort of Arizona, but if some people want to take it as a political statement we'll disagree with that, respectfully disagree," Aguirre said. 

Aguirre said the Biden administration's announcement last week it would phase out the remain in Mexico policy could lead to a surge in asylum claims, adding to demand for the state-funded bus trips and for local social services.

She pointed to the care taken in transporting asylum seekers, noting in particular that her organization is in contact with family members and sponsors before anyone takes the bus trip. The state's contract requires buses that leave two to three times a week to have meals, amenities like wireless internet, and be staffed by two paramedics in case something happens along the road.

"It definitely has helped us, because we see families that are not able to pay for the transportation to the final destination," she said. 

Reach reporter Stacey Barchenger at stacey.barchenger@arizonarepublic.com or 480-416-5669. Follow her on Twitter @sbarchenger.