NBC 5 Investigates has obtained state records showing the cost of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s plan to bus undocumented immigrants from the border to Washington D.C. has cost more than $1,400 per rider so far.
It's a price tag that is higher than the cost of a first class plane ticket from some Texas border towns to the nation’s capital.
The documents, obtained through an open records request to the Texas Division of Emergency Management (TDEM), show busing costs exceeded $1.6 million in April and May, and the total bill may be higher. The records suggest the state has not received invoices for all of the trip expenses yet.
Passenger logs TDEM provided show 1,154 passengers were transported in the early months of the program. That means the approximate per-passenger cost has been at least $1,442.
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In an online search this week, NBC 5 Investigates found plane tickets from border towns McAllen and Del Rio, Texas, to Washington D.C. for about $200-$300. First class tickets were in the $800-900 range, still less than the cost of a seat on the Republican governor’s border buses.
Our search showed that even a coach plane ticket and a night at a five-star hotel near the White House could cost about half of the price of the state-funded bus trips.
'BRINGING THE BORDER TO BIDEN'
Abbott announced the busing program in April, describing it as an effort to take, what he calls President Joe Biden’s "mess" at the border, and drop it on Washington’s doorstep.
“We are sending them (undocumented immigrants) to the United States Capitol where the Biden Administration will be able to more immediately address the needs of the people that they are allowing to come across our border,” Abbott said during a news conference on April 6.
FUNDRAISING EFFORTS LAG BEHIND SPENDING
But the records provided by TDEM, which manages the busing program, suggest that instead of saddling Washington with border burdens, the buses may saddle Texas taxpayers with big expenses for transportation that could be provided at a much lower cost.
Abbott has pledged to raise private funds to help offset the cost of the trips, but his office’s website shows only about $112,000 raised, while the TDEM records show expenses exceeding $1.6 million so far.
Meanwhile, some aid organizations in Washington D.C. argue the buses are not straining the resources of the federal government, as Abbott hoped. Instead, they say the burden has fallen on local D.C. charities that have stepped forward to assist migrants who are left at the curb when the governor’s border buses pull into the city.
“He could do it in a much better way. But again, we've always felt that this is a political stunt by him trying to make a political point,” said Abel Nunez, Executive Director of Central American Resource Center in Washington, a group that meets many of the Texas buses when they arrive in D.C.
'THEY ARE MOVING ON'
Nunez said more than 90% of the passengers his group encounters do not intend to stay in the Washington D.C. area.
“They are moving on to other parts of the country,” Nunez said.
Another aid group, Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, purchases plane and bus tickets to help many of the Texas bus riders travel on to their final destinations.
“We had one (passenger) who was going to Houston, Texas. That was his final destination. So, he was bused up here, and then we put him on a plane to Houston,” said Sister Sharlet Wagner, with Catholic Charities.
“It would be wonderful if they'd buy just an economy (plane) ticket and send them to where they want to go instead of putting them on a bus to Washington, D.C..,” Wagner added.
ABBOTT'S OFFICE RESPONDS
In a statement to NBC 5 Investigates, an Abbott spokesperson said the governor had “received an outpouring of support” for the program, touting the private funds raised so far. The spokesperson, Renae Eze, said the buses are having their intended effect of putting pressure on the feds.
“The Biden Administration has responded by slowing their dumping efforts-unintentionally providing relief to these overwhelmed border communities…,” Eze said.
Eze did not respond directly to questions from NBC 5 investigates about whether the program could be managed in a more cost-effective way.
Records provided by TDEM show the cost of the bus trips has ballooned largely because the state hires security guards to ride each bus. Security-related expenses alone topped $1 million in the early weeks of the program, according to the TDEM records. The total costs are also driven higher by the fact that the buses typically travel from San Antonio to the border, then to Washington D.C., and then finally back to Texas, traveling empty on the return trip. The state gets billed for all of the mileage along the way.
Some passengers who ride the buses said they are grateful Texas is spending money to help them move cross-country.
“A very good idea, a very good idea,” said one recent passenger who told NBC 5 she had fled her home country of Colombia and was thankful that Texas gave her a lift to Washington, putting her one step closer to her final destination…in New Jersey.