White House condemns ‘stunt’ of busing migrants in freezing Christmas Eve weather

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(WASHINGTON) -- The White House on Sunday blamed a politically motivated "stunt" for migrants being bused in subfreezing temperatures to Washington, D.C., the night before.

Three buses carrying 139 migrants from Texas arrived Saturday outside Vice President Kamala Harris' residence at the Naval Observatory, one advocate who greeted them told ABC News.

While no officials or groups said they were responsible for helping transport the people to the capital, some Republican state leaders have been busing migrants in protest of what they call the Biden administration's failed immigration policies.

Amy Fischer is a core organizer with the Migrant Solidarity Mutual Aid Network and was outside the Naval Observatory on Saturday night as buses began arriving after about 7:45 p.m.

Fischer said the migrants included "a bunch of families," maybe around 30, as well as adults in groups like spouses and cousins and people traveling alone.

Temperatures in Washington that night were in the teens, according to the National Weather Service. None of the migrants wore cold weather gear, Fischer said, though many had blankets to wrap up in.

The "vast majority" were asylum-seekers and all spoke Spanish, with people from Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, Peru and Nicaragua, Fischer said.

She said the migrants were sent from Texas by Gov. Greg Abbott's administration, though his office did not respond to a request for comment from ABC News.

Both Abbott and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, who are Republicans, have for months been periodically sending migrants to Democratic-led areas of the country.

"Texas' busing strategy has successfully provided much-needed relief to our border communities overwhelmed by the historic influx of migrants caused by President Biden's reckless open border policies," Abbott contended in a statement last month.

A spokesman for Ducey told ABC News that Arizona did not bus the migrants on Saturday.

Fischer said that she and some others from the aid network helped welcome the people as they arrived and directed many of them to transport to a "respite location" -- an area church, though Fischer declined to identify it out of security concerns.

Warm meals, clothes and hygiene kits were available at the respite location, Fischer said. Some migrants had family picking them up after the buses deposited them at the Naval Observatory.

In the two days since, Fischer said, her group has helped people make further travel plans to their final destinations while a "handful of folks" who are planning to stay in D.C. have been relocated to a hotel as they prepare to put down roots. She said the groups left on the buses from Texas knowing they were headed to Washington.

"I think people are always a little bit confused ... People are always a little bit scared," Fischer said.

"That's one of my favorite things engaging in this type of work is when you go to the respite locations, people will often times walk in a little bit like 'what's going on? what is this place?'" Fischer said. But then that hesitation abates: "We had Christmas music playing and we're all wearing dorky Christmas sweaters and they get hot food and people kind of sort of -- you can see some of the stress dissolve."

Most of the migrants are looking to head to the New York and New Jersey areas but some are going to the South, some to Washington state, Fischer said.

The nonprofit SAMU First Response, which assists migrants making asylum claims in the U.S., also worked with the migrants as they arrived Saturday.

Abbott previously bused 50 migrants to Harris' home in September.

He told ABC News' "Nightline" in August that "we've got to secure our border because the Biden administration is not securing it."

Abbott's office said in August that more than 6,500 migrants had been taken by bus to cities like New York and Washington.

Speaking with ABC News, Fischer likened Abbott's busing strategy to the "cruelest way possible" to provide transportation for migrants. But she also suggested the Biden administration was overly focused on political differences rather than solving a pressing logistical issue as people continue to arrive at the southern border.

A spokesperson for the Texas Division of Emergency Management told ABC News in September that the state had spent more than $12 million on transporting the migrants, including charter buses and private security.

President Joe Biden has called such tactics "un-American," "reckless" and "simply wrong."

"This was a cruel, dangerous, and shameful stunt," White House spokesman Abdullah Hasan said in a statement on Sunday.

"As we have repeatedly said, we are willing to work with anyone -- Republican or Democrat alike -- on real solutions, like the comprehensive immigration reform and border security measures President Biden sent to Congress on his first day in office, but these political games accomplish nothing and only put lives in danger," Hasan said.

Migrants face freezing weather across the country

The latest migrant busing unfolds as El Paso, Texas, has been dealing with a steep influx of people arriving across the border as the Supreme Court weighs the fate of the public health policy known as Title 42, which prevents some people from seeking asylum in the U.S. because of the threat of COVID-19. A ruling could come any day.

Authorities have been encountering an average of up to 1,500 migrants per day in the city and while organizations rushed to shelter migrants in the cold, ABC affiliate KVIA reported seeing families sleeping on the streets in freezing conditions late last week.

Sue Dickson, a minister, was preaching a Christmas Eve service at a church that is very close to the southern border when immigrants who had just come across started coming into the church for warmth, she said.

"We of course invited them 'come worship with us' and then were very happy to do that," she said. A group of parishioners drove the migrants to a warming center nearby.

Dickson volunteers at the Annunciation House, which operates a network of four hospitality sites that temporarily house migrants who are typically trying to reach families in other cities across the country.

She said the biggest challenge the cold weather poses is when people need to walk to the bus station, the pharmacy or to downtown stores without the proper clothing.

“We give people warm jackets, hats and gloves but when they come to us they often don’t have warm clothes,” she said.

The high number of arrivals at the border has reverberated across the country at the same time many regions have been battered by brutal winter weather. Over the weekend, Denver opened up three warming centers to migrants and other individuals, including one at the Denver Coliseum.

ABC News' Mariam Khan contributed to this report.

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