Peter Pedemonti, a co-director of Philadelphia-based community organization New Sanctuary Movement, was busy getting his young children ready for school last week when he got a call from a colleague in Texas: Gov. Greg Abbott was sending a bus of asylum-seekers to Pennsylvania.
The colleague didn't know when the bus would leave, nor when it would arrive.
Pedemonti jumped into action, activating a network of more than a dozen advocacy organizations and Philadelphia city departments that had been preparing for this moment since the summer, when Abbott and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis began sending migrants to so-called sanctuary cities like Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C.
“We always knew Philadelphia would be a destination,” he said.
If Abbott was hoping for a public backlash to asylum-seekers’ arriving in Philadelphia, he didn’t achieve his goal, said Pedemonti, who, along with other community organizers, greeted the newcomers Wednesday morning with warm drinks and clothing.
"We chose to welcome people with dignity, with love and with support and solidarity," he said. "I’m really proud of the city today."
Because of the notice, city officials were able to activate a mass care plan, which included mobilizing the Office of Immigrant Affairs and the Office of Emergency Management.
The outpouring of support for the arrivals appeared to be a moment of pride for Mayor Jim Kenney, who pushed the city to become a sanctuary for immigrants in 2018. He famously broke into song and dance when a federal judge ruled that the Trump administration couldn’t cut off grants to Philadelphia over how it deals with immigrants in the country illegally.
Since then, Philadelphia has expanded its services and made the office of immigrant affairs permanent.
“I’m very pleased with the high level of coordination occurring to best welcome individuals seeking asylum to Philadelphia, where they are and will always be welcomed," Kenney said in a statement Wednesday. "We are proud to protect the rights and dignity of our newly arrived neighbors."
Lawyers and translators were on standby when the 28 asylum-seekers from Nicaragua, Panama, Cuba, Ecuador and the Dominican Republic arrived at Philadelphia's 30th Street Station. The immigrant affairs office also provided health screenings, and meals were distributed.
The asylum-seekers were exhausted from a nearly 40-hour journey, and officials said a 10-year-old child was transported to a hospital with signs of dehydration.
“It’s one of the more inhumane aspects that they would put a child who was dehydrated with a fever now, a very high fever, on the bus, City Council member Helen Gym told NBC Philadelphia. "It’s a terrible situation.”
Most of the asylum-seekers hope to be reunited with relatives in New Jersey and New York, and just two families plan to stay in Philadelphia.
In New York, more than 21,400 migrants and asylum-seekers who have arrived since the spring have found themselves in a fruitless hunt for work while they try to build lives in the U.S.
Advocates warn that without more state or federal assistance, those groups will continue to serve as political pawns or remain in legal gray areas, hitting barriers to education and employment.
"Eventually we will need a state-coordinated plan, and we really need the U.S. and federal government to shift to a long-term plan," said Andy Kang, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition. "Our hope is that, at some point, asylum-seekers are treated more like refugees."
Abbott warned President Joe Biden in a letter Wednesday that Texas would ramp up its efforts to deal with the influx of migrants. He said Biden must implement or reinstate policies that enforce federal immigration laws “and protect the states against invasion.”
“Two years of inaction on your part now leave Texas with no choice but to escalate our efforts to secure our State,” the letter said. “Your open-border policies, which have catalyzed an unprecedented crisis of illegal immigration, are the sole cause of Texas having to invoke our constitutional authority to defend ourselves.”
But advocates are quick to point out that the people who arrived in Philadelphia aren’t in the country illegally, having been paroled into the U.S. after they declared asylum.
It remains unclear whether Abbott will send more busloads of migrants to the city, but advocates like Erika Guadalupe Núñez, the executive director of Juntos, a nonprofit Philadelphia-based immigrant rights organization, say they will remain vigilant: “This is the first time it’s happened, but it’s definitely not going to be the last time."