Yennifer Arguello, 19, and her three-year-old daughter were some of the Venezuelan migrants who rode in a convoy of free government buses from El Paso to New York. (Photo: Luis Chaparro / VICE World News.)

‘The Kids Are Starving’: 40 Hours on the Road With a Migrant Bus From Texas

VICE World News followed a migrant bus from El Paso, Texas, to New York. And it was miserable.

ROBBINSVILLE, New Jersey — It was after midnight, and 40 hours into their journey from El Paso, the migrants were tired, hungry, and feeling scammed. Some complained their back hurt from sitting for so long, others worried about their starving kids in tow, and others about the smell. The air conditioner had stopped, the only bathroom had backed up, and the bus had started overheating on hills, forcing the driver to stop to allow the engine to cool off.


But as they drew within 60 miles of their destination in New York City, most on the bus believed the worst of their journey had to be over. “We thought, everything that could have gone wrong went wrong,” Vanessa Ospina, a 20-year-old Venezuelan traveling alone with two toddlers, told VICE News. “There is nothing else that could go bad, we thought.” 

That’s when a loud bang woke everyone up. The tired, old bus with yellow front lights and the words “Magical Travel Tours” written in pink on its side, once again hobbled to the side of the I-95, where they were forced to wait another six hours for a tow truck to show up to fix a flat tire.

The two-bus caravan was carrying 44 mostly Venezuelan migrants, a few of the thousands who’ve been arriving in El Paso after making the arduous 2,800-mile journey mostly by foot from South America to the Mexican border in order to cross into the U.S. to ask for political asylum. As of September, El Paso’s Customs and Border Patrol authorities reported over 1,300 Venezuelan migrants arriving to be processed every day.


Signs indicating free buses offered to migrants arriving in El Paso, Texas. Photo: Luis Chaparro/VICE World News.

To handle the influx, El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser started to offer migrants a free bus trip to New York City or Chicago under the controversial program launched in March 2021 by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, “Operation Lone Star,” promising meals, a place to stay, and the possibility of a job on arrival.

Faced with full shelters and the prospect of sleeping on the street, many migrants took Leeser up on the offer, but what they found is a new level of misery: more than 40 hours on a bus in horrible conditions, frequent breakdowns, lack of food and water, and virtually none of the promised shelter and safety on the other end of the journey.


“They gave us a sandwich and a bottle of water in El Paso, but they said they will be giving us meals along the way,” said Claudia Roble, a Venezuelan migrant riding one of the buses. 

“The kids are starving; we have nothing else to give them but water.”

Yennifer Arguello, 19, decided to board the bus to New York after she was told that she and her 3-year-old daughter would be arrested if they slept on the streets of El Paso. A slight teen with curly hair, Yennifer’s voice is soft. She’s on alert, paying attention to details around her, picking up conversations about the trip she’s on. Every now and then she smooths her hair and combs her daughter’s, before taking a selfie of them together. 

“They told me there was no space for me to stay in a shelter here and that I needed to go somewhere else, but I don’t have anyone here,” Arguello said.

Arguello had become separated from her husband crossing the border, but she decided to go anyway. “I’m going,” Arguello said. She grabbed a child’s backpack and a Walmart plastic bag, which held all of her belongings: a secondhand shirt, a bomber jacket for her daughter, and both of their immigration documents. 

A night before departing, the migrants were provided with a contract in English stating they will not hold the City of El Paso responsible for any injury, property damage, or any other misfortune while on the bus. 

“Can you help me translate this?” Arguello asked one of the volunteers, wanting to know what she’d just signed. 


Arguello couldn’t really sleep that night. She called her sister in Venezuela and cried about her husband. “If Alberto reaches out to you, tell him I left for New York, to meet me there,” she said.  

When three buses arrived to pick up migrants at the new El Paso welcome center, they brought a tremendous sense of hope. The buses were new and clean, with Wi-Fi service and TV screens. Volunteers handed each person a white paper bag with a sandwich, a piece of fruit, and a small bottle of water, and then they were off. 

That good fortune lasted about 10 hours, the time it took to drive from El Paso to Dallas. 


The newer buses that were contracted in El Paso, Texas, were replaced with older, more weary models later on in the journey. Photo: Luis Chaparro / VICE World News

The new buses were only contracted to get the migrants as far as Dallas, according to one of the drivers, who preferred not to share his name. Pulling into a gas station at midnight in Dallas, he broke the news that the migrants would be getting off there and boarding a different bus. “Where is the bus?” Arguello asked the driver as they filed off. “It should be here in no time,” he replied over his shoulder as he prepared to head home. 

There was a tense moment as the migrants gathered around the drivers pleading not to be left alone in the middle of the night. 

“We don’t even know where we are, or if the other bus is really coming,” said one woman, holding her sleeping baby in her arms. 

It was then that the three old replacement buses pulled in. One of them had “Magical Tours” written on its side, and they all had worn-out seats, a stinky bathroom, and were much smaller. This is what they would have to ride for the next 30 hours. The migrants lined up and jumped in to restart the journey. 


But not everyone. Enrique Sierra, a 33-year-old Venezuelan, stayed behind at the gas station. He said he had felt pressured to catch the free bus from El Paso and had no desire to go to New York anyway.

“I really didn’t want to go to New York,” Sierra told VICE News. “I’m going to Miami, but I couldn’t depart from El Paso since they didn’t give me time to get a plane ticket.” 

“There goes the first one,” driver Ramón Escalante said as Sierra got off. “They jump out all through the way, and by the time the bus arrives in New York, the buses are half empty most of the time.”

For migrants boarding buses leaving Texas, drivers take full control of their welfare and existence, even though they don’t have resources to provide. Nevertheless, they sometimes buy food for migrants, or find other ways to help out, such as taking detours to get them closer to their desired destination. 

After Sierra got off the bus, he started looking for a way to earn money to get to the bus station. He found a couple of men trying to fix a flat tire on their pickup truck, so he jumped in to help.

During the night, the buses crossed through Arkansas and then made a stop in Memphis, Tennessee, at dawn. The migrants jumped out, starving. 

Many gathered around the front of a convenience store at the gas station, begging for money or food. A family with three kids gathered on the side of a dumpster. Two of the kids started to cry. 


The mother of the three kids walked up to the doors of the store and extended her hand to a passerby. She didn’t say a word, guessing the man wouldn’t understand her Spanish. But before she noticed, another migrant was showing a photo of his daughter on his cellphone to the same man, who eventually handed over a few coins to him. 

The young mom returned back to the corner with her family with watery eyes and sat beside her kids. 

Escalante, the driver, came out of the store carrying some chicken and water for them. A second driver also bought sandwiches, candies, and a few bottles of water for several of the migrants on his bus. “We’ve been paying for their meals out of our own pocket. We can’t leave them like this. This was not supposed to happen,” Escalante said, on the verge of tears. 

Governments on both ends of the trip, he said, have put too heavy a responsibility on the drivers. 

“We are responsible for choosing if we want to go off-route to get the migrants that are not going to New York a bit closer to their destination. We are also responsible for their meals, for their safety…it’s too much!” he said. 

Catherine Cole, from the migrant-support organization Grannies Respond, said that group has spent $24,000 in September alone to help migrants buy bus tickets from New York to their final desired destination. 

Back on the road, the buses got to Nashville, where the weather was very hot–and the air conditioning broke down. The curvy, uphill highways of Tennessee also made the bus motor overheat, prompting the driver to stop and check: The motor was smoking and a thin line of water started pouring from the muffler. He decided they needed to wait for at least 20 minutes. 


Claudia Roble, a Venezuelan migrant riding one of the buses, said: “The kids are starving; we have nothing else to give them but water.” Photo: Luis Chaparro / VICE World News.

When the bus reached Knoxville, Yanet, a 39-year-old Venezuelan traveling with her daughter and son, decided to get off. She’d told the driver she was hoping to get to Atlanta. “Since the moment I crossed the border, I said Atlanta was my destination, but still, they pressured me to get on this bus and asked me to ask the driver to leave me as close as he could,” she said. 

Yanet and her kids stood outside a gas station looking at the trucks passing by. 

“How do you say ‘un aventón’ (a ride) in English?” Yanet asked a man putting gas in his truck. Then she went back to the highway to ask for a ride. 

VICE News later learned that Yanet and her sons had left their immigration documents inside the bus by mistake but managed to recover them eventually, and made it to Atlanta. 

The final night of the journey covered the long stretch from Tennessee to New York, non-stop. Arguello, the 19-year-old traveling alone with her daughter, looked exhausted in her seat near the back of the bus. 

She didn’t have a phone, so every opportunity she got, she asked nearby passengers  for a phone to check for news on her husband. 

The migrants tried to sleep in silence, despite their hunger. A few babies were still crying, but the chilly breeze from outside had cooled the bus enough for many to get some rest. Once in New Jersey, they started seeing road signs for New York.


That’s when a tire exploded.

All of the tires on the bus were very worn, and at least one wheel was missing a bolt. “We don’t have the tools or a spare tire on these buses,” Escalante said, visibly desperate on the side of the road. 

He called the bus behind him, also coming from El Paso, but that driver had no equipment either. “We are going to have to wait until the morning to call a workshop for help,” he said. 

After a six-hour wait on the side of the road for help, they finally fixed the tire and rolled on, arriving in New York just after 1 p.m. on a Thursday. The migrants gathered by the windows looking to catch the first images of New York. The bus crossed through Times Square where many rushed to take photos and video of the iconic flashing lights and enormous screens streaming ads and news.

At their arrival to the Port Authority Bus Station, they were taken to yet another processing center. But their journey was far from over. The day they arrived, all of the shelters around the city were full. At least a dozen migrants had to be driven around until 2 a.m.—by then the TV crews and politicians who’d been waiting for them earlier had already left—but they finally got shelter.

That night, Arguello slept in a bed for the first time in over three months. The volunteers in New York put her and her daughter in a Holiday Inn turned shelter in the heart of the Bronx. “We finally made it! What an ordeal we just lived through,” she said. “This is not what we expected. But what are we going to do? A free ride is a free ride, and when you have nothing, you take all the help you can get, even if this is not what you wanted.”

Two nights later, Arguello and her husband, Alberto, were reunited. After he was taken to Laredo,Texas, from El Paso and then flown to San Antonio, a private donor bought him a ticket to New York. 

“We are here to work. To give my family what they deserve. They have been such warriors,” Alberto said.