This piece is published as part of our new Immigration Idea Incubator which features policy ideas our team has been thinking about in addition to our formal immigration strategy work. We welcome your thoughts and engagement!

Several of the biggest U.S. cities — including New York City, Chicago, and Washington D.C. — struggle to provide resettlement services and housing. While this is partly thanks to the staggering number of migrants, high housing costs in these densely populated areas are a significant factor. This begs the question: why aren’t we transferring migrants throughout the country rather than focusing on expensive metropolises?

There are three main reasons. First, the political gains realized from the chaos of repeatedly sending migrants to the same Democrat-led cities are too mouthwatering for some Republican governors to forgo. Second, the practicalities of moving people away from the border quickly often lead NGOs to rely on the same receiving cities. Finally, there isn’t enough funding — or guidance on how to use funds — to better transfer migrants. 

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has two primary grant programs for managing migration. The Shelter and Services Program (SSP) was awarded $363.8 million for FY23, which includes funds that can be used for transportation. Transportation in this context is not a vague concept — it is narrowly defined to include transportation from DHS release to shelter and service providers. Eligible transportation expenses from the DHS facility to a shelter include charter bus, taxi, and mileage.

There are three different types of transportation. Onward destination transportation is from a shelter and service provider to a migrant’s final destination. Long-distance transportation includes air, bus, or train expenses to move families and individuals within 45 days of their release by DHS to another city or state. Only coach class fares under $700 per ticket are eligible when providing long-distance transportation. 

Service provider-to-service provider transportation refers to transportation from one shelter and services provider to another to decompress the population at a shelter. This travel must be coordinated between service locations before travel, and there needs to be documentation. It also includes transportation from the service provider to a hub (e.g., airport, bus station, train station, etc.).

All three options are available to transfer migrants on arrival or after initial resettlement in another city. Still, we’re not using these options as much as we should — partly because doing so is costly and funding is unavailable.

In addition to encouraging initial transfers to more affordable cities, we must consider additional funding requests. President Biden recently requested a supplemental $4.5 billion to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol “for border operations, including transporting and processing migrants encountered along the Southwest border, hiring additional agents and officers, and reimbursing the Department of Defense for support on the Southwest border. The President can also request funds be transferred to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for grants to entities providing shelter and services to migrants released from DHS custody. 

That cities like NYC and Chicago struggle to resettle migrants shouldn’t necessarily be discouraging. Instead, it is an opportunity to expand the resettlement program. Mid-size cities are willing — even requesting — that migrants come to their cities, particularly those with work authorization.