New York City Mayor Eric Adams recently warned that the city could be “destroyed” if it doesn’t get more help to support an influx of migrants — and is now starting to turn some asylum-seekers out of shelter.
“Never in my life have I had a problem that I did not see an ending to. I don’t see an ending to this,” the mayor said at a town hall earlier this month.
Since April 2022, more than 116,000 migrants have arrived in New York City. Most came from the US-Mexico border, fleeing hardship in their home countries and seeking asylum, a form of protection that would allow them to remain in the United States and not be deported. Many are not yet eligible to work in the United States due to asylum rules, which require migrants to wait about six months for a work permit. More than 60,000 of them remain in the city’s shelter system, according to a statement from the mayor’s office. If migration continues at its current pace, the city is on track to spend $12 billion over the next three fiscal years to shelter and support immigrants.
The crisis has deep roots. The United States’ immigration system has long been broken, amplifying an international humanitarian crisis, and the movement of migrants from the southern border into cities has highlighted and tested the system’s many fault lines. A report from the Adams administration blames a litany of factors, including the lack of comprehensive federal immigration reform, Trump administration policies, climate change, overwhelmed immigration courts, and the narrow paths immigrants face to becoming permanent residents.
Adams says New York City has stretched itself to the limit and is demanding greater help from New York Gov. Kathy Hochul and the Biden administration.
The humanitarian crisis has also become a political flashpoint for New York. Protesters have criticized the city for housing migrants in schools and various residential neighborhoods and heckled lawmakers who speak on the subject to “close the border.” As the crisis puts a strain on the city’s budget, Adams, a mayor who campaigned on the idea that New York City is a sanctuary city, has changed his tone. Republicans looking for a new boogeyman for the 2024 election cycle are watching. Advocates warn that Democratic leaders, including Adams, are falling into dangerously xenophobic rhetoric and fear that the plight of thousands of migrants will be used as a political pawn as the country heads toward the 2024 general election.
New York’s migrant crisis is actually several crises in one: a humanitarian crisis, as people from around the world flee instability and poverty and make their way to New York; a housing crisis, as a city that is required to find shelter for migrants struggles to do so; and a political crisis for the mayor, whose handling of the situation has come under increasing scrutiny from fellow Democrats and from conservatives alike.
“What the mayor said is conceptually ridiculous and unfair. [Migrants’] decision to come to America was fueled by a level of bravery that we in the US cannot even understand,” said Christine Quinn, president and CEO of Win, a provider of shelter for homeless families in New York City that has housed hundreds of migrant families. “The mayor isn’t wrong to say the feds and state should do more, but the best way to get help from [the state and federal government] is to exhaust your own ability and there’s no way Adams is at that point yet, despite what he has said.”
Why are migrants traveling to New York City?
Part of the influx of migrants is by design: Since last year, Republican governors in Florida and Texas have sent new arrivals northward by bus or plane, including to New York City, as part of an effort to provoke a reaction out of the federal government and Democratic-led cities. The greatest number has come from Texas, where Gov. Greg Abbott has sent more than 13,300 migrants to New York City since the spring of 2022. But many more migrants have arrived on their own.
Some experts believe migrants are choosing New York City after learning about the city’s “right to shelter” mandate. New York City has a unique legal obligation to find placement for asylum seekers under a consent decree, which took effect in the 1980s after a court ordered the city to provide temporary housing to any man who asked for it.
“In the early stages, we should probably not have actively encouraged shelter. News of the welcome mat certainly spread among immigrant circles through social media very quickly,” Muzaffar Chishti, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, told the New Yorker. “The idea was: If you get to the border, tell people you want to take a bus to New York City. We should have just kept the old practice that people will just find their own way when they come to the city.”
When Abbott sent migrants to the city by bus, Adams greeted them at the Port Authority bus terminal in an effort to appear welcoming, in contrast to Abbott’s cruelty. But in the past few months, his administration has distributed flyers at the border to direct migrants away from traveling to NYC.
“New York City has international draw. Migrants have likely seen it in movies and TV shows. They view it as a city of opportunity where a lot of immigrants have gone,” Julia Gelatt, associate director of the US Immigration Policy Program at the Migration Policy Institute, told Vox.
Many of the migrants traveling to New York City entered the United States through points of entry at the southern border to escape economic and political hardships in their country. For the more than 7 million people who have left Venezuela, for example, economic collapse and a repressive government have made life in the country untenable. Venezuelan immigration to the US has increased dramatically in recent years: As of September 2023, the US has taken in about 545,000 Venezuelans, while Latin American and Caribbean countries have taken in more than 6 million.
Migrants are also coming to the United States from other Latin American and Caribbean countries, such as Cuba, Haiti, Guatemala, and Nicaragua; and African countries, such as Senegal and Guinea.
“Haiti is extremely unstable right now and that is rooted in many human rights violations and foreign policies that continue to play a part in the destabilization of the country. Haitians want to thrive in their country but they’ve been forced to flee,” said Guerline Jozef, the co-founder and executive director of the Haitian Bridge Alliance, a grassroots community organization that advocates for fair and humane immigration policies and provides aid to Black migrants.
New York City has absorbed waves of migration for decades. What’s slightly different now is that far more of the migrants who have arrived in the past two years are fleeing economic hardship; as a result, they’re more likely to be indigent, and more likely to lack friends or family members who are already established in the US. Additionally, many previous waves of migration were of single adults; now, families are traveling together. “Families have more needs and higher standards of what they expect for their living conditions,” Gelatt said.
Refugees from Europe, such as those fleeing the war in Ukraine, have also made their way through the United States, mostly to New York, through Department of Homeland Security sponsor programs such as Uniting for Ukraine. More than 280,000 Ukrainians have arrived in the United States through the program since it launched in April 2022.
Immigration advocates have noted that New York City was able to integrate thousands of Ukrainian refugees but has developed a different tone around migrants coming through the southern border. “Our leadership is buying into the narrative that we can’t control immigration, that the wealthiest country on earth can’t handle immigrants,” said Vanessa Cárdenas, the executive director of America’s Voice, an organization that advocates for undocumented immigrants to be put on a path to full citizenship. “They’re saying this is an impossible task, but New York City processed 100,000 Ukrainians in a matter of weeks. Our government leaned in.”
The influx of migrants has overwhelmed New York City shelters
In the meantime, the city’s shelter system has reached a breaking point. In July, the city began issuing 60-day eviction notices to adult migrants in its shelters, which began to go into effect over the weekend — though those who fail to secure their own housing have been told to return to the Roosevelt Hotel to apply for other housing assistance. About 13,000 notices have been distributed so far, according to the mayor’s office.
Adams also announced Friday that the maximum stay going forward for adult migrants in city-run shelters will be halved, to just 30 days.
When migrants arrive in New York City, typically through midtown’s Port Authority bus terminal, local organizations direct them to navigation centers where they can get necessary services: health care, Medicaid enrollment, vaccinations, school enrollment, legal orientation, and more.
In July, videos and photos of hundreds of migrants sleeping on cardboard outside the Roosevelt Hotel navigation center signaled that the migrant crisis in the city had reached a new extreme. Some migrants slept outside for days, waiting to be placed in the city’s limited shelter beds. At the time, Adams said, “It’s not going to get any better. From this moment on, it’s downhill. There is no more room.”
According to the city, migrants make up more than half of the city’s shelter population, and the population of shelters overall has doubled since Adams took office in January 2022. New York City is housing migrants in hotels, once-vacant office buildings, school gyms, and emergency shelters on Randall’s Island. Adams has also looked into temporarily housing migrants in parking lots, in tents in Central Park and Prospect Park, and even on cruise ships.
The city announced in August that it had opened up more than 200 new shelters for asylum seekers, but immigration and anti-homelessness advocates say that housing vouchers are necessary to alleviate the strain on the city’s shelters.
According to Quinn, the city would save money if it stopped putting migrant families in welfare hotels. By giving migrants housing vouchers to secure their own permanent housing, the city could save $3 billion a year, according to an August 2023 report by the New York Immigration Coalition.
Work authorization delays are impacting the city’s budget
Most non-citizens arriving in the US today cannot legally work. If they are seeking asylum, they need to wait about six months, and a backlog in processing asylum applications is making waits even longer. Providing work authorizations sooner would allow immigrants to get jobs and provide for themselves and their families, alleviating some of the pressure on local organizations and governments. But Congress hasn’t acted, fearful of encouraging more migrants to travel to the US.
On Wednesday, President Joe Biden announced that he would allow about 472,000 Venezuelans who arrived in the US before July 31 to to live and work legally in the country for 18 months, under Temporary Protected Status (TPS), a designation that means they will be able to live in the US without the threat of deportation. DHS also promised to accelerate access to work permits for many migrants.
The announcements came after Adams, Hochul, and Democratic leaders in Congress pressured the Biden administration to act, but experts tell Vox the move is not a long-term fix. Plus, migrants won’t be able to work immediately, since they must first apply for TPS. “Some migrants with TPS have had to wait two and a half years for work authorization,” said Karla Ostolaza, the managing director of immigration practice at the Bronx Defenders, an organization that provides legal support to migrants. “This is a temporary fix because many migrants don’t have pathways to permanent citizenship.”
Advocates who spoke to Vox also said that the city can do a better job of connecting migrants to legal support since many of them aren’t aware of whether they even qualify for asylum or other protections.
While Biden’s TPS announcement may eventually make a difference, the Adams administration says it has already spent more than $1.73 billion through the end of July 2023 and expects to spend more than $4.73 billion during the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, 2024.
Adams has said he will have to cut the budgets of various city agencies due to the financial strain of supporting migrants, and that he’s already made some cuts. “We have a $12 billion deficit that we’re going to have to cut,” he said in early September. “Every service in this city is going to be impacted.” According to Adams, the city spends a nightly average of $383 per household on food, housing, and other services for more than 25,600 families seeking asylum. The city spends about $9.8 million a day with 57,300 migrants in its care on an average night. Adams said the city will have to add “$7 billion to our financial plan ... on top of what we have already spent on this crisis.”
Adams has asked for more federal funding and the federal government has already responded in some ways.
To date, New York City has received more than $140 million in federal funding for migrants. Through FEMA, it has received $30 million, which is only a fraction of the $350 million in federal aid that it requested.
In the spring, Hochul and state legislators also secured $1 billion in the state budget to address the influx of migrants in New York City, which will go toward housing, National Guard support, and legal services. “More money will be required from the state of New York and I knew that,” Hochul said last month, according to Politico. “And I’ve been talking about that even prior to the adjustments in the mayor’s estimates on the cost.”
What does this mean for New York state’s government and the federal government?
Even before any additional money is approved, Adams says the state can do more to support migrants in New York City and is requesting a “statewide decompression strategy” to make sure all counties are helping with the humanitarian crisis. Adams wants the state to establish more sites in New York City that the state manages, and he has asked Biden to declare a state of emergency to manage the border, which could unlock more funding.
Meanwhile, the Biden administration apparently isn’t pleased with New York’s handling of migrants, according to an NBC report. In August, DHS sent an “assessment team” to the city to study its migrant operation. The results haven’t been released publicly, but one DHS official told NBC that the city’s effort is not “operationally sound” and that it lacks an “exit strategy” that helps migrants find their way out of the shelter system.
Adams’s rhetoric has gotten steadily harsher as the crisis has deepened. While campaigning in 2021, he tweeted, “We should protect our immigrants. Period. Yes, New York City will remain a sanctuary city under an Adams administration.”
“We need help. We have not been ashamed to say that,” Adams said in late 2022 after Republican governors bused migrants to New York City. “We need people to use their legal minds to see how do we challenge this behavior from these rogue governors.”
“All of us are going to be impacted by this,” he said at a town hall earlier this month. “I said it last year when we had 15,000, and I’m telling you now at 110,000. The city we knew, we’re about to lose.”
Republicans have seized on the rhetoric, using Adams’s words as evidence that Democrats are being hypocrites about immigration. “It has gotten so bad, even the leaders of Democratic strongholds like New York City and Massachusetts are throwing in the towel,” House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said in a statement this month. “They can’t handle the strain that the massive influx of people has had on their city and state.” Republicans in key House races have already made immigration and migrants seeking asylum a key campaign issue, likely to the detriment of migrants.
“Adams’s words will continue to divide our communities. They will create chaos and hate toward immigrants, not just the ones just arriving, but also toward immigrants in all of New York City. We cannot have our leaders using the lives of vulnerable people as political pawns,” Jozef said. “Cities receiving migrants from places like Texas are falling into the Republican trick. Governor Abbott’s cruelty is starting to win in Mayor Adams’s circle. Instead of fighting those cruelties, he is falling prey to them.”