Last week, Mayor Eric Adams told a roomful of people that the recent influx of immigrants “will devastate New York City.” More than 110,000 people have arrived in the city in recent months, more than half of whom are currently living in shelters and other emergency settings. Although Texas Gov. Greg Abbott bused some of the highest-profile arrivals as part of a Republican plan to shift the burden of immigration crossings to blue states, nearly 90% Immigrants who have been coming to New York since last spring have arrived by other means. Adams, meanwhile, blasted the Biden administration for not providing the city with adequate resources to address what he said is a dire crisis. (According to Adams, $12 billion will be spent to resettle immigrants over the next three years.)
I recently spoke by phone with Muzaffar Chishti, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute and an expert on how immigration policy intersects at the federal, state and local levels. In our conversation, we discuss why so many immigrants choose to come to New York City specifically, why the Biden administration isn’t necessarily accommodating the mayor’s demands, and how Congressional inaction on immigration policy is exacerbating New York City’s immigration problem . Immigration hawks say they’re top of mind.
How did New York get to the point where the mayor views the arrival of these immigrants as potentially “devastating” the city? What factors contributed to it?
In many ways, the natural question most people ask—and certainly most New Yorkers with basic pro-immigration instincts—is, why are we freaking out? How is this chapter different from any other in New York City’s long and passionate history? We have been welcoming immigrants for centuries. Economists of all stripes generally conclude that immigration is a net benefit to countries, cities, and states. This is mainly because the government does not interfere. Oddly enough, the magic of capitalism and the magic of free enterprise works very well in the analysis of immigration: people come here, they contribute their labor, talent or expertise, there are willing employers who may not pay them what they should. They earn a salary, but it pays them to live well, they move up our economic and social ladder, their status improves over time, and it’s basically a benefit at no cost.
The huge fundamental difference is that it becomes a direct fiscal cost to New York City and other cities that have to deal with this problem, such as Chicago, Washington, D.C., and to a lesser extent, Boston and Philadelphia. This is a very strange phenomenon in politics and law. For a city with a population of eight million, one hundred thousand people is not a big number. If they had emerged organically and gradually, you and I wouldn’t be having this conversation. First of all, what’s different about it is its visibility, Governor Abbott obviously made a very powerful political statement: “I’m going to bus people. I’m going to teach you what we’re facing in the border states so you can You can experience what it’s like.” Guess what? Initially, all politicians, especially those on the left and most immigration advocates, condemned Abbott’s cruelty. Initially, the mayor personally greeted them at the Port Authority.
Our state constitution provides that we have the right to asylum. But why don’t people go to Sullivan County or any of the northern counties? In the late nineteen-seventies, housing advocates sued and reached a settlement in which the city agreed to provide housing to every man seeking housing, and later expanded to women and families with children. This is a legal directive based on a reading of the state constitution, but applies only to the city. If the same thing were to be done in Sullivan County today, someone would have to file a lawsuit against Sullivan County.
Never before had the settlement been used on such a large scale by new settlers. Most people involved in the lawsuit never imagined it would apply to someone who had been in the country for three days. But advocates quickly realized that if you were to come to New York, the city had to provide you with shelter.
Why wasn’t the law used this way in the past?
It’s just a matter of how it’s used in practice. It is understood that migrants will come and they will meet with family, connections in the village, employers or whatever network they have. It was never thought that this particular legal solution would apply to foreigners. As with the informational and straightforward fairness arguments, all advocates who claim immigrants are entitled to asylum and work permits should consider this claim within the context of the eleven million unauthorized people in this country. Many of them have been here for decades — years, certainly — and many of them have deep roots, but few have sought refuge. But this new group suddenly became conspicuous because it was being used as a political weapon by Abbott, and the mayor walked into it. He openly embraced them because he was trying to be the anti-Albert. He thinks it’s great that the mayor of New York looks like “we are the city that welcomes the Statue of Liberty.”
Are you saying he should have done something different?
It’s hard to say in hindsight. In the early stages, we probably shouldn’t actively encourage shelters. Word of the welcome mat must have spread quickly through social media in immigrant circles. The idea is: If you get to the border, tell people you want to take a bus to New York City. We should keep the old habit of people finding their own way when they come to the city. Most people find family. Instead, people had an incentive to choose to come to New York, albeit one that Abbott started out of a punitive impulse.
The federal government plays no role other than admitting or deporting people. The only exception is refugees; the federal government initially provides them with financial assistance and assistance with employment and schooling, etc. But we select refugees before they come to this country, and then we decide where to send them. In addition to being reunited with other family members, they are sent to places where they can easily relocate because housing costs and job opportunities are plentiful. Nebraska usually comes out on top, and Kentucky comes out on top. With the exception of refugees, the U.S. government has never directly spent taxpayer money to provide housing for newcomers, so this is a first.
What specifically did Adams ask of the federal government? Do you think the federal government has something to offer?
The two general requirements are, first, you should reimburse us for what we spend on these people. The mayor first said one billion, then suddenly it changed to four billion, and now it’s twelve billion. There should be some transparency into the numbers, but he wants the federal government to compensate for that. Gov. Kathy Hochul also wants both the state and city to be compensated. At this point, I think they’re united. They may be united with other governors and mayors.
The second thing they’re asking for is that the federal government should quickly grant work permits to all these people. Their argument is that they would be less likely to stay in a shelter if they were granted a work permit. They will join the formal economy and be employed and on the road.
How feasible is it to expedite work authorization?
There are statutory limits to work authorization and there are regulatory limits. Of course, regulation is more administrative, but changing even one regulation takes time. The governor of Massachusetts made a major announcement saying the federal government should issue a regulation changing the timeline for work authorization. But changing regulations takes longer than granting work authorization. This is completely lost in the picture.