Commentary: The arrival of asylum-seekers is unlike previous migration waves

Bussed to New York City, many migrants have arrived without existing ties and are staying, stretching resources that can help them to the breaking point.

A bus carrying asylum seekers arrives in New York City from Texas on Aug. 7, 2022.

A bus carrying asylum seekers arrives in New York City from Texas on Aug. 7, 2022. Diane Bondareff/Mayoral Photo Office

The arrival of asylum-seekers to New York City – 44,000 of them since last spring, according to Mayor Eric Adams administration’s latest estimates – has dominated local and national headlines, fanned by the mayor’s own perpetual consternation. For New Yorkers watching from the sidelines, a few key questions have floated to the top: Why does this seem so chaotic? What can be done about it? Has this really ever happened before?

As with most complex policy questions, the answer to the final question is yes and no. If nothing else, New York City is the immigrant city par excellence, welcoming millions of foreign-born newcomers of all stripes going back over a century.

Yet this isn’t the migration of the steamship days. Asylum-seekers have often arrived somewhat haphazardly, sent without much coordination with the city by political actors like Texas Gov. Greg Abbott or drawn by sometimes overinflated notions of the available jobs and services. Their needs are distinct, and where in an earlier era, new arrivals would have leaned on existing family and community connections to fill these needs, part of what makes the latest waves’ complex is that they are increasingly arriving without any existing ties to the city. Many leave, many choose to stay, regardless of their plans. New York, so used to receiving immigrants of all stripes, was caught off-balance, creating issues both operational and of perception. Political leaders, organizers, advocates and migrants all differ on how to course correct, but everyone understands that we’re at an inflection point.

“Typically, what would draw immigrants to New York from other parts of the country would be that they have friends and family here who would be putting them up, helping them to adjust in the beginning, and that’s not necessarily true of the immigrants who are being sent here,” said Nancy Foner, a sociology professor at Hunter College who has written and edited several books on the history and sociology of immigration.

Today’s migration wave

These earlier eras have a tendency to be romanticized, fixed in people’s minds as a kind of classic story of the grit of the Ellis Island arrivals, but it was far from pretty, as anyone who’s been to the Tenement Museum or the New York Transit Museum or read about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire knows. Still, there was an all-in-this-together community feeling that doesn’t necessarily hold now. “Of the people who have been arriving in New York, the majority have no nexus, no connections here,” said Juan Carlos Ruiz, pastor of the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, and a longtime advocate and fixer of sorts for vulnerable immigrants. “It’s a disorientation in not having anyone close, trustworthy, to teach them how to navigate the city.”

That leaves the city government itself, aided by networks of aid organizations and community groups, as the primary provider of orientation and services that would otherwise have been more diffuse. The lack of specific links to the city also ends up making it more of a waystation, a place for many migrants to regain their footing before moving on, as opposed to a final destination. People imagine all these arrivals setting down roots, but in actuality a significant number are leaving.

“In the beginning, it was like 30% or 40% of people who came here actually didn’t want to come to New York. They wanted to be in Texas or Louisiana or meet up with their family in Washington state,” said Murad Awawdeh, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition. That was initially a result of the notorious busing stunt pulled by Abbott, who was sending migrants under false pretenses and without coordination with the city, but now the idea that the city is uniquely welcoming has become a self-perpetuating perception.

The perception isn’t wrong – despite Adams’ apparent exasperation with the absoluteness of the city’s shelter mandate, and it remains, along with a robust ecosystem of municipal support, mutual aid societies, community groups, nonprofits, churches and other systems of assistance – but it being true also imperils the city. Adams has taken the tack of claiming that the city is, in effect, full, saying in recent remarks that there’s “no more room at the inn,” a remark that lands a bit absurdly in the context of New York City. That philosophy has lately manifested itself in his own busing program, sending migrants north to Canada, a move that he has defended as acting on the migrants’ own will, but which his progressive critics have assailed as offloading responsibility instead of simply building out better systems to welcome them.

Caught off guard

Yet it is true that this particular migration has characteristics that the city wasn’t well-equipped to deal with, encompassing a range of demands. To borrow a concept from mid-20th century psychologist Abraham Maslow, the new arrivals have a hierarchy of needs, and the most immediate ones have dominated the discourse, with shelter in particular becoming a flashpoint. In the latest flare-up, some migrants refused to go to an emergency shelter that the city set up at the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal for single, adult men, complaining of a lack of heat and proper food, among other things. The fight got so pitched that Adams recently spent a night at the facility to prove that it was habitable.

Less noted but bubbling underneath are higher order needs of all types that the city is having trouble filling. Ruiz pointed to unmet psychological needs of people who not only might be fleeing horrific persecution but traversed through hells like the Darién Gap to get here in the first place, only to then be misled by the likes of Abbott. “We’re not equipped for this. We don’t have enough social workers, workers that can deal with the issue of mental health here in New York,” Ruiz said.

Then there are the complex, longer-term needs, like legal services. Arrivals in the Ellis Island heyday generally only had to worry about building their lives in this new land, not necessarily defending their right to do so. The modern visa system, where people have to be approved for entry prior to setting foot in the United States, only dates back to 1924, and the modern asylum definition and processing system really ramped up in the ’80s.

New York is not used to influxes of people with asylum-seekers’ specific legal needs. It has long received immigrants with an alphabet soup of work, student, diplomatic, exchange and other visas, as well as legal permanent residents. Yet the asylum-seekers are all arriving with open removal cases to which their asylum claims are actually complex defenses, in an adversarial immigration court. Because immigration proceedings are civil, not criminal, the government won’t provide a lawyer for those who can’t find or afford one, leaving organizations like The Legal Aid Society to pick up the slack.

“There’s a huge demand for services,” said Deborah Lee, attorney-in-charge of The Legal Aid Society’s Immigration Law Unit. “It’s frustrating, that acknowledgement that we cannot meet the need. If I had 50 more staff attorneys, we wouldn’t make a dent in it.” That doesn’t mean that Lee and others providing services are throwing in the towel; they will acknowledge being stretched, but will never endorse the idea of preventing migrants from both entering the country to seek asylum and showing up in New York if they want. Instead they are desperately working to build capacity in creative ways, such as leaning on a provision that allows migrants to be represented by trained nonattorney representatives and potentially training other volunteers to provide these services.

Immigration swells

The chaotic nature of the arrivals, the lack of existing support systems and the federal government’s lack of proper intervention and coordination all combine to make each problem worse. For example, a lot of migrants had incorrect personal addresses initially put down by U.S. Customs and Border Protection or were docketed in the wrong courts. “What is happening with the immigration court here in New York is, they’re actually developing a change of address docket, like a small docket just related to change of addresses that need to happen,” Lee said. While it’s good that the issue is being fixed, it is a waste of everyone’s time, and migrants without support systems who are having trouble securing legal representation may never find out about it.

Capacity-building is also made more difficult by the general havoc of the federal policy that does exist. When the city opened a Randalls Island shelter, it coincided with the Biden administration’s deal with Mexico to expand the Title 42 policy – a supposed public health order tied to the pandemic that was first suggested by Trump adviser Stephen Miller to effectively block access to the asylum system and has been in litigation for years – to Venezuelan migrants, almost instantly shutting down what had been one of the most significant vectors of asylum-seeker arrivals to New York and leading the now-underutilized shelter to be closed. However, it was only a temporary dip, as the flow ultimately shifted to Peruvians, Ecuadorians, Colombians and others, leading to the opening of the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal facility, much to the chagrin of advocates and some local policymakers.

“I’m not saying that this moment that what we’re experiencing right now isn’t a challenge. It is a challenge. But this isn’t a moment to say, ‘OK, let’s circumvent what we have administered in the city for decades now, the city's right to shelter mandate, and warehouse people in facilities that have no space between them,’” said New York City Council Member Shahana Hanif, chair of the Immigration Committee and a vocal opponent of Adams’ approach. In response, she is supporting legislation that would cut down on waiting periods between when people in shelters can transition to permanent housing and make undocumented immigrants eligible for CityFHEPS housing vouchers, which they currently aren’t. She alluded to upcoming bills that would “hold the administration accountable on the housing piece. That is really our essential focus, we don't want them to get away with it.”

Calling on the feds

Still, all – advocates, providers, Hanif, Adams – agree that the federal government needs to step in, though they disagree on how exactly. Adams seems to be fine with the expanded use of Title 42 to expel more would-be asylum-seekers, while the advocates view that as not only inhumane but playing whack-a-mole with different groups in a way that won’t address the overarching dynamics. Instead, they want not just funding but the federal government to use their significant operational capabilities to coordinate with state and local leaders and actually place migrants where there is an infrastructure ready and willing to receive them, similar to what the government already does with the existing refugee program.

“We’re seeing just finger-pointing everywhere. Everyone’s saying, ‘Well, it’s a federal problem,’ then the feds saying, ‘Well, we’re happy to support the cities, but it’s a city problem.’ Y'all, every level of government needs to step up here,” Awawdeh said. “They’ve done it for the most part pretty well for the refugee side. They need to do it for asylum-seekers, as well as at the state level, making sure that the state is stepping up to provide resources.”

A particular sticking point with the federal government is work authorization for the migrants. Per federal law, they must wait a minimum of 180 days after applying for asylum before they can receive work permits, and it’s not an automatic process, they have to actually submit a separate application. Often, they’re not aware of this until after they’ve gotten legal services in New York, meaning that they’re starting that six-month clock post-arrival, putting the city in a position to provide housing, food and other assistance to people who are desperate to work but prevented legally from doing so.

“We should be ensuring that they get to work. And they did not come here to, you know, live there, like days in a hotel room,” Hanif said. “Folks are just like, ‘I want to support my family,’ or ‘I want to move, I want to leave,’ or ‘I want to have financial independence to live my life here.’” Changing the rules to give migrants work authorization more quickly and with less friction wouldn’t fix everything, but it’d go a long way toward ameliorating many of the needs that the migrants have, including leaving. Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that this particular Congress will act on anything of note, let alone a third rail issue like the asylum system. In its place, advocates are hoping President Joe Biden will keep expanding the use of humanitarian parole, which could grant immediate work authorization to people as they go through the asylum process.

Post-Trump era

Ultimately, officials are also responding to public pressure, and on the matter of public opinion, it’s a mistake to think there’s a binary viewpoint either for or against the asylum-seekers’ arrival. There’s certainly some number of New Yorkers who simply dislike the migrants inherently for ideological reasons, just as there’s a number who believe that there’s no limit to the support and assistance that the city and its people should provide them, but the majority fall somewhere in the middle.

The current moment also lacks the boogeyman of former President Donald Trump, a man with such an openly vehement anti-immigration posture and policy that it compelled cities to close ranks around their immigrant populations. It doesn’t matter if many of Biden’s border policies are substantively similar, the sense of urgency has dissipated, and with it some of the patience and benevolence that the public had reserved for asylum-seekers.

The city has a huge population of undocumented immigrants, but these are mostly longtime community residents. The Pew Research Center estimated that as of five years ago the share of the undocumented population living in the United States for 10 years or longer had already crossed two-thirds, with a corresponding drop in the recently arrived. Most of New York’s undocumented population arrived sometime between the late ’90s and the late 2000s, meaning that they are seen in their neighborhoods and by local leaders as practically New Yorkers first and immigrants second.

With the newcomers, this paradigm has flipped, and the assistance that they receive – assistance which is, without a doubt, desperately needed – gets put through a lens external to New York, going to a community that fundamentally isn’t local at the same time as there remains a feeling of local precarity, owing to the post-COVID-19 economic uncertainty, concerns over crime and a shrinking municipal workforce.

Detractors might not have anything specifically against asylum-seekers, but a zero-sum mentality can end up pitting people against each other anyway, and that includes the existing undocumented community.

“It’s complex,” Ruiz said. “We have this phenomenon of populations living here in the shadows for 20 years, and now we add this latest wave of migrants. A lot of people with whom I’ve worked, who are members of my church, volunteers, they say, ‘Well, what about us?’”