Commentary: Migrants are breaking Democratic Party unity

Politicians are passing the buck on New York City’s influx of asylum-seekers, which is harming the outlook for Democrats in 2023 and 2024.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams has compared the influx of asylum-seekers to 9/11 and the COVID-19 pandemic.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams has compared the influx of asylum-seekers to 9/11 and the COVID-19 pandemic. Selcuk Acar/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The first buses arrived with relatively little notice in August 2022, sent to New York by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in what most observers assumed then would be a short-lived political stunt and minor procedural headache for the city.

A year on, the arrival of more than 110,000 asylum-seekers, with more than 60,000 still in the city’s care – now not driven primarily by Abbott but a self-reinforcing cycle as migrants hear that, in the absence of any cohesive federal response, New York City is about the only place they’ll be guaranteed shelter – the so-called migrant crisis is the dominant story. It has caused regular ominous developments like city Budget Director Jacques Jiha’s estimate that it could cost the city $12 billion or more by fiscal year 2025, prompting more rounds of agency budget cuts.

The emergency footing keeps most of the conversation focused on every immediate twist and turn, but what does this all look like in retrospect? What will be the long-term implications of this moment, for the city’s political future and migrants’ own lives?

Despite some of the apocalyptic language, the migrant crisis as we’ve come to understand it is mainly a fiscal and logistical problem to solve. If the Biden administration turned on a dime and wrote New York City a check for $5 billion, or migrants were all able to immediately receive work authorization and leave city shelters, much of the urgency would fade overnight. While Biden has been recalcitrant on the funding, the administration moved last month to both identify migrants already eligible for parole and redesignated Venezuela for temporary protected status, moves that won’t be earth-shattering – the mayor’s office estimated the latter would apply to less than a sixth of migrants currently in the city’s care, and take months – but will start letting out some steam. All in all, the city is plenty able to absorb an additional 60,000 residents as a practical matter.

The city lost about half a million residents in the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, and far from all of them have come back. Enrollment has dropped in city public schools by 114,000 students in the past five years – more than five times the 20,000 migrant children who have arrived recently. Those kids certainly have a more acute set of needs than the average student, but this is also a system where roughly 10% of students are homeless. It’s no stranger to challenging circumstances. The kids will learn English, their parents will eventually find jobs and leave city shelters. However, after rents in Manhattan hit another all-time high this summer, housing affordability could be a big problem for migrants. Plus, the recent mayor’s management report showed that the wait time to get formerly homeless New Yorkers into newly constructed affordable units increased from 203 days to 243 days. Beyond housing, there’s little to indicate that this is a fundamentally unsurmountable issue.

That opens the possibility that the more lasting impact will be political. “This is different from Ellis Island, different from the Puerto Ricans, when they came, or the Mexicans in the ’60s, for that matter. There were socioeconomic conditions that precipitated the pull and push factors for everyone to come to New York,” said Luis Miranda Jr., a longtime political consultant. “Here, the push factor was simply political. This was not New York calling people for jobs. This was Abbott making sure that they had political issues for themselves and for the presidential election.”

The upshot is that the Trump-era pro-immigrant consensus, formed by an era in which the city and state’s entire political leadership and a significant chunk of its voters hardened in tandem against the specter of a hostile force ready to drag away their neighbors – one ironically hailing first from Queens – is fading. Democratic politicians are unlikely to start coming out and chanting “build the wall,” of course. Mayor Eric Adams has made sure to consistently praise migrants’ tenacity and denounce their inability to work. In Gov. Kathy Hochul’s recent pointed letter to President Joe Biden, she made sure to praise his “longstanding commitment to an equitable approach,” in between criticizing the federal government’s response.

Still, the rhetorical shift is unmistakable. Beyond Adams’ much-maligned “destroy the city” comment, he has on some occasions seemed to obliquely signal that he’d be OK with a more Trumpy approach to the border and humanitarian immigration writ large, often in subtext more so than outright. A couple of times recently, he has adopted the dubious theory that terrorists are coming through the border, telling WCBS on the 22nd anniversary of 9/11: “I saw what happened over 20 years ago when those liberties can actually get in the way and allow dangerous people to harm us, and that’s why what is happening right now at our border.” He later repeated that claim on WABC. Last month, he put the migrant arrivals as a crisis on par with both 9/11 and the COVID-19 pandemic.

The success of Abbott’s machinations seem to be also bearing out with a souring of public opinion on immigration writ large. In a recent Siena College poll of adult New Yorkers, significant majorities supported the tenets one would expect: that the U.S. is a country built by immigrants, that immigrants bring vitality to the nation and want to create a better life here, among other things. On some of the more immediate, practical matters, though, the split was much narrower. On whether immigrants take in more resources than they produce in economic activity, 42% agreed, including 29% of Democrats. On the statement that the U.S. no longer needs new immigrants, 30% agreed while 63% disagreed, but 22% of Democrats agreed – an eyebrow-raising figure in a liberal state like New York.

There’s a parallel with Adams’ own contortions on crime last year – he toggled quickly between assuring New Yorkers and would-be tourists that the city was safe and on a road to pandemic recovery and warning darkly of crime-filled streets that he had a mandate to fix with his public safety initiatives – in a way that some Democratic operatives felt was undermining each of his own messages. The issue would go on to deliver huge gains for Republicans on Long Island last year – Democrats lost both House seats that represent most of Nassau County – and several incumbent Democratic state lawmakers lost in southern Brooklyn. On migrants, Adams seems to find himself caught between frustrations with a lack of support from Biden and an untenable managerial situation as the figurehead for the country’s immigrant city par excellence, managing to anger pretty much everyone.

“I don’t think it was a wise decision for Adams or Hochul to kind of lean into this maybe not as overt, but nonetheless kind of anti-immigrant pitching New Yorkers who’ve been there longer against potentially newer community members,” said Haddy Gassama, the national director of policy and advocacy for the UndocuBlack Network, an organization that supports Black immigrants.

The tensions and contradictions will grow sharper as the GOP seizes on the migrant situation as the preeminent electoral cudgel going into 2024. Republican consultant William F.B. O’Reilly described it as an emotionally driven issue in which voters are frustrated by the paralysis and passing the responsibility among three Democratic executives – Adams, Hochul and Biden – who keep sniping at each other while seeming to figure things out on the fly. Then there’s one sudden breakthrough – like the temporary protected status designation, or the lack of a significant border inflow in the aftermath of the Title 42 policy – and everyone breathes a sigh of relief before the sniping starts back up. “It’s the chaos of it. It’s the uncertainty of it, and the feeling of lawlessness. That’s politically powerful,” he said.

O’Reilly readily acknowledged that many of the Republican officials and candidates throwing barbs don’t exactly have a full-fledged alternate solution, beyond restricting arrivals either locally or at the border in a way that’s legally dubious, but that doesn’t necessarily derail the political thrust of the argument. “There are no plans, on really any side, to fix this. It’s got to ultimately come out of Washington. But the thing is, in New York, for the 2023 and 2024 elections, it’s clear that the Democrats own it wholly, because they control all the levers of government and all the values of government. If that changed, yes, it would become a Republican problem. And Republicans would have to come up with something. But right now, electorally, politically, it’s going to be a potent issue.”

New York’s Democratic political leaders then find themselves caught between an intractable logistical issue and a delicate ideological one, fighting with an incumbent Democratic president who’s himself facing a tough election and taking fire from both of their political flanks. The Democratic humanitarian migration support that coalesced against Trump is cracked, maybe irrevocably.

One potential countervailing force could be if the migrants themselves organize and find their political voice, as generations of immigrants have before them. There’s hardly anyone around who has witnessed or had a hand in the development of as many movements from practical disenfranchisement to political organization as Miranda, who has served in government, campaigns and consultancy for decades. With the benefit of this bird’s-eye view, he’s sanguine that this population will be no different. “Make the Road is going to be 25 years old this year. Alianza Dominicana was created in the ’60s, when the Dominicans started getting here. We will always create our own institutions. And if they continue to do the work, they continue to be relevant to help the next wave – just as the settlement houses now have gone for a hundred years.”

Not that it’s an immediate process, and Miranda acknowledged it can often be very slow. “Even in Florida six, seven years after the Venezuelans arrived in that state, most of them are still not voters. It takes a little while to maneuver and figure out the political piece of getting somewhere,” he said, referencing an earlier influx of Venezuelan asylum-seekers. If political organization is a higher-order need that comes with a certain maturation of a community, then the recent arrivals are still pretty firmly rooted in the survival stage of things, hoping to secure food, shelter and work. Getting organized seems a little remote and not just because of the immediacy of other needs.

“One thing that is different from many previous waves of migration is most of the folks, at least from our survey, who don’t have family members or loved ones here in New York,” said Daniel Altschuler, co-executive director of Make the Road Action, the organization’s advocacy and political arm. “People don’t have permanent housing and have been and will continue to be moving around a lot, which poses coordination challenges. … We’re also starting to see some shifts in terms of countries of origin of people who arrived here. We’ve seen at least in some groups, a lot fewer Spanish speakers, for instance.”

During a recent visit to a shelter, an employee asked if Make the Road Action had their handouts in Wolof, a language spoken by populations in Senegal, The Gambia and Mauritania. The organization did not. “Never bet against organizing, but it is, of course, a challenging environment,” Altschuler said.

While these asylum-seekers certainly have often-traumatic experiences and critical needs in common that they could conceivably organize around, it’s far from the homogenous group that it was when the vast majority of arrivals were coming from Venezuela a year ago. On a recent evening outside the former Lincoln Correctional Facility on Harlem’s Central Park North, which since June has served as temporary migrant shelter, migrants came to and fro and milled in front in little groups, with the West Africans and Latin Americans each in their separate cliques.

Over a WhatsApp conversation translated to and from Arabic, Cissé, a Mauritanian asylum-seeker, noted that his stay in New York was hopefully permanent. “I want to stay here for the rest of my life. If I return to Mauritania, I will go to prison there. There is a lot of racism,” wrote Cissé, who is Black. Indeed, the country was the last in the world to formally abolish slavery in 1981 and has a documented record of official backlash over pushes by the majority-Black ethnic populations to achieve some measure of equality. He has been grateful for the assistance, calling the people of the city “good people” who would help someone “if you come to a country and you do not have a father, you do not have a brother, you do not have a relative.”

As for the notion of eventually participating in the city’s political life, he seemed skeptical that he could or would want to. “No, I don’t want politics,” he wrote. “I want to work and live my life as others live.”