City officials may have found a real solution to help migrants. Credit: ClaudineVM

This week, Gothamist reported that NYC is readying a program to help migrants who’ve been put up in hotels in Buffalo to exit those hotels and receive an array of services, including assistance with asylum applications, employment, and finding new housing. The program isn’t off the ground yet, but should be starting soon.

There’s probably something here to criticize regardless of any given person’s ideological stance towards migrants. For those who are skeptical of the city’s assistance and tend to think that we’ve spent enough, this might seem like one more expenditure to help people who are not even in our city. For those on the opposite end, who have long thought the city isn’t doing enough and that we’ve all but abandoned some very vulnerable people, this move might smack of shipping them away to be “out of sight, out of mind.”

I think both are understandable immediate reactions, but they’re both wrong for several reasons. To address the former point first, the fact is we’ve spent billions of dollars already on housing and feeding migrants, which I’d argue is basically a moral imperative, but ultimately with little to show for it long term. You can feed and house someone for a few months, and that will keep them alive and at least somewhat comfortable, but it won’t get them any closer to the longer-term goal of stability, which is really what everyone purports to want here.

NYC will help set migrants up in Buffalo. Credit: ClaudineVM

With the city now enforcing its new settlement agreement with the Legal Aid Society — which, broadly speaking, caps shelter stays at 30 days for single adults, or 60 days for those under 23, with very limited exceptions — we’re facing down the possibility of a lot of people ending up on the street, even if we’ve already spent a lot of money giving them some temporary shelter. The expenditure did not, in the long run, accomplish much, because it wasn’t constructively oriented.

NYC and Legal Aid have taken some steps to remedy that by pairing the shelter system with case management and legal services, because ultimately that is what gets some return on investment. If people are able to build skills, learn English, have assistance navigating the housing and job markets, and benefit from some crucial hand-holding early on the path towards building their lives here, it’s both better for them and generally cheaper for the public (I wrote a report on asylum-seeker workforce development for the Center for an Urban Future last year, which I’d like to think somewhat moved the needle).

There are some legal and logistical obstacles here, most notably the statutory and practical delays in getting work authorization for asylum seekers. By law, they must wait at least 150 days post-application before petitioning for work authorization, and the processing can take several weeks or months beyond that. Yet rather than waiting around for them to figure this out on their own, an initiative like the upcoming Buffalo program can help them hit the ground running once the conditions click.

This is the way it’s done with the refugee program, which has the exact same standards as asylum but with processing that happens entirely outside the U.S., such that refugees already arrive with status in hand. In addition to work authorization, the federal government arranges for their placement in waiting municipalities where there’s typically already some local community from their own country or region, nonprofits contracted to help them, and federal resources for things like initial rent and job training.

I and others have for years now been imploring the federal government to simply use the expansive infrastructure it already has for refugees and gear it to asylum seekers. It has not done so for reasons that are almost certainly purely political; the White House is skittish about being seen as laying out the red carpet and has gone the other way. President Biden is reportedly readying executive action to allow him to shut down the border to migration entirely, leaning on the same provision of law that Trump used to roll out the so-called Muslim Ban.

So if the feds just aren’t going to do it, it makes some sense for cities and states to do it instead. Which brings me to the other concern, that we’re just shipping people off,  like Texas Governor Greg Abbott did in sending migrants here in the first place. I think that’s a valid reaction, but there are a few key differences (beyond the fact that the individuals at issue are already in Buffalo; let’s assume that the city will at some point begin sending new people there and to other cities). Most basically, people aren’t being dropped off in the middle of the night without coordination or even notice to the local authorities and nonprofit groups. NYC is planning on working with a local nonprofit to assist migrants with all these crucial planks to establish themselves.

Buffalo is not a random city with no capacity or history of receiving immigrants. Refugees arriving over the past decade or so have specifically and widely been credited with actually revitalizing the city, helping reverse acute population decline and economic stagnation. They know from experience that the arrival of a group of refugees does not, and probably shouldn’t, be seen as a mere burden when it can be a significant opportunity for both parties. There are plenty of other cities like this, scattered around the state and the country.

I love New York City, the immigrant city par excellence for over a century. But not everyone needs to come live here. There are many other cities with cheaper costs of living, more abundant affordable housing, and more acute labor needs. To help prop some migrants up there and actively set them up for self-sufficiency is, in the aggregate, far more fiscally sound than spending gobs of money to not do that here. Will this cause people to come to NYC in the first place, in search of this relocation? Perhaps, but its absence certainly hasn’t stopped people from arriving with little but the clothes on their backs. This can really work, if it’s run well and expanded.

Felipe De La Hoz is an immigration-focused journalist who has written investigative and analytic articles, explainers, essays, and columns for the New Republic, The Washington Post, New York Mag, Slate,...

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