Photo: Paulette Vautour

Felipe! I know you’ve written about this before but local issues are feeling so polarized and I can’t escape them at holiday parties or family functions. Can you tell me how to respond to these three scenarios? I mean a literal script.

I didn’t vote in New York’s election. I’m a cleaner in a midtown hotel and an immigrant myself. I can’t believe New York is giving free room and board to tens of thousands of migrants. I came here the right way and did things myself to get to where I am.

The question of who “deserves” this or that has been a pretty animating force of American political discourse basically since before the country even existed. We can debate the virtues or pitfalls of the U.S. culture of individualism as much as we want, but the practical upshot in any case is that people feel compelled to work to secure certain things for themselves and bristle at the notion that anyone might get those same things with less strife, or without deserving them in some grander moral calculus (see the particular strain of anti-student debt forgiveness rhetoric that goes something like, “I suffered immensely from the predatory loans that I took and worked nights to pay off, so how is it fair for others to avoid going through the same?”)

Let’s take this particular question in parts, starting with the end of it, the notion that someone came “the right way” and figured it out themselves. What we have to understand is that the spectrum of “right ways” to enter the United States, particularly with a humanitarian claim, have very quickly narrowed over the last few years. It’s been three-and-a-half decades since the last time Congress passed and a president signed anything resembling an amnesty for unlawful presence, and in the interim the laws have just gotten tighter. A pair of laws signed by former President Bill Clinton in 1996 made it much easier to deny immigration benefits and deport people, and a series of Trump administration policies — including the Remain in Mexico program, so-called safe third country agreements, slashing the refugee program, and the Title 42 expulsion policy — severely restricted avenues to reach the U.S. and petition for protections.

The folks who have reached New York have weathered quite the menu of adversity, including often crossing through the dangerous Darién Gap in Panama; heading north while often being targeted by gangs and criminal groups; reaching the southern border and managing to avoid being expelled; all to make it in and be deceived by someone in a position of power, like Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who took to loading migrants onto New York-bound buses with false promises of assistance. They really have been through a lot, and they did it all pursuing something that, we’ll remind you, is perfectly legal: the right to seek asylum.

Of course, the end goal of all this is to get them to a point where they could be self-sufficient, but there are significant obstacles in the way. For one thing, federal law has made it so they can’t even receive work authorization for six months post-arrival, and if they work under the table, they risk harming their ongoing immigration cases. As far as what this assistance entails, the city isn’t exactly putting these folks up in the Ritz. Before it was dismantled, migrants were slated to be held in a tent encampment on Randalls Island, and the city is now looking at various discount hotels and shelters to house people as Title 42 is slated to end next month (as a reminder, the city cannot legally turn away people who need shelter).

People might live in the country for years until their cases are ultimately resolved, and in that time they have to find ways to establish themselves. That often means getting a helping hand until they can get on their feet, particularly as many lack the existing family and community support networks that have often helped new immigrants in the past. Think about it this way: the alternative is a lot of desperate people who don’t often speak English and have little notion of how to navigate life in the U.S. just being essentially out on the street and ending up in a situation that will be much harder to recover from, which has cascading problems for all of society down the line.

Photo: Lacie Slezak 

I am an Asian woman and very afraid to go out alone and really don’t want the police to be defunded. I believe in racial justice and equality and I am actually pretty liberal so it feels weird to vote Republican. But…I also cannot feel unsafe any longer.

This is always tricky because you can’t really tell people that they’re not feeling what they’re feeling, but it’s important to examine what that feeling stems from. Is it a couple of very high-profile incidents that have been highlighted by the media against a steady drumbeat of crime coverage. The New York Times, which is certainly no stranger to overhyped crime stories itself, recently published a story about the way in which Long Island voters turned out for the GOP over plainly overinflated crime fears, with voters who basically never stepped foot in New York City deciding their votes based on the general aura of danger they believed had taken over.

There’s also the issue of the fear-mongering around what “defunding the police” really means, and a successful campaign to make the demand indistinguishable from abolishing the police, which is not something that many of the defund supporters are actually in favor of. There are so many gradations to what a rethinking of the police funding model means, and stripping funding altogether is just one narrow one. Many people want the policy budget to simply be held to greater scrutiny; are these investments really paying off for taxpayers? Does it make sense, for example, to pay two cops hundreds of dollars an hour to stand at a subway turnstile and make sure people aren’t beating fares, i.e. stealing $2.75 apiece? Are police officers really the best answer to problems ranging from mental health crises to homelessness to domestic disputes to murders?

Many reasonable people could think deeply on these questions and come to the ultimate conclusion that no, they’re not, but wanting to have the conversation in itself unfortunately gets framed as being anti-public safety or somehow OK with crime. I would urge this person to actually learn more about what the proposals are and not just read the very top-level platitudes about what every side wants in this struggle. Plus, New York Democrats aren’t categorically left-wing; both Gov. Kathy Hochul and Mayor Eric Adams, among the most prominent elected Democrats in the state, are decidedly centrist.

I am an Uber driver and there’s a push for Open Streets in my neighborhood but it means less parking spots. AND also the double-parking across NYC is driving me crazy. I understand there’s a need for more park space but I feel like working people need parking. Where can we go?

Well, you’ll be pleased to know that the city is getting close to the implementation of congestion pricing, which is intended to keep cars from the suburbs and neighboring states from coming into the city and clogging up the streets (though it’s left to be seen to which extent this might just drive traffic to parts of the city outside the central business district). That should help, as would continuing to improve transit options to the point that people especially in the outer boroughs feel less reliant on personal cars and more free to use public transit and the occasional Uber (here’s hoping someone actually does the Brooklyn-Queens north-south connector that works). Also worth noting that it is higher-income people, as opposed to working people, who are likelier to own cars in the city, and the working people who do have them tend to do so because of the lack of the transit options that are typically available to their wealthier peers.

Still, there is something of a zero-sum game between space for cars and space for people, and on that front I’ll simply say: you live in the city, too, and sometimes there are some trade-offs that need to happen to enhance livability. I don’t know if you, a hypothetical Uber driver, have kids, but don’t you like the idea of being able to bring your kids to the open street and have them actually play outside in the street, like kids used to do 100 years ago?

As for the double-parking, there’s a traffic enforcement problem kind of across the board here. Traffic fatalities are actually way up in NYC as compared to last year, and a decent amount of that is attributable to the fact that reckless drivers, even those who injure or kill pedestrians, rarely face many consequences. The NYPD, which is supposed to enforce traffic laws, often ends up breaking them itself. If you want better streets, demand that drivers who abuse the power that a car confers be held accountable.

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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