Many new migrants desire to work and be self-sufficient, but have been unable to get permits. Photo: Niklas Herrmann

Felipe, why did the migrant issue get so much more attention over the summer?

It’s become a significant part of the daily news churn for a couple of key reasons, one basically logistical and the other political. On the former, it naturally follows that the more people end up in the city’s care, the more difficult and expensive it is to keep caring for them, and we’ve now come to a head, with the city ordering  budget cuts of up to 15% over three fiscal years across the board. Mayor Eric Adams, Governor Kathy Hochul, and President Joe Biden keep sniping at each other about who’s dropping the ball and who’s mainly responsible, all while the city struggles to find space and funding.

On the latter, it’s clear at this stage that this is going go be a significant campaign issue for contested upcoming elections; a GOP political consultant recently described it to me as “crime 2.0,” in reference to the emphasis on supposedly soaring crime that helped deliver Long Island and some NYC areas to Republican candidates over the last year. I’ve always maintained that one of the objectives of Texas Governor Greg Abbott and others who’ve sent migrants to NYC is to shift local political preferences against support for humanitarian immigration, and some polls already bear this out.

Why did so many end up in NYC?

The simplest answer to that is that , practically speaking, we’re the only place in the country where some basic level of services including shelter are currently  guaranteed. There are nonprofits and houses of worship and government-sponsored shelters elsewhere, of course, but NYC’s shelter mandate makes it the only municipality where migrants cannot be turned away from services by law, and word has spread. Historically, many of the immigrants arriving to the U.S. at any given time had existing social and family ties that drew them somewhere (often NYC itself). That’s not so much the case now, and in the absence of those ties anywhere else, NYC simply seems like the safest bet and a good default, due both to the availability of services and its global image as a place of opportunity.

We know that a good chunk of those arriving aren’t coming straight from the border but have spent some time in other states and were then bused to (or decided to come to) NYC. There’s good evidence of that  from the Customs and Border Protection’s border encounter statistics showing that arrivals nosedived in the immediate aftermath of the so-called transit ban 2.0, a harsh policy instituted by the Biden administration in the run-up to the end of the Title 42 policy (in the interest of expediency, I won’t get into granular detail about every policy in this explainer, but the abridged version is that the transit ban functionally made a lot of people ineligible to apply for asylum in the first place). Despite the fact that new arrivals dropped off sharply, the number of migrants arriving in NYC did not see a corresponding drop; if anything, it climbed. That strongly suggests that at least some significant percentage were making their way here after finding the cold shoulder elsewhere.

In what has become a defining theme of this whole situation, the federal government has been fairly hands-off once migrants are initially processed at the border and given court dates often months in the future. Without any overarching coordinating authority arranging placements, as the federal government does for refugees (a program often confused with asylum), they will gravitate towards where they believe they’ll have the best chance of survival, or be shipped off by unscrupulous state officials.

The struggle NYC is facing now, border cities say they’ve been dealing with it for a long time, and that northern “sanctuary cities” were oblivious. Is there any truth to that?

I want to touch on the idea of “sanctuary” cities, since you mentioned it. The term has been getting thrown around a lot as if it meant that such localities were volunteering to care for migrants, or as if it really had any nexus to these migrants, and it doesn’t, for a couple reasons. First, the term really only means that a locality will not actively cooperate with federal immigration enforcement more than it is legally required to do so. That’s it; not that it will provide any additional services, not that it will or even can shield people from enforcement, just that it will not voluntarily assist with enforcement.

Second, even that specific standard doesn’t really come into play here because- and this is crucial- the migrants are not present in the country unlawfully. I think there’s been a hell of a lot of confusion about that, partially because political opportunists keep insisting that they are “illegal aliens” or some variation of that. Yet, while they’re in ongoing asylum proceedings, they are in compliance with U.S. law and are present legally, albeit in a kind of limbo status. The government is aware of who they are and where they are, and not attempting to detain or remove them until their cases are through, so there’s really no enforcement at issue. That’s the reason they can obtain lawful work authorization while, for example, a longtime undocumented person cannot.

Moving beyond that, it certainly is true that a lot of border towns and cities have struggled dealing with the arrival of asylum seekers, though if you actually talk to people who grew up in and live in this region, by and large they have a more nuanced view than the two-dimensional one often presented. This is basically downstream of the same issue NYC faces: the federal government often does practically nothing to help. While that might seem like it would create a point of unity between the various states and localities expected to shoulder it themselves, some officials have instead decided to use this reality as a campaign point.

In any case, it’s silly to suggest New York City of all places has never experienced what it’s like to receive large volumes of needy immigrants. During the peak of Ellis Island arrivals over a century ago, up to 10,000 people were arriving per day, a huge portion of whom were illiterate; most were processed in a matter of hours, a figure that makes the current pace of arrivals look like child’s play. Obviously, it’s not a 1:1 comparison with contemporary arrivals, particularly given the shelter mandate’s requirements, but that only highlights the extent to which the distinction is really one of policy choices, not that we’re inherently unable to absorb this volume of newcomers.

Let’s rewind — should we not be calling them migrants?

I don’t think the term is inapt or offensive in any way, as it’s practically an academic term, denoting that someone has migrated from one place to another, which they have. “Asylum seekers” gets used interchangeably, but it can actually be a bit misleading, in the sense that this is something people have to formally apply for even after indicating an intent to apply and passing a credible fear interview, meaning some folks are kind of pre-asylum seekers.

Why can’t they work legally? Also, isn’t NYC used to employing all sorts of people because of the reality of our economy depending on the undocumented?

U.S. law only makes work permits available to asylum seekers a minimum of 180 days after they’ve applied for asylum — not entered the country, not passed a credible fear screening, but actually applied for asylum. Functionally, this application can be months after they’ve already arrived in NYC, and then they have to wait 150 days before they can even apply for work authorization. Huge bureaucratic delays mean this invariably takes longer than just 30 additional days to be processed.

Now, obviously a lot of folks end up working under the table anyway, as people always have in NYC. The problem is, while an undocumented person without an active asylum case isn’t often going to get in any additional trouble for working illegally — they are, after all, already subject to deportation — a person seeking asylum could conceivably derail their case if they get caught working before they’re authorized to do so. It ends up being quite unlikely that this will happen, but it adds an extra dimension of danger to the enterprise. Plus, they are generally not familiar with U.S. labor laws, for example, and the added fear and disorientation of having a case looming over their heads leaves them very vulnerable to exploitation like wage theft.

If they get the greenlight federally to receive work permits, would this alleviate some of the pressure on NYC? Or would it cause its own set of problems?

If most asylum seekers gained the ability to work legally, it would hugely alleviate the pressure; the escalating costs really boil down to the fact that migrants can’t really sustain themselves, forcing the city to step in. If that changed, it would shift the situation overnight, which is why that demand has been a centerpiece of Mayor Eric Adams’ and Governor Kathy Hochul’s entreaties to the federal government.

There aren’t really any downsides to giving migrants work authorizations per se (some argue that this would act as a pull factor for additional migration, but there’s scant evidence that it would really move the needle). Where we run into trouble is with the feasibility of actually streamlining these work authorizations. It’s not as easy as the feds greenlighting them; as I mentioned above, the 180-day thing is statutory. It can’t be waived by executive action. The federal government could technically use two programs — humanitarian parole and temporary protected status — to speed things up, and already they’re trying to alert migrants who might be eligible under parole in particular. Yet whether these programs could really be used to grant widespread work authorization to asylum seekers is on pretty shaky legal ground.

Photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office

The mayor ordered NYC agencies to reduce spending by 15% due to costs of migrant care. How might we feel these cuts in our everyday life? Are they avoidable, say, if federal funding comes through?

Budget Director Jacques Jiha has implored department heads not to implement service cuts to make the budget modifications, but that’s pretty unrealistic, particularly given that they’ve also been ordered not to find the savings through layoffs. You can’t really cut 5% of a projected budget every year for three fiscal years without laying anyone off (though attrition and a hiring freeze will reduce headcounts anyway) and expect all services to remain at the same level. The first stuff to go will be support for non-essential community programs and agency operating hours and things like that, what would be considered non-essential programming. Writ large, city government is going to get slower and less responsive.

As for avoiding them, despite the mayor’s rather apocalyptic pronouncements putting migrants on par with 9/11 and Covid as destructive forces, this is primarily a money issue. If the feds just wrote a gigantic check tomorrow, yes, there would still be logistical issues to iron out with regards to shelter space and long-term placements, but this wouldn’t be front-page news every day. If they did that and pursued an aggressive strategy to spread out migrant arrivals and work to institute faster work authorization, you could even call it a boon to local economies.

Many efforts around this particular wave of migration seem to be charitable. Schools are collecting cleats and clothing. Someone else asked about employing the migrants to sweep NYC streets. Some of it has made me cringe. Why or what should I do to redirect my communities?

It’s hard to give a categorical answer here. These folks certainly need a lot of help, beyond the basics of what the city is offering. Having houses of worship, for example, step in and offer to house migrants, as some have recently done, definitely takes some of the pressure off, and charitable contributions are certainly welcome.

Ultimately, the thing most migrants will tell you they need is, unsurprisingly, work and the ability to reach some financial stability, for which they also need the legal services to navigate the system and file the necessary applications. All of this takes time and some local know-how, which is why one of the most important things to volunteer might be time. Showing people how to navigate life here, how to find an apartment, how to use the subways, or to learn English. The basic building blocks to navigating our society.

I asked you before about our fellow people of color and immigrants who say they came in the “right way.” Thoughts on that now and how to respond?

If we want to get technical about it, as I mentioned above, these folks are currently in compliance with the law. Asylum is, quite literally, a “right way” as laid out in U.S. law. I also think it’s worth having an examination of power here; the cuts to services, for example, are easy to lay at their feet, but ultimately they are the lowest rung on the ladder here. If they’ve ended up in NYC, it’s only because the slate of available options was very, very narrow. Rather than bicker about who’s got it worse, there are some concrete things here — like the real immigration reform that Congress has been so unwilling to undertake — that could help everyone here.

Is there a burden on hospitals, schools and other civic institutions? In what way will they adapt?

Insofar as there’s a burden, it isn’t necessarily a purely numeric one. We have to remember that half a million people left NYC during the pandemic, a decent chunk of whom never came back. Schools saw huge enrollment declines. So adding 50,000 migrants to the city’s population, and 20,000 kids to the schools system, isn’t in and of itself a quantity that would overwhelm systems. The problem is more about the particular needs of these populations. Many don’t have health insurance, don’t speak English (and, contrary to popular belief, don’t all speak Spanish, Portuguese, or French, either), and have no experience interfacing with local institutions and services.

Migrant children will quickly pick up English now that school is starting. Photo: Olga Fedorova 

Some of this is just a question of time; as time goes on, they’ll learn the ropes, the children will quickly pick up English in school, and as they begin qualifying for work authorization and then winning asylum, they’ll gain additional legal rights and options. Again, it’s ultimately an issue of policy choices; if we could simply make everyone eligible for health insurance — including not only asylum seekers but undocumented immigrants — it would be cheaper for everyone in the long run by making preventive and routine care available instead of forcing people to wait until they’re at the level of emergency. But we probably aren’t going to do that.

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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