There’s a growing contingent of urban, nonwhite voters with immigration-skeptic views.  Credit: Jon Tyson / Unsplash

A few days ago, I was pouring soap into a machine at my local laundromat in South Harlem when the word “Kamala” made my politics-attuned ears perk up. A couple of middle-aged Black women were chatting about the upcoming election as they loaded up their laundry. They agreed that Trump was in deep trouble, and an unrepentant racist who shouldn’t return to power, but also fretted that Democrats’ perceived sidelining of the first Black vice president meant they were racist, too — a sentiment that speaks to some of the party’s messaging failures downstream of a confidence that Black voters will always be a blue wall of sorts.

Then, the talk turned to the tens of thousands of migrants who have been arriving in the city since the spring of 2022. I live quite close to the Lincoln Correctional Facility, a former prison that since last summer has been used as an emergency shelter for single adult asylum seekers, which makes the situation in this neighborhood not just politically but also literally visible. The migrants who live at the facility come and go looking for work or entertainment, get haircuts on Central Park North across the street, hang out in groups, talking and playing music off tiny speakers, and take the nearby 2/3 train to destinations Downtown (including the immigration courts where their cases are to be heard).

Some of them are the Spanish-speaking Latin Americans most associated with the so-called migrant crisis — including some from a recent uptick in Ecuadorians fleeing a sharp surge in gang violence — but the majority are African, including from Senegal, Mauritania, Chad, and Cameroon, and speaking Arabic, Wolof, and French, among other languages. Some of them are now living in the area that includes the mini-neighborhood of Little Senegal.

Yet, as they pulled clothes from their wire carts, the two women at the laundromat, one of whom had a pronounced Caribbean accent, were not happy to see these newcomers. They’d heard about the controversies over migrant-related spending, which Mayor Eric Adams blamed for a slew of city budget cuts, a few of which have now been reversed. In their view, the migrants were getting free services and shelter — at, it should be noted, a prison, now capped at 30 days for single adults by an agreement between the city and the Legal Aid Society and functionally capped before by the city’s reapplication requirements).

They remarked that the migrants seemed to be failing to work, perhaps not realizing that many cannot yet get work authorization and are having trouble finding jobs without it. As the conversation went on, one of them distilled their frustrations down to an essence: “They are getting all this taxpayer money, and we pay all these taxes and we get nothing!”

I want to make clear that I’m not trying to use one anecdote here to extrapolate a general sentiment, and in fact I often roll my eyes at the “anecdata” phenomenon often favored by lazy political commentators. But it’s not the first time I’ve heard Black or working-class immigrant New Yorkers grumble about the migrant arrivals. Polls in the last year have shown that the U.S. writ large and New Yorkers specifically have soured on immigration, with 46%of New Yorkers saying in a Siena College poll last year that migrants were a burden to the city.

Many migrants are stuck in limbo while they wait for work authorization. Credit: Adobe

Here in Harlem last month, local residents came out in force at a community meeting to oppose the use of an abandoned apartment building as a migrant shelter, pushing Adams — who dropped by unexpectedly — to pledge that “you will not have migrants and asylum seekers in that property.” Around Thanksgiving last year, Queens NYCHA residents complained that migrants were taking too much from food pantries on which the residents themselves rely.

In the political imagination, the immigrant-skeptic voter is often pictured as a white, probably suburban, between working class and small business owner, who fears the diversity and density of the big city. There’s no doubt that the MAGA movement has managed to tap into this subset of voters, whose fear is more cultural — the displacement of their longtime social and political primacy as perhaps best encapsulated by conspiracies around demographic replacement. Yet there’s an undeniable and growing contingent of urban, nonwhite voters with immigration-skeptic views stemming more from material conditions, the same kind of “what about us” thought process that was on display in the laundromat and the community meeting.

I keep banging this drum, but I think political analysts, pollsters, candidates, and commentators are really underestimating the impact of the end of what I’ve been calling the Covid social safety net, the web of pandemic-related assistance programs– from child care credits to increased unemployment– that was put in place as Covid-19 shut down the economy. The petering out of this brief experiment with European-style social spending has counteracted some of the recent strong economic news of rising wages and low unemployment, and made people more hyper-aware of what the government was choosing to subsidize and what it wasn’t.

In response, liberal groups and Democratic policymakers have reacted either by all but ignoring the existence of these immigrant-skeptic minority voters — out of apparent fear that the acknowledgement will become self-reinforcing — or tacking right on immigration. Representative Tom Suozzi won his old Long Island congressional seat back from a GOP takeover in part by emphasizing a tough stance on immigration, going so far as to say he was comfortable with Republicans’ use of the term “invasion” to describe asylum seeking arrivals.

I think there are other options. If it seems like MAGA restrictionists are winning the rhetorical battle, it’s largely because there’s not a cohesive counter-argument apart from fretting or blaming voters for their concerns, and certainly not a cogent response on the material realities. If all voters hear is that migrants are overwhelming the city’s capacity, sucking the schools’ and libraries’ budget dry, and getting free food and housing even as the federal government finishes axing pandemic-era supports, of course they’re going to be skeptical. I have not seen many policymakers discuss, for example, the growing economic consensus that immigration has been the main bulwark against a predicted recession (and before anyone grumbles about immigrants taking jobs, a reminder that unemployment is at near historic lows across the board, and a recession hurts everyone).

In fact, there’s been very little talk at all about the possibility that asylum seekers can be a significant economic and cultural boon for the cities in which they settle, including NYC, if only there was a more concerted federal effort to provide supports instead of enacting further restrictions. Will this suddenly reverse the public perception trends overnight? Probably not, but to make this political argument and act on it might not only be functionally better for everyone but present an alternative vision for Black and Brown voters who are rightfully and perennially afraid of losing financial and political gains.

Many already intuitively understand that pitting some disenfranchised groups against one another is among the oldest tricks of political operators who have the interests of neither group in mind. Shying away from this conversation has so far been a losing strategy, and capitulating to the anti-immigrant sentiment is a betrayal of core values. It’s worth highlighting another path forward — of faster work authorization, refugee-like supports and a glide path towards the stability and self-sufficiency that everyone wants the migrants to have, including themselves — as not only a materially better strategy but a politically intelligent one.

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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1 Comment

  1. Wonderfully expressed how anti-immigrant sentiments are fuelled by anti racist stance of Blacks, coloured and Afro Asian communities. But racist White may now get more refuelled into it.

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