The Mexican-American border, Photo: Greg Bulla

The flurry of attention over the unannounced arrival of dozens of recent asylum seekers to the small Massachusetts island of Martha’s Vineyard — part of a broader bit of political theater engineered by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who himself has spent the past year putting into place bizarre and extreme border security stunts like sending the National Guard to the border — has reignited interest in the arrivals to New York City, and where they stand when they get off the buses in Port Authority.

For those not aware, for the past few months Abbott has been sending buses of migrants to the city. The idea of asylum seekers being taken from the border region to destinations in the northeast and around the country is not in itself novel nor particularly notable; both nonprofit groups, other local governments, and the federal government itself have in the past helped coordinate such transportation without much incident.

Bussing of migrants lacks coordination

The difference now is that this is being done explicitly without coordination with New York City officials, and without much input from the migrants themselves, who are being told that they can only board buses to NYC even if they are ultimately headed elsewhere, and being misled into thinking that NYC has actively put in place initiatives to get them work permits and jobs. In short, it’s not really a humanitarian mission but a political one, intended to sow chaos and provoke backlash in liberal cities such that Abbott can claim that we’re hypocrites and better position himself for a presidential run.

This hasn’t quite panned out as expected, in the sense that New Yorkers by and large are pretty used to immigration (owing in large part to the fact that almost 40 percent of us are immigrants), but it has caused some consternation and hand-wringing in the NYC government, with Mayor Eric Adams asking for federal assistance particularly when it comes to the strain on our shelter system. Here, it’s important to note that NYC has a pretty unique structure when it comes to accepting people into shelters.

Whereas other jurisdictions are free to turn people away if they deem that they don’t have the space to place them, for decades NYC has been under a court settlement that makes it a right-to-shelter city, meaning that the municipal government must place everyone who doesn’t have a home to go to in some form of city-sponsored shelter, whether that’s a standard city-run shelter, a specialized one like a safe haven (which have slightly lower admissions requirements and other particularities), or, if all else is unavailable, hotels contracted by the city.

Photo: Niklas Herrmann

This is not exactly an economical solution, of course. The city is renting thousands of hotel rooms at significant cost, sometimes hundreds of dollars per night, to hold the migrants, simply because it is unlawful for it not to. For their part, many of the asylum seekers have been told that they would be provided housing and jobs without much additional information; while they’re provided this temporary shelter, the city won’t guarantee permanent housing, and it certainly isn’t guaranteeing jobs. In fact, most of the migrants don’t yet even have work authorization. The cost has prompted some backlash, including bad-faith analyses like the New York Post’s assertion that housing migrants could cost more than $300 million a year, an analysis which absurdly supposes that every migrant housed in contracted hotels would be housed for an entire year. Still, some New Yorkers fret over the absolute costs associated with the program, which is also why the Adams administration has put together a task force to look for alternate solutions.

Migrants have been funneled to shelters

Since the beginning of this recent uptick in arrivals, the city has been funneling them to shelters, which officials now complain is overburdening what was already a shelter system stretched thin; the city has estimated that over 11,000 recent asylum seekers have arrived since May, with many spending time in the shelter system since their arrival. It now seems somewhat clear that this approach was a mistake, in the sense that the city is treating this as a homelessness issue when it’s really a refugee issue. That point is especially highlighted by the fact that these asylum seekers are ineligible for the types of housing vouchers that are typically used to get people out of shelters and into more permanent housing, meaning that they’re effectively in a process that has no clear endpoint.

I and others have spoken with the administration about this, especially on the front that certain border communities have built pathways here that could be replicated, in particular the idea that this can’t be a pure local government response but must be a community response, including regular New Yorkers who are able to step up and do their part. In Brownsville, Texas, for example, local groups in 2018 established systems through which to place migrants in the homes of a network of volunteers, who provided shelter and guidance in navigating U.S. systems and culture.

We have been told that the administration is considering all options, including something like that, where it’s not that asylum seekers are turned away from city shelters but simply offered alternatives, including placement with families around the city and perhaps other parts of the state in a more regional response that has yet to materialize. One way to help that along is having New Yorkers step up and indicate that they’re ready and willing to open up their homes and dedicate their time to assisting these folks, who have often been through so much and have a long ways left to go, including what are likely months or even years of complicated court proceedings in an effort to win ongoing asylum cases.

Photo: Maria Thalassinou 

Legal limbo

In the meantime, they inhabit a sort of legal limbo, without formal documentation but also not unlawfully present, a kind of purgatory that can lead to permanent residence and the safety and security that they’re striving for, or a court loss followed by deportation. New Yorkers can’t do much about that, but we can take active steps to make things better not just for them but for the beleaguered shelter system by taking an active role, as well as demanding that certain decision-makers take action.

Namely, President Biden, who has expressed some displeasure at the situation but has taken something of a back seat to it, despite the fact that the chain of command for border authorities ends with him. Rather than these haphazard and politically motivated flights, the federal government could work to coordinate transfers and placements in a way similar to what it does with refugees (who go through a similar process outside the United States and arrive already with status). Those of us upset by the use of migrants as pawns in some political game don’t have to feel powerless; we can both demand accountability and take steps to intervene directly in a way that can improve these folks’ lives.

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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