This week, Mayor Eric Adams put forth a so-called road forward on New York City’s response to asylum seeker arrivals, which among other things would centralize the city’s migrant-related functions under a new Office of Asylum Seeker Operations. The new office will run a 24/7 asylum seeker arrivals hub at the Port Authority bus terminal, which has become something of a modern-day Ellis Island for the newcomers.
Perhaps the most significant and novel part of the plan is the effort to relocate asylum seekers to other cities and potentially states where they might be welcome. The plan notes that the city will assist migrants “in relocating to their preferred city of choice,” which sounds a little dicey given that many of them actively decided to come to the city for reasons including the right to shelter mandate and the perception of plentiful employment.
Whereas in the earlier days of the current wave of arrivals, i.e. beginning last summer, many of the newcomers were being bused to New York under false pretenses and as part of a political stunt by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, in recent months many have traveled to NYC voluntarily after word spread more organically about the free assistance that was being offered here. Still, unlike other groups of arrivals in New York’s long and globally famous history as a place of immigrants, many of the new arrivals now don’t already have established family or community networks in the city, which also means they’re likelier to be open to leaving, and in fact anecdotally we know many already have.
NYC is coordinating relocation of migrants to other cities
While the notion of the city actively participating in transporting the migrants elsewhere might sound reminiscent of the moves by Abbott and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — moves widely decried as inhumane, including by Adams himself — there are some key differences. Namely, the city is coordinating with the potential host localities instead of hoping to just dump people there without notice. Adams preempted any questions about what these host localities might be during a press conference Tuesday, saying “I don’t need you running to the cities and stopping us from getting the asylum seekers there. So we’re not telling you.”
That’s not to say that everything will be perfect wherever they land, but the Adams administration seems committed to giving asylum seekers accurate information about where they can go and what they should expect when they get there, and will even pay for some of their housing and workforce development, much more than can be said about Abbott and DeSantis. The plan notes that staff from the newly created asylum office will inform migrants of this option through everything from coordination with service organizations and houses of worship they’re already working with to going door-to-door to let them know.
Biden administration’s hands-off approach
A nationwide campaign to transfer migrants to where they can find solid housing and employment symbiotically with towns and cities that want additional population and workforce has actually been pushed by immigration advocates around the country, albeit usually as a program run by the federal government and not NYC. A throughline in both this plan and in the broader frustrations about the migrant arrivals is the Biden administration’s hands-off approach to their resettlement and integration, with the president instead focusing on Trump-style border restrictions that people including myself have condemned. That leaves those who do make it through to make their own way with the assistance (or hindrance) of local officials and nonprofits.
Besides resettlements, the plan details an effort to move migrants out of the overburdened shelter system and into other housing options, including temporarily in houses of worship — a group of which had already offered themselves up as alternatives to the shelters — and ultimately in some form of permanent housing. Advocates have long complained that counterintuitive rules and bureaucratic backlogs have stopped homeless and low-income New Yorkers from being able to quickly leave shelters and access housing, a problem that existed before the arrival of asylum seekers just added fuel to the fire. The City Council has recently taken up some legislation to streamline the process, and make asylum seekers eligible for the CityFHEPS voucher that could help them move into permanent housing.
Providing shelter is a significant financial strain on city
Between the relocations and the push to move migrants into more durable housing situations, the administration is really striving to address what has been the most significant financial strain on the city by far, which is providing shelter for the asylum seekers. While the city has provided a variety of services including legal assistance, a report from city Comptroller Brad Lander unveiled this week, taking the most granular look yet at spending on asylum seekers specifically, estimated that “99% of the expenses so far are going to the costs of providing shelter and related services, including food.” Based on current projections of continued arrivals, those costs could amount to over $4 billion over two fiscal years.
That’s good in some sense and bad in some sense. Bad, because that’s a massive expenditure that has the potential to blow a significant hole in the city’s budget in a way that could impact the delivery of services to everyone, and neither the state nor federal government seem particularly eager to chip in much further. Good, because it means that the vast majority of the expenditure is in one specific area, and finding some effective alternate solutions could on its own dramatically cut down on the funding spigot. Indeed, the comptroller, who by dint of position and temperament has often been at odds with the mayor, reached the same conclusions about having to get asylum seekers out of shelter and into permanent housing with initiatives like expansion of housing vouchers and workforce development.
While these might seem like additional expenditures, they represent pennies on the dollar as compared to keeping tens of thousands of migrants in the shelter system. One of the most significant obstacles here is unfortunately out of our hands, in the form of the lack of work authorization for migrants. Due to a quirk of federal law, asylum seekers can’t receive work authorization for at least 180 days post-filing, and functionally the delays in both filing paperwork and having the application go through the bureaucracy make the waiting period typically much longer. That leaves migrants with the unsavory options of either working illegally and risking their applications, or not working and being left incapable of providing for themselves as they wait. Fixing that crucial issue is in the hands of Congress, so unfortunately it seems likelier that we’ll have to work around it.
—Felipe De La Hoz