Yesterday, NYC Mayor Eric Adams and several top officials gathered in City Hall to unveil some shocking projections about the costs of accommodating migrants.
Specifically, Mayor Adams and Director of the Office of Management and Budget Jacques Jiha made the case that maintaining current trends of arrivals and exits at the city’s shelter systems would cost a combined $12 billion over three years, an eye-watering increase over already significant spending figures. This comes as the city is attempting multiple cost-saving efforts, including wriggling out of the shelter mandate that has bound NYC for decades and turning some migrants away from shelter.
That’s a brief summary, but you don’t really need me to go through all the numbers here in detail; that’s been covered elsewhere. What this newsletter is for is to try to make sense of all of these things, parse the meaning behind all the spin and the technicality and grandstanding. For that, I want to seize on two quotes here that I find illustrative, for different reasons.
The first comes from Deputy Mayor Anne Williams-Isom, a longtime lawyer and government official who has been one of the most prominent public faces at the forefront of the Adams Administration’s efforts to contend with the arrivals. At a press conference last Wednesday (which Adams was supposed to front but withdrew from at the last minute, leaving Williams-Isom to take point), the deputy mayor did the standard touting of the administration’s response and scheduled announcement of various universities’ new partnership to assist migrants with asylum applications.
During the off-the-cuff Q&A session, Williams-Isom more candidly and with some apparent frustration declared, “I just can’t believe that the Adams Administration is in the middle of a global crisis, literally.” That succinct statement I think captured a core bewilderment, an underlying sense, which we can only really appreciate during moments of coming-up-for-air from responding to it, that this situation is kind of absurd. We’re not quite speaking plainly when we refer to this as a local crisis, or even a national one. Williams-Isom is absolutely right in the assessment that this is a global event, and is ultimately a confluence of many of the most complex issues of the contemporary moment.
Many of the people leaving their homes are doing so, directly or indirectly, as a result of the compounding climate emergency. Distinctions between climate migrants and political refugees get fuzzier and fuzzier as ecological collapse decimates economies and fuels political instability and strife, which leaves countries even less equipped to respond to emerging climate catastrophes- it’s a downward spiral. Social media and the rapid spread of misinformation leave many of them more vulnerable to scams, lead them to believe that they’ll have an easy path to entering and remaining in the country, and often help drive them to New York, where they’ve heard there is ample support and services. The collapse of the federal administrative state, supercharged in large part by Trump, has left the U.S. government less able to robustly respond with a cohesive national strategy, and contemporary polarization around immigration has left Biden with little appetite to be seen helping migrants.
This convergence of factors has created an untenable situation for which the City of New York unexpectedly finds itself largely responsible. Through this lens, Williams-Isom’s exasperation is perfectly reasonable, and yet there’s no real solution to be had here. New York can’t be expected to singularly shoulder the weight of these long-standing, globally significant failures, yet what are we supposed to do? We’ve been left to the wolves but we can’t- we shouldn’t- just leave these folks out on the street.
Which brings me to the other illuminating quote, this one by Adams himself, uttered yesterday in passing during the much longer Q&A session where he introduced the new numbers and again called on the federal government to intervene. It came during one of the mayor’s now-signature irritation-flecked riffs in response to questions he views as unfair (which are many), and which often take the form of part chastisement, part humor, and part grandiosity. In this case, the question was about whether the migrant situation had overtaken him politically and would overshadow his administration’s other work, an admittedly fatuous question that seemed to irk him immediately.
After the expected indignation and admonishment that “you guys are just not covering the success of this administration,” Adams made the point that “every mayor had a crisis that he had to handle.” True enough, but he continued, “Bloomberg had 9/11. De Blasio had Covid,” before launching into a further soliloquy that included thanking God every day for his mayoralty and snapping at a reporter not to interrupt him.
The bit about the prior mayors received little note in an otherwise newsy press conference cluttered with many other Adams-isms, but it really stuck in my mind. No one can disagree that this is a challenge, one of logistics as much as will and public empathy, but 9/11 and Covid killed over 3,000 and 45,000 New Yorkers, respectively. The former destroyed an enormous chunk of downtown Manhattan and caused tens of thousands more survivors irreparable physical and psychological wounds, not to mention that it created the political will for the disastrous invasion of Iraq (and, ironically, shifted the immigration enforcement posture in a way that contributes to the current migrant situation). The latter shut the city down for months, shuttered thousands of businesses permanently, left many more thousands with lasting physical and psychological afflictions, and has transformed our society in ways we will only really come to understand years down the line.
Are we really comparing those two cataclysms to migrant arrivals? I understand of course that this was an off-the-cuff statement and is endlessly interpretable, but it does provide something of a frank window into Adams’ thinking, and it’s not the first time that he’s alluded to these apocalyptic visions of the asylum seekers’ impact. Just a few months ago, the mayor said that the city was being “destroyed by the migrant crisis.” Is it? A fiscal crisis is still a crisis, but perhaps we should all take a breath before we lose sight of what this is really all about, which is that thousands of people in desperately dire straits are here, now, and need help to survive. These people are not killing anyone or giving them respiratory illnesses like 9/11 or Covid-19, and in fact many are nothing but future New Yorkers, who could do what immigrants have always done: bring the city forward, especially now as it loses population otherwise.
Two things can be true at once. It can be the case that this is a global quandary set off by converging unaddressed issues, which the city absolutely should not find itself navigating with little assistance — and I’ve written at length about what the federal government might be able to do here, including as far back as almost a year ago — and this is not at all like those crises Adams mentioned.