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Many Americans see the flow of migrants crossing into the U.S. as primarily a border issue — and with good reason. As this newsletter has documented, the boundary between Mexico and the United States is where the vast majority of illegal border crossings occur and where many people come to seek asylum.
But as the country confronts a surge in migration, its effects are increasingly far-flung. Thousands of migrants are transported to Democratic-run cities like Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington. Today’s newsletter will zero in on perhaps the biggest destination, New York City, to explain how the movement is testing the city’s pledge for compassion and scrambling politics thousands of miles from the southwestern border.
New York City has prided itself for centuries on being a haven for immigrants. Even today, nearly two in five city residents were born in other countries. However, the pace of the current wave of arrivals has little precedent. Since last spring, at least 42,000 migrants who say they are seeking asylum have arrived in the city in need of shelter and basic services.
The escalating emergency has prompted Mayor Eric Adams, a Democrat, to declare that New York is nearing “its breaking point.” He made the migrant situation a focus of his annual State of the City address last week. And he has increasingly gone where others in his party have balked, joining Republicans to call on the White House to step up its response.
How it started
The origins of the current migrant influx to New York can be traced to last summer, when Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas began paying for buses northward for foreigners who had sought asylum at the border. The gambit had clear political motivations. Abbott is a sharp critic of President Biden’s immigration policies. He was seeking to saddle Democratic cities with some of the financial burden of caring for the migrants and to increase pressure on the president to crack down on illegal border crossings.
Democrats accused him of cynical partisanship and cruelly using migrants as political pawns. But Republican governors in Arizona and Florida soon followed suit. Border cities and nearby states run by Democrats have also helped thousands of migrants travel to major urban centers, though typically without invoking political overtones.
New York City has seen far more migrants arrive than other big Northern cities. In one recent week, more than 3,000 asylum seekers arrived in New York City alone. By comparison, Chicago has absorbed more than 5,000 asylum seekers total since August, according to The Chicago Sun-Times.
A strained support network
New York and its vast network of aid groups pride themselves on supporting migrants. The city also has a decades-old legal requirement to shelter anyone who asks. For now, city leaders are including migrants who recently entered the country.
As a result, the city is reporting a record number of people sleeping in its shelter network and has opened nearly 80 hotels and other relief centers with beds to migrants, including one at the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal.
In some cases, the city or nonprofit groups are also paying for translation services, legal support and meals; enrolling children in schools; and assisting parents who are awaiting court hearings in a system with a yearslong backlog. (My colleagues Karen Zraick, Brittany Kriegstein and Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura have written about how the city and its newest arrivals are rushing to respond.)
The city says it has spent more than $300 million since last spring. For a rough comparison, the city spends about $400 million a year on public libraries. In a turbulent economy, the extra costs could force the city to trim some popular social services, though state and federal aid could lighten the burden.
When Texas first began sending migrants northward, Adams and Abbott got into a high-profile partisan fight about right and wrong. But at least part of the governor’s plan appears to be having its desired effect.
That is because Adams has begun using his sizable platform as mayor of the nation’s largest city — and his close alliance with Biden — to put public pressure on the White House. He recently visited the southwestern border himself and used a keynote speech this month at a mayors’ conference in Washington to call on the president to put in place a national strategy to quickly take the burden off cities.
“What’s the short-term plan?” he asked last week on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “If my house is burning, I don’t want to hear about fire prevention.”
Adams has cast more blame on Republicans for blocking progress on a comprehensive overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws than on his own party. But by speaking out, Adams is undermining the Biden administration’s attempt to defang the politics of a thorny policy issue, as my colleague Michael Shear, who covers the White House, explained to me.
“Their strategy at the White House is to cast the Republicans as outrageous, Trump-like and obsessed with border security,” he said. “It becomes harder to make that distinction if your own party is yelling at you.”
Related: Hear the story of one mother and daughter who risked their lives trying to reach the southern border.
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