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NYC is struggling to help asylum-seekers. Here’s why.

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NYC is struggling to help asylum-seekers. Here’s why.

Mayor Eric Adams speaks during public safety announcement on...
Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

Mayor Eric Adams said this week that caring for migrants will cost the city $12 billion.

Asylum-seekers have stretched New York City to its limits, according to Mayor Eric Adams, who described an “unprecedented state of emergency” this week as he called upon New York state and federal lawmakers and agencies to offer more support.

Adams’ office estimated that the city would spend $12 billion over three fiscal years to shelter and support the tens of thousands of migrants projected to arrive over that period.

A number of circumstances have converged to push people to New York City, including the end of Title 42, the health directive originally put in place under the Trump administration during the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as efforts by Republican Govs. Ron DeSantis of Florida and Greg Abbott of Texas to send people who have crossed the southern US border to states run by Democrats.

But many choose to come of their own volition; New York City has a right to shelter directive, which means the city has an obligation to shelter those who request it. However, a long-standing affordable housing crisis has also helped push the city’s shelter system to the brink, overwhelming facilities to the point that asylum-seekers are already sleeping in the streets outside of shelters.

But even as Adams called on New York Gov. Kathy Hochul and Congress to provide more funding to care for asylum seekers and institute comprehensive immigration reform, Adams’ administration is seeking to amend the rules of the right to shelter decree, which would give City Hall the ability to suspend the right to shelter in some situations.

“This is one of the most responsible things any leader can do when they realize the system is buckling and we want to prevent it from collapsing,” Adams said in late May, when City Hall initially requested the changes.

Though Adams called Hochul and the state government a “partner” at a press conference Wednesday, it’s not clear exactly how closely the two governments are working together, given a recent court order seemingly designed to force the two parties to make a cooperative plan to manage the situation.

On the federal level, immigration policy remains in flux, too. Though the Supreme Court in June decided that President Joe Biden’s administration has the right to set criteria for which migrants to detain at the southern border and which to release, a San Francisco federal judge deemed a separate part of the post-Title 42 policy, meant to limit the number of people able to apply for asylum, “both substantively and procedurally invalid” late last month.

Congress has not passed comprehensive immigration reform since 1990 despite significant changes which have taken place in the intervening decades, despite climate change, conflict, and serious economic hardship accelerating migration. Stopgap solutions like visas for undocumented workers and paths to citizenship programs, as well as more draconian measures, such as labelling any undocumented person a felon, have all failed over the years. As a result, dysfunction has crept into every level of government, from Congress to City Hall, which is contributing to the crisis in New York City.

New York City’s crowded shelters have multiple causes — not just migrants

Over the past year Republicans like DeSantis and Abbott have been sending people to cities like Chicago and New York, despite the fact that the end of the Title 42 policy didn’t overwhelm the southern US border.

New York City’s right to shelter directive means that people without housing — whether they’re New Yorkers or not — who request a bed in one of the city’s shelters are entitled to receive it that day. But New York City is in an affordable housing crisis, the worst in decades, a study by the Fund for the City of New York found earlier this year. And efforts to build more affordable housing failed in the state legislature in April, prolonging and compounding the crisis.

It’s into that context that migrants are arriving in the city — 100,000 over the past year by Adams’ estimate. Of that number, there are currently more than 57,300 in the shelter system.

Adams has repeatedly said that the city is out of room to house new arrivals, though the administration has commandeered locations like a soccer pitch on Randall’s Island in the East River, a parking lot at a former state psychiatric hospital in Queens, and a recreation center in Brooklyn to shelter or provide services for migrants, as the New York Times reported this week.

But the Adams administration is asking to be released from the right to shelter in situations when it “lacks the resources and capacity to establish and maintain sufficient shelter sites, staffing, and security to provide safe and appropriate shelter,” according to a letter City Hall attorneys submitted to Judge Deborah Kaplan in May.

Should the courts allow such a measure, it will have serious consequences for the tens of thousands of people who rely on the right to shelter for a safe place to stay.

“The horrible irony is that, you know, things are so much worse now than they were” when the right to shelter was established in 1981, Edward Josephson, the supervising attorney for the Legal Aid Society of NYC’s Civil Law Reform Unit, told Bloomberg. “If [Adams] closes the door to the shelter, these folks will be in the subways or on the sidewalks.”

The administration has already instituted a 60-day shelter stay limit for single adult asylum seekers, though they can reapply for shelter after that period. It is also attempting to discourage people from coming to the city, claiming that there is “no guarantee” they will find assistance once they arrive.

Adams’ administration has estimated that caring for the migrant population will cost the city $12 billion through the 2025 fiscal year to provide housing, food, education, healthcare, and social services. Most of that cost, according to Jacques Jiha, director of the Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget, is directed toward shelter.

In June, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, both Democrats from New York, announced that they had secured $104.6 million for the city from the Federal Emergency Management Agency through a new federal Shelter and Services Program, Politico reported at the time. But although that funding will be critical for immediate-term care for migrants, it doesn’t solve the systemic problems — a lack of affordable housing and incoherent immigration policy — that brought about the problem in the first place.

New York City is in conflict with the state over how to manage immigration

Adams’ renewed calls for state and federal assistance come against the backdrop of renewed tension between his office and the governor over the state’s role in caring for the new arrivals.

Last week, State Supreme Court Judge Erika Edwards ordered the city to provide “a proposal identifying the resources and facilities owned, operated and/or controlled by the state” which could be used to help provide shelter and services for migrants. The state is set to respond to the city’s request by Tuesday, according to the New York Times.

Though Hochul has set aside $1 billion in the state budget for the city’s migrant programs, she has also expressed concern that the city’s right to shelter decree could be interpreted to expand past its borders. Earlier this spring, the governor had to mediate Adams’ efforts to move migrants upstate, angering some conservative municipal leaders.

“We believe — and I’m convinced — that the right to shelter is the result of a consent decree undertaken by the City of New York,” Hochul told reporters in Albany last Thursday. “The state is not a party to that, so right to shelter does not expand to the whole of the state.”

Hochul and Adams are, however, united in their calls for the federal government to do more to support migrants in New York, and have particularly asked to get expedited work permits for asylum seekers.

“There’s more [the federal government] can do, including expediting pathways to work authorizations for asylum seekers,” Adams said at a press conference Wednesday. “I have heard it directly from all the asylum seekers I’ve spoken with, they want to work.” Adams also asked the Biden administration to declare a state of emergency to “allow federal funds to be allocated quickly to help address the urgent challenges we face.”

For Adams and Hochul, high immigration levels are becoming a reality they can’t ignore; how they’ll be able to successfully maneuver that shift remains to be seen.

Despite Adams’ urgent calls for assistance, the reality is that the people who suffer most from dysfunctional immigration policy and inaction are the people seeking asylum.

Just this week, a three-year-old child died en route to Chicago as part of Abbott’s policy of busing migrants to Democrat-led cities and states, and in May, an eight-year-old girl died in the custody of US Customs and Border Protection in Texas, despite her mother’s pleas for medical attention.

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