A man in a baseball cap facing a large, carved wooden face with a blank expression. To illustrate Anti-Immigrant Sentiment.
Image credit: Photo by Jeffrey Grospe on Unsplash

What a difference a year can make.

In August 2022, the first buses carrying migrants—including refugees, asylum seekers, and others—arrived in New York City, sent there (and other northern putatively “liberal” cities) by Texas Governor Greg Abbott in what amounted to a political middle finger to those communities, conveying the message: “Why don’t you take them?”

Initially, New York City officials, backed by pro-immigrant nonprofits, mutual aid groups, and liberal voters, called Abbott’s bluff by welcoming the migrants and promising to help them.

“We know what it is to be told, ‘You are not welcome here,’” Mayor Adams said in a pro-migrant rally. “Everyone is welcome here if they want to contribute to the society we have. This is the American dream. This is what we stand for. This is what we fought for.”

Adams’ deputies followed suit, with the city Chancellor of Education David C. Banks declaring, “We are welcoming all these new migrant students into our schools with open arms.”

But just over a year later, Mayor Adams struck a very different tone, warning that the latest influx of migrants—well over 100,000 since 2022 by most counts—threatened the city’s survival.

“I don’t see an end to this,” he said, speaking at a town hall of the migrant influx, adding that without more support, “This issue will destroy New York City.” 

Adams has meanwhile held up the migrant influx “crisis” as more or less a direct cause for a series of relatively severe budget cuts to city departments, from schools to police. And he has threatened to upend the decades-old precedent of “Right to Shelter” for people experiencing homelessness, citing the need for additional space in city homeless shelters to accommodate migrants. 

Few would argue that the recent influx of migrants to New York doesn’t present at least a financial challenge to the Adams administration, which has put significant resources into providing temporary housing and support services with little to no federal support. But whether it constitutes the kind of “crisis” Adams has cited—or whether that “crisis” alone justifies the mayor’s responses—is another question.

Indeed, a growing number of immigrant and other advocates are calling Adams out for what they say is rhetoric disturbingly similar to that being employed by the right—including former President Donald Trump—the effect of which is to pit the needs of incoming migrants against those of already-resident New Yorkers.  

“It’s a crisis of leadership.”

Rhetoric Versus Fact

Among those groups ringing alarms at the mayor’s rhetoric is the nonprofit New York Immigration Coalition (NYIC), one of the largest immigrant rights organizations in the United States.

In a conversation with NPQ, NYIC executive director Murad Awawdeh called Adams’ rhetoric not just divisive but also hyperbolic, if not false outright. “The rhetoric does not meet the actual facts. And that’s the piece that is really troublesome.”

“We are a city of almost nine million people. To say that 100,000 people have ‘destroyed’ the city or are leading towards destroying the city is really asinine, in my opinion,” Awawdeh tells NPQ. “We have more people added to the city in Times Square for the New Year’s ball drop than a tenth of the people who actually arrived in the city seeking refuge here. So, I think that the notion that this is a crisis is a notion that’s being perpetuated by this administration.”

“It’s a crisis of leadership,” Awawdeh added, “and a moment that we are looking for leadership to really unite our communities” rather than pit the needs of longtime residents against those of new immigrants.

A Crisis of Leadership

Criticisms of Adams’ rhetoric and tactics—and a general lack of leadership, from Adams to New York Governor Kathy Hochul to President Joe Biden—have arisen from beyond the immigration advocacy community.

In a recent conversation with NPQ, New York Coalition for the Homeless executive director David Giffen spoke forcefully against Adams’ recent attempts to modify the decades-old Right to Shelter for homeless individuals, regardless of immigration status, as a means to free up space for migrants in the city’s crowded shelter system. 

President Joe Biden has largely steered clear of taking responsibility.Giffen rejects the idea that the needs of New York City’s homeless should ever have been pitted against those of incoming migrants. 

“One of the problems is that the city from day one should have dealt with this as an immigration issue and should have initially put in place a decompression and resettlement plan rather than just utilizing the city’s shelter system as a way to manage the influx of new arrivals,” Giffen told NPQ. “As soon as they did that, everything got inextricably tangled up with the city’s homeless shelter system.”

Meanwhile, Giffen notes that New York Governor Hochul has done little to come to New York City’s aid in resettling migrants beyond the city. “The governor has rather cravenly allowed the upstate counties to issue executive orders that are frankly xenophobic and racist, that preclude New York from sending new arrivals or to utilize hotels in some of [these] counties and municipalities.”

Throughout this ongoing saga, President Joe Biden has largely steered clear of taking responsibility for New York City’s challenges in resettling migrants, declining to meet with Mayor Adams on a recent visit on the one hand and suggesting the city end its Right to Shelter policy on the other. A senior member of his administration blamed the Adams administration for “structural and operational issues” in handling the influx.  

“That’s really putting a target on our marginalized and vulnerable communities’ back.”Adams, of course, has repeatedly noted that among the many factors beyond his control is the seeming inability or unwillingness of federal officials to issue even temporary work permits to migrants in desperate need of income.

Beyond the Fog

Amid the pointing fingers and trading of barbs, advocates like Awawdeh say that migrants continue to suffer by being treated as political pawns and by being labeled as part of a “crisis” rather than part of a storied history of immigration in the United States—and in New York City.

“Our [immigrant] community, [which] was just hailed essential workers not too long ago during COVID, is now being labeled as being part of a ‘crisis’,” Awawdeh says. 

“That’s really putting a target on our marginalized and vulnerable communities’ back,” says Awawdeh. “And we’ve seen what divisive language breeds. We saw that with President Trump and putting a target on the AAPI communities’ back. We saw that with other communities marginalized with rhetoric that is harmful, and violent language breeds violent acts. And that’s what we don’t need, what our communities don’t deserve to face because of folks being disgruntled in this moment and being frustrated with their own selves—and, specifically, the mayor being frustrated with, in essence, responding too late.”

“We see that our communities have historically for centuries contributed to the city in the state of New York and contributed with every facet of life, everything from our roads, our bridges, our skyscrapers to the food we eat, to our local economies being sustained,” Awawdeh concludes. “The fog of uncertainty is where the city has been locked in for quite some time now. And we’re going to continue to push back on that because we see beyond the fog.”