New York City Mayor Eric Adams strides alongside a chain-link fence in front of a shelter tent for migrant families, erected at a former naval air base in Brooklyn. In a video posted by his office, he notes that each tent holds 500 people.
“This is not, you know, the best conditions,” concludes Mayor Adams at the end of the video, posted on X, formerly Twitter, on Nov. 12. “But we’re managing a crisis, and we cannot say it any better that we need help.”
“We need help” has been Mr. Adams’ mantra for months, as the number of migrants coming to New York City climbs. He’s persistently called on the Biden administration to provide more aid to the city and accelerate work authorization for asylum-seekers. On Thursday, New York City officials announced plans for 5% budget cuts to all city agencies, including the police and fire departments, in response to the cost of supporting new migrants. Further cuts are anticipated.
None of this was part of Mr. Adams’ plan.
When the former police officer and centrist Democrat ran for New York City mayor in 2021, he was auditioning for arguably second-toughest elected job in the United States. The nation’s largest metropolis was experiencing problems with crime, homelessness, and lack of affordable housing and child care.
But before making a big dent on campaign promises, Mr. Adams was faced with an urgent, multibillion-dollar jam: tens of thousands of migrants from around the world, transiting from the southern border of the U.S. and arriving in New York needing beds, which the city guarantees to those who ask. City officials say 142,000 migrants have arrived since April 2022, and about half of them remain in the city’s care.
For Mr. Adams, the situation means he’s unexpectedly become a leading national voice for Democrats on immigration. He could also influence how New Yorkers and other Americans view President Joe Biden’s handling of the record-setting numbers of people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.
“If people come to the conclusion that [the migrant issue] will have a major impact on the city, which it can, that’s a big story. New York has a way of becoming the example for a lot of things, whether they be positive or negative. Everything about New York gets magnified,” says Joseph Viteritti, public policy professor at New York City’s Hunter College. “It’s not the same thing as if something happens in Corpus Christi or San Antonio.”
Mr. Adams appears to think similarly.
“The way goes New York, goes America. If we don’t get it right in New York City, we’re not going to get it right in America,” he said at a rally in August calling for expedited work authorization for asylum-seekers.
“Bring us your tired” ... for how long?
Supporting migrants will cost New York City $11 billion over the next two fiscal years, officials say, largely because of a unique right-to-shelter pact between the city and the state. The city agreed more than 40 years ago to provide housing for anyone who asks, to address homelessness.
Discussions over the shelter agreement ramped up in 2022 when Texas started publicly busing migrants to New York. Thousands more found their own way to the Big Apple. The factors motivating global movement – economic problems, conflict, and climate change – are unlikely to abate anytime soon, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
People from Latin America have long crossed the U.S.-Mexico border, quietly dispersing across the country to work. But this round of migration is unique with more families, asylum-seekers, and nationalities represented, analysts say.
Perhaps to show that the city had a bigger heart than the Lone Star State, Mr. Adams at first personally greeted new arrivals.
“This is a place where the Statue of Liberty sits in the harbor and says, ‘Bring us your tired, those who are yearning to be free.’ That’s what these asylum-seekers are doing,” the mayor said in August 2022.
Mr. Adams grew up poor in Queens, as the son of a house cleaner and a butcher. Some who know him attribute his inclusive attitude to his upbringing, including attending a small, close-knit storefront church.
“Coming out of that background, you don’t forget those who are the neediest,” says the retired Rev. Herbert Daughtry of Brooklyn, a well-known civil rights leader and one of Mr. Adams’ early mentors.
In recent months, the mayor’s speeches about migrants have evolved, after first welcoming them with “open arms.” This summer he said, “Our hearts are big, but our resources are not endless.” In a fall town hall meeting, he said the migrant issue was a problem that he “didn’t see an end to” and called it an “issue that will destroy New York.”
Mr. Adams still believes in supporting migrants, many of whom are asylum-seekers. But he thinks the federal government should play a bigger role with faster work authorization and more aid, say his associates.
The mayor “believes we have to accept and take care of these people – it’s not just New York. ... It’s a national problem that the federal government and many of the states, to their shame, have not taken part in [or] done anything about,” says Sid Davidoff, a longtime lobbyist and former aide to midcentury Mayor John V. Lindsay. He says he’s been friends with Mr. Adams for a decade.
The mayor’s office did not respond to queries.
Earlier this month, Mr. Adams also learned the FBI is investigating his campaign finances. He has not been charged and denies any wrongdoing.
Looking for solutions
Though the mayor said more than a year ago that the city was “nearing its breaking point,” it continued to set up more than 200 shelters and lodge people in hotels.
Mr. Adams has declared a state of emergency, pleaded for money from Washington and Albany, and tried to send migrants to other New York communities. He traveled to Mexico, Ecuador, and Colombia last month, telling asylum-seekers that New York loved them but was full – and that they should go elsewhere. But to no avail.
With no letup in arrivals, the city started ratcheting back services. Agencies expanded a program offering migrants one-way tickets out of town, began to limit time in shelters, and stopped guaranteeing beds. The city, for the first time, also launched a legal challenge to suspend the shelter agreement itself.
Voiding the measure won’t reduce city homelessness or the migrant influx and will just move shelter residents onto the street, says Edward Josephson, supervising attorney at the Legal Aid Society, which is fighting the city’s challenge.
With two years before reelection, the city’s 110th mayor is talking up how he’s brought workers back to the office, reduced gun violence, and is working toward more affordable housing. While the mayor polls better than President Biden, his favorability numbers among New York City voters have slipped along with public support for migrants, according to Siena College polls.
Even though his actions during the migrant crisis have proved unpopular, he has been well placed for reelection as an incumbent, says Alyssa Katz, executive editor of The City, an online news site. She says the FBI investigation may hinder a second term should evidence emerge of wrongdoing. She notes New York City mayors are no stranger to corruption probes. Every mayoral administration for the past 45 years has been investigated, though no mayor has been charged, according to The City.
Undermining President Biden?
Mayor Adams’ harshest critics maintain he’s bolstering the GOP. They say that his comments about high crime and his statement that the migrant crisis will “destroy” New York City are fueling right-wing rhetoric and putting President Biden’s reelection at risk.
“He said he’s the future of the Democratic Party,” says Susan Kang, associate professor of political science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “But he openly criticizes Biden for failing to [help New York City]. It shows he doesn’t care about Biden’s election chances.”
Insiders were astonished when the mayor criticized President Biden in April, says George Arzt, a press secretary to former Mayor Ed Koch who has been friendly with Mr. Adams for years. He joked that Mr. Adams would have the “speaking slot at 3 a.m.” at the 2024 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
As the leading Democratic voice in seeking federal help, Mr. Adams was criticized for missing meetings with other big city mayors and federal officials in Washington earlier this month after he learned about the FBI raid on a top aide’s residence and flew home.
The mayor of New York has a reach beyond the city’s 469 square miles. As the urban epicenter of the country’s migrant crisis, New York could provide a how-to guide for cities facing new migrant surges, says C. Mario Russell, executive director at the Center for Migration Studies of New York.
“Given its unique experience and understanding with migrants and asylum seekers over the last year and a half, New York City is in a particularly strong position to help lead that conversation, bringing lessons learned about how to receive migrants and ideas for [what] a coordinated response with other cities might look like,” Mr. Russell said via text.