Eric Adams Is Playing a Dangerous Game With Migrants

New York City mayor Eric Adams is simultaneously pushing austerity and declaring that migrants will “destroy” the city by straining its public services. These are perilous flames to fan, and the biggest fan belongs to the mayor.

Mayor of New York City Eric Adams speaks during the 2023 Concordia Annual Summit at Sheraton New York on September 18, 2023 in New York City. (Leigh Vogel / Getty Images for Concordia Summit)

An outside observer to New York City politics could reasonably assume that the mayor, Democrat Eric Adams, is aligned with the Right. Adams, who took office at the beginning of last year, has consistently trumpeted the right-wing trio of law and order, budget austerity, and pro-business, anti-worker policies. The most recent Adams innovation is his rhetoric around the so-called migrant crisis. Adams has gone so far as to say that the influx of migrants will “destroy” New York City (in a demand for further state and federal assistance).

Adams does not use explicitly xenophobic language questioning the right of migrants and asylum seekers to be in New York. In fact, he maintains a veneer of support for the asylum seekers, recently denouncing nativist activists arrested in Staten Island for trying to block a bus of migrants. Yet his ideological commitment to reducing public services has forced him into a dangerous game of inflaming nativist and anti-immigrant sentiments in the city and beyond. Migrants in New York have endured deplorable conditions, including temporarily sleeping on city streets this past August and overcrowding into “temporary” respite housing centers with insufficient bathrooms and lack of available food. Twenty thousand new students have entered the public school system this fall, a system for which Adams has repeatedly slashed funding.

This crisis is not only a huge problem for the Democratic party leadership — fragile going into the upcoming presidential election — but also demonstrates the failures of neoliberal Democrats and the federal system in responding to emergencies and meeting people’s basic needs.

New York City’s Right to Shelter

While New York City lacks its formerly vibrant welfare state, there are still vestiges of the old system hanging around. Perhaps most notable is the “right to shelter” law.

The result of a lawsuit against New York City in 1979, when homelessness grew following the 1975 fiscal crisis, rising unemployment, and deinstitutionalization of mental health patients, the right to shelter was won by housing activists who sued the city for its failure to provide for the basic needs of homeless men. The New York Supreme Court found the city was violating Article XVII of the New York State Constitution — a decision codified into city law in 1981 — and shelter rights for women and children soon followed.

Over the years, despite various mayors’ and administrations’ attempts to chip away at the right to shelter, activist litigation has further expanded it. A landmark 2008 decision provides a legal right to shelter to families with children.

New York City is unique: No other US city has a comparable guarantee, and its right to shelter is unconditional — there are no preconditions or requirements for exercising this right.

This is the legal context for the current tragedy. What the mainstream press calls the “northern city migrant crisis” is a manufactured crisis, worsened by an ineffective asylum system and weak federal oversight. The Biden administration has lifted some of Trump’s more draconian immigration policies, but it has been unable to pass a comprehensive migrant policy as border crossings into the United States hit an all-time high and border state officials act with callous intransigence. While Biden’s announcement yesterday allowing work authorizations for Venezuelans offers relief in terms of many migrants’ legal processing times and potentially reduces New York City’s financial obligations, it does not solve immediate short-term needs for shelter, health care, food, and clothing. Nor does it help the thousands of non-Venezuelan asylum seekers who need similar respite.

The so-called crisis began with a brazen political stunt, The governors of two southern US border states, Texas and Arizona, sought to protest President Biden’s border policies by putting asylum seekers on buses and sending them to northern, Democratic-run cities a year ago. (Some Democratic-led cities have also sent migrants to New York City, at the request of the migrants themselves.)

While Washington, Chicago, New York, Denver, and Los Angeles have all seen an influx of migrants, New York City has received the bulk of transplants. Since spring 2022, about one hundred thousand migrants seeking asylum in the United States, by crossing the southern border, have been bussed to New York City. These migrants entered a city with an already-strapped social service system, exhausted by COVID and stretched thin by vanishing federal emergency funds. Shelters in New York City are operating at capacity. With limited space in existing facilities, Mayor Adams is pleading both poverty and a lack of space, arguing that servicing migrants will cost the city $12 billion over the next three years.

His lackluster attempts to solve the problem have included busing migrants to upstate counties, a move resisted by many municipalities and discouraged by Governor Kathy Hochul, who argues that suburban and upstate counties should not be required to shelter migrants, since the right to shelter does not apply outside of New York City. (Whether Governor Hochul, a trained attorney, is correct is up for debate. The original attorney for the 1979 litigation disagrees, since the right to shelter law derives from a New York State constitutional provision.)

Mayor Austerity

Just as Eric Adams played into right-wing ideas of America’s big cities as crime-ridden hellscapes in his 2021 primary election, he is once again playing into right-wing tropes about migrants to justify his anti-worker policies while scapegoating asylum seekers.

Adams ran for mayor on a combination of swagger, local-government experience, a carefully managed but minoritarian coalition of support, and a strong emphasis on public safety during a time when “crime” trended as a politically salient issue. But Adams has succeeded neither in passing key criminal justice reforms — such as addressing the humanitarian crisis at Rikers Island prison, which teeters on the brink of federal receivership after scores of inmate deaths — nor improving public safety. And he’s proven an in effective executive of the country’s largest city.

Like many other places, New York City is struggling with a severe cost-of-living and childcare squeeze (both in terms of insufficient supply and skyrocketing prices). Yet Adams has axed funding across the board, producing sustained vacancies in city agencies, cuts to schools, and an undermining of universally accessible 3-K (a process currently “paused” to send seats to the neediest families).

Food stamps and cash assistance applications are required to be processed within thirty days, but because of budget cuts, unfilled vacancies, and high levels of applications, the office has operated with reduced capacity. In the past, 80 percent of the applications were processed in a timely manner; in recent months that number has plummeted to 40 percent for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) applications and less than 30 percent for rental assistance. Socialist state assemblywoman Phara Souffrant Forrest summed up the human toll on Twitter: “Every SNAP application that is delayed is someone not eating, many working full time on empty stomachs and not being able to make ends meet, sending their kids to bed with growling tummies, with hunger pains[.] It is shocking and cruel beyond words, even for this administration.”

And it fosters a zero-sum game that pits workers against workers. Doling out austerity with one hand and exploiting the migrant influx with the other, Adams cynically claimed in a recent statement that the “migrant crisis” will hurt low income New Yorkers. These are dangerous flames to fan, and the biggest fan belongs to the mayor.

While many New Yorkers are acting with generosity and compassion — volunteering, donating, and helping where they can — the majority of recent mobilizations have been tinged with strong “NIMBY” and nativist sentiment. Hundreds of protesters in Staten Island in late August protested a plan to house migrants in a former school, small crowds screamed “close the border” at Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez during her recent visit to the Roosevelt Hotel in Manhattan, and some residents have tried to block buses from bringing migrants to shelters.

Adams appears intent on making the problem worse. His most recent budget proposal calls for a 5 percent cut across all city agencies, and he has threatened two more 5 percent reductions (for a total of 15 percent) to fund migrant services. That would be on top of existing mandated budget reductions, including 4 percent last spring 2023. Adams says the cuts can only be avoided if the state and federal government intervene.

Meanwhile, the Fiscal Policy Institute has found these cuts to be unjustifiable, as there is sufficient money in the June 2023 budget for migrant needs, and the additional $10 billion from Adams’s budget slashes do not accurately reflect the costs.

Eric Adams’s Crisis Politics

There’s a political manta that one should “never let a good crisis go to waste.” Eric Adams seems to have taken that to heart.

His current scheme is to use a humanitarian crisis to justify a draconian austerity plan that will hurt New Yorkers for years to come, in a dangerous game of chicken demanding federal and state funds to pay for essential migrant services. He is apparently willing to stoke people’s worst instincts rather than try to foster New Yorkers’ sense of solidarity and shared humanity.

This insistence on austerity at all costs will not only harm the poor and working-class majority, as we stare down the possibilities of 15 percent budget cuts. It will also harm our sense of community, collective care, and the foundational idea that immigrants are the lifeblood of New York City. And it demonstrates that political equality without basic economic equality cannot stand.