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NY Can Meet Our Migrant Moment. You Wouldn’t Know it From the Political Narrative

New York should have a big heart, big ideas, and wide arms.

Mayor Adams standing behind a podium in front of an American flag
Michael Appleton / Mayoral Photography Office
By: Donna Lieberman Executive Director

When New York City Mayor Eric Adams proclaimed that arriving migrants would “destroy” the city, my heart sank. Here was yet another example of the damaging, misguided, and inaccurate political rhetoric that can do so much harm.

Adams’ remarks drew some criticism, but they also garnered praise in disparate parts of the political landscape, from the neo-Nazi site the Daily Stormer, to former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. These developments underscore just how important it is to straighten out the narrative here, and to explain why newly arriving migrants represent a golden opportunity for New York.

Our state has a proud legacy of offering refuge to newcomers hoping to make life better for themselves and their families. That hope is something we all share, and the promise of refuge has made New York what it is. It’s the spirit of the Emma Lazarus poem etched into Lady Liberty’s pedestal.

New York is also known for being a place where big things get done.

That is why it’s especially galling when our leaders point fingers, pass the buck, play politics, or engage in fearmongering about the many migrants arriving in New York over the last year, mostly in New York City.

They’re acting small in a state that should have a big heart, big ideas, and wide arms.

In New York City, Mayor Adams has used arriving migrants as a pretext to massively cut essential services and try to reverse decades-long shelter protections for people in need. He’s also reduced the time migrants can stay in shelters, which is certain to increase the number of asylum seekers sleeping in tent camps on the street.

Yes, it’s a big challenge to coordinate care, but the city hasn’t done what it can to ensure space, adequate conditions, or connections to supportive services for migrants. Upstate counties have behaved even worse, adopting the same demonizing rhetoric as our Mayor and passing discriminatory measures in an effort to ban new migrants – which resulted in a successful lawsuit by the NYCLU.

All the while, the right has predictably demonized migrants who have shown incredible courage, giving up everything and traveling so far to protect themselves and their families from danger.

We need to demand our policymakers at every level act to make New York state stronger and ensure migrants can thrive.

The truth is our state has the tenacity, heart, and resources to support migrants. In New York City alone, there are dozens of government agencies, non-profit organizations with deep expertise, and many of nation’s best legal and social service providers.

Yet the Mayor of the wealthiest city in the world is pleading poverty. And Gov. Hochul and President Biden have not done nearly enough to help.

And let us not forget that right-wing members of Congress have successfully sabotaged every effort at even the most minimal immigration reform – including for the Dreamers – that would create a common sense path to citizenship for those who want nothing more than to be safe, work hard, and provide for their families.

As the far-right stranglehold on Congress continues to prevent needed reform, let us remember, that we in New York have the resources, talent, expertise, and community to welcome people fleeing violence, extreme poverty, disasters, and persecution. But we need our leaders all pulling together.

Efforts to manage the arrival of migrants shouldn’t be seen as charity work or a burden to bear. Immigrants contribute in so many ways – to our communities, our culture, and certainly our economy. In fact, immigrant workers in New York’s rural and suburban areas have invigorated local economies affected by population decline and economic hardship, and those working in the cities have boosted the wider state economy. The work they do is essential.

For example, two-thirds of New York’s home health care workers and aides for the elderly are immigrants. Among the 10 most likely first jobs for asylum seekers are home health aide, nursing assistant, child care worker, and construction worker. These are some of the most critical – and hard to fill – jobs in the city and state, and newly arriving migrants are eager to fill them. They will make our economy and our communities stronger.

Anyone who claims otherwise either doesn’t know the facts or has an agenda – or both. Pitting us against each other keeps New Yorkers from coming together to demand solutions to our longstanding problems.

We need to demand our policymakers at every level act to make New York state stronger and ensure migrants can thrive. Though we’ve all been waiting too long for a divided Washington to deliver on a humane immigration system, that doesn’t let our leaders off the hook.

Mayor Adams needs to stop with his us-versus-them posturing and his attacks on the right to shelter. City agencies need a robust plan to deliver truly secure housing and supportive services that migrants have a right to, and the Mayor should marshal the enormous talent and expertise our city can offer, including ensuring we meet the needs of migrant students.

Governor Hochul should make further state funds and resources available and should bar counties and local governments from trying to enact discriminatory, exclusionary policies that prevent migrants from moving freely around the state.

The Biden administration’s recent decision to grant Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to migrants from Venezuela is a start. It should allow hundreds of thousands of people already living here to work legally and move out of the shelter system.  But the Biden administration must also do everything in its power to expedite work authorization for newly arrived migrants.

Migrants want to work to provide for themselves and their families, and New York needs them. But the federal government makes it far too complicated and costly and takes far too long to grant permits. The administration should provide access to federal resources and funds and should do far more to inform migrants regarding their work, housing, and school options.

To its credit, the administration recently announced it would engage in outreach efforts to urge eligible migrants to apply for work authorization. Right now, far too few migrants who are eligible to apply have been able to do so.

It’s time to stop pointing fingers and start working together. Many of New York’s elected leaders need to remember their own immigrant parents and grandparents – and mine, and quite likely, yours too. They need to show up and ensure migrants can thrive in a New York that should be a beacon for the world.

As bold as the spirit of New York, we are the NYCLU.
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Civil Liberties Union