Why New Migrants are Good for NYC With Comptroller Brad Lander

Nearly every day there is a news story or a quote from a New York politician about how this recent arrival of migrants is a drain on New York’s finances. But a recent report from New York City Comptroller Brad Lander complicates that narrative.

About 180,000 migrants have come to New York City since April of 2022, and about 65,000 are currently in the city’s care. Nearly every day there is a news story or a quote from a New York politician about how this recent arrival of migrants is a drain on New York’s finances. But a recent report from New York City Comptroller Brad Lander complicates that narrative. He joins us to explain why migrants are an economic boon to our city, and what he thinks we should do to get them the resources they need to thrive.

This is a companion episode to one we did last season about recent migrants to New York and on U.S. foreign policy with NYCLU executive Director Donna Lieberman and Daniel Denvir, who hosts the Dig podcast.


Simon: Welcome to Rights This Way, a podcast from the New York Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of New York State. I’m Simon McCormick, senior staff writer at the NYCLU, And your host for this podcast, which is focused on the civil rights and liberties issues that impact New Yorkers most.

[00:00:40] About 180, 000 migrants have come to New York city since April of 2022. And about 65, 000 are currently in the city’s care. Nearly every day there is a news story or a quote from a New York politician about how this recent arrival of migrants is a drain on New York’s finances. But a recent report from New York City Comptroller Brad Lander complicates that narrative.

[00:01:04] He joins us today to explain why migrants are an economic boon to our city and what he thinks we should do to give them the resources they need to thrive. This is a companion episode to one we did last season about recent migrants to New York and on U. S. foreign policy with NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman and Daniel Denver, who hosts the Dig podcast.

[00:01:27] We will link to that previous episode in the show notes. Before we get started, just a quick note. that outside guests on this show do not represent the NYCLU and their views are their own. And now I’m joined by New York City Comptroller Brad Lander. Thank you for joining us on Rights This Way.

[00:01:46] Brad Lander: So great to be here. Thanks for inviting me.

[00:01:48] Simon: Of course. So the reason we have you on is you put out a report in January titled Facts Not Fear, How Welcoming Immigrants Benefits New York City. Can you just first just give us a general overview of Why you put out the report in and what you found.

[00:02:05] Brad Lander: So New York City is the greatest immigrant city the world has ever seen.

[00:02:10] You know, it’s worth remembering. Founded by Dutch refugees fleeing religious persecution. Who built this city where Irish and Italian immigrants fleeing poverty built a city to which Jews like my family and Dominicans and Chinese folks and Bangladeshis and on and on have come, made their home here, made the city’s economy flourish, made New York what people think about, you know, when you go for dim sum or every single thing you’d go for pizza. Don’t forget that’s an immigrant food too. You know, our food, our business, our neighborhoods, our economic creativity, like we have thrived as this extraordinary immigrant place across generations. Now, unfortunately, it’s also true that a lot of times once people get settled here, they look over their shoulder with suspicion and try to close the door behind them.

[00:02:59] And it’s necessary to remind people. That the city thrives and flourishes as a result of welcoming immigrants. And that all that’s happening right now, here we are welcoming the next generation of New Yorkers at first and largely from Central America, Venezuela and elsewhere, but also now increasingly from all around the world.

[00:03:19] A lot of folks from Africa, a lot of folks from China. And on the one hand, same thing is happening. City lost a lot of people during the pandemic and, but for international immigration, I’d be worried about the growth and health of our economy. But still something in people’s anxieties and fears causes people to react from fear rather than from facts or from values or from welcome or from remembering that the Statue of Liberty is our patron saint.

[00:03:48] And so that’s what we saw happening as a result of the growth in a number of asylum seekers. A lot of people, unfortunately, Mayor Adams in many ways first and foremost, but lots of others reacted from fear. Said this is a problem or a crisis, and we thought it was really important to say, look, we’re the controller’s office.

[00:04:08] We look at the facts. We look at the data. We look at the economy. We look at, questions of jobs and wages and economics. And from all those points of view, This is an opportunity to build a future thriving New York. Let’s look at the facts and not be shaped by our fears in how we develop thoughtful public policy to welcome this next generation of New Yorkers.

[00:04:32] Simon: Right, and getting into some of those facts that you lay out, the report says that in 2021, Immigrant New Yorkers paid 61 billion in taxes and constituted 138 billion in spending power. I think so much of the media narrative, as you’re no doubt aware, around recent migrants is that they are a drain on tax dollars, right?

[00:04:54] The fear that you mentioned is coupled with a sense that this public spending to help them requires the city to cut funding in other areas. So it’s seen as kind of like a zero sum. Can you talk about how your report challenges that narrative?

[00:05:09] Brad Lander: Yeah. I mean, first, let me say the why I do understand it.

[00:05:13] I think it’s important to recognize that a lot of New Yorkers are struggling. You can’t afford housing. It’s not easy to find a job that pays the rent and then maybe you thought you were going to get your kid in a three K class, but then the three K class went away and now you’re gonna have to pay for very expensive childcare and you already are in a small apartment, and you can’t afford a bigger one.

[00:05:33] And yeah, and then you hear that the library where you take your kids on Saturday for a great reading program is going to close on Saturday. And the mayor says, that’s because we have to spend money on shelter for asylum seekers. And, you know, I think it’s natural for people to say, OK, can’t the city take care of my needs first?

[00:05:51] I need affordable housing. I need. A childcare program, and all those things are real. And we do need a city that does better on a lot of those issues, especially affordability issues. and there’s a lot of policies I wish we had put in place already to help people with all of those things, because if it were easier to get affordable housing, to get good childcare, to be confident about your, you know, people’s place in the city.

[00:06:16] Then of course it’s easier to welcome that when it’s not. So those issues are real. One thing that’s different about this moment in time than many past waves of immigration is the city is providing shelter for people. And that does cost significant money in the past. A lot of people who might’ve been undocumented would be.

[00:06:36] In a basement or doubled or tripled up or in some dangerous conditions. And now as for a range of reasons, people present themselves and say, I hear we’ve got a right to shelter in New York city and avail themselves of that. And we should be proud that this is a city that has a right to shelter and doesn’t want people sleeping on the street or in dangerously crowded basements.

[00:06:57] That costs some money and it would be better if the federal government and the state were giving us more of that money that said the investment in welcome. Actually benefits all New Yorkers. First let’s remember immigrants are 36 percent of New York city now. So there’s not such a sharp line between the set of folks who are coming this month and the set of folks who came.

[00:07:18] five years ago on the set of folks who came 25 years ago, but just from an economic point of view, what our dive in facts, not for your shows is it’s just not the case that immigrants are more likely to take a job away from a native-born New Yorker or American. There’s actually a virtuous cycle where more jobs are created.

[00:07:38] First, we’ve got a lot of jobs that need doing in childcare, in home care, in construction, in restaurants, and. And there’s a lot you know, we’ve got the highest labor force participation rates in the city’s history. It’s still relatively low unemployment rates. So there’s not a significant risk of this new set of arrivals crowding out or displacing New Yorkers looking for work.

[00:07:58] And then a growing city just creates more economics, right? There’s, you need more restaurants and more daycare centers and more florists, if you have more people. And we lost 400, 000 people during the pandemic and new census data shows today. That, the city has been, you know, it’s just a long tradition.

[00:08:16] People move here. They get settled here. Then they might go move to the suburbs or someplace where they could have a yard. And without this set of new arrivals, our economy would likely be shrinking with them. Thankfully, we didn’t hit the recession after the pandemic that people think we’re going to hit and New York city’s tax revenues are growing.

[00:08:35] This is an important point. Our revenues have been growing by more than we are spending on shelter for asylum seekers. That doesn’t solve all the problems because other expenses are growing as well. And we’re losing federal pandemic aid. but that’s a significant fact. And if we can keep the economy growing, we can think about how to make the investments that benefit everyone.

[00:08:57] If your economy is shrinking, nobody does better.

[00:09:01] Simon: I wanted to kind of drill down a little bit on the jobs piece that you mentioned. So your report notes, and you just noted, that immigrant workers do not take jobs away from native born workers and that the impacts of immigrant workers on wages are minimal.

[00:09:16] Can you go into a bit more detail about Why that is and how we know that?

[00:09:23] Brad Lander: So the job growth data is actually pretty clear and it’s largely for the reasons that I just said if you have a place whose Population is shrinking then its economy is shrinking. That’s just like the fundamental driver. You want to have jobs if you can that are bringing value in it’s true that if you have someone that’s involved in It could be a range of things.

[00:09:46] It could be like a manufacturing job, or it could be a finance job. But jobs that are essentially like something that’s taking place here, brings more resources in globally, that’s good because then you’re bringing resources into the city. And of course, it’s wonderful. Like you must have Teachers and the hospital workers and doctors and barbers, but they’re mostly taking care of other New Yorkers, so that’s how it works.

[00:10:08] Some New York, you know, there’s value produced that brings resources into the city and then lots of people spread it around by, certain goods and services and taking care of each other. But when you lose population, all that stuff tends to decline and you have less tax revenue and fewer people in your restaurants or fewer people go into your barbershops and on and on.

[00:10:27] And then you wind up having shrinking jobs. And so growth, it’s not everything and it brings challenges, of course, but stable growth means a little more of that. Someone’s going to think, okay, I could start a restaurant or I could open a new barbershop, or I’m going to start a new business and hire some more people.

[00:10:46] And, that keeps that virtuous cycle going. So that’s why, immigration is aligned with growth and why it’s better for folks who are already here. It creates more jobs. Than the people who are coming tape because they have all kinds of other needs because they need doctors and nurses and teachers and barbers and florists.

[00:11:05] And so you get more of all of those things. Now on the wage side, the data is more mixed because especially for lower wage jobs. If you have folks coming who are more likely to, you know, say I’ve got some experience doing construction in my country, and I’m gonna be a day labor and stand out on a street corner and, take a construction job, you can get in particular sectors as supply and demand challenge. And then maybe the bosses, if there aren’t good unions, if there aren’t good labor standards, we’ll reduce wages. Here, the data’s mixed though, because again, a growing economy is the best thing you can have and a growing economy tends to increase workers abilities to demand higher wages, many other things just matter a lot more here.

[00:11:52] Like for daycare workers. The best thing was when the city agreed to have pay parity and increase the salaries of daycare workers or raise the minimum wage for all workers or make sure construction workers have the workplace protections that they need so that they’re not being cheated. And all of those things have a lot more impact than the increment of immigration seems to cause.

[00:12:18] Simon: And speaking of child care workers, I wanted to talk a bit about some of the specific types of jobs that immigrants are especially likely to work in. So things like home health care, child care. Can you talk about that and, the other critical fields where immigrants work?

[00:12:35] Brad Lander: Absolutely. So yeah, you’ve named a couple, you know, child care and home care are both significantly growing fields where there’s worker shortages.

[00:12:44] And you know, one thing I also say is who would you want to take care of your kid or your aging parent more than like someone that loved their own kids enough to walk across a continent so their kids would have a better future? Other sectors include construction, as I mentioned, a lot of folks who have, you know, done, you know, done construction work in their own countries.

[00:13:05] There are a lot of different kinds of jobs in service and retail sector right now, restaurants especially. I think the state just reported there’s I forget what the number is, at least 10, 000, vacant jobs available in the restaurant sector in New York. So a lot of jobs like that, you know, I think it’s worth remembering, though, there are people coming with meaningful skills who in their country, had a credential as an electrician or as a health care worker or as an accountant.

[00:13:33] So those service sector jobs are really important for our economy, but there’s also a lot of other things that people are eager and able to do. And a strong tradition, I should say, of entrepreneurship as well. Immigrants have a higher rate of starting up new businesses, which is really good for the economy.

[00:13:51] Boy, you can see that if you go to some of the Queens neighborhoods, you know, I, this, I guess what I would say like, you know, if you’re not so sure about what it looks like to have a lot more Central and South American neighbors, go to Jackson Heights, go to Corona, go to Elmhurst. I think you’ll see, it looks pretty great.

[00:14:07] Simon: Yeah, and we’ve touched on a lot of the positive impacts of immigration and what immigrants have brought and continue to bring to New York City. I’m just curious, given that, you know, it brings us back to the common narrative and just the sense that we are struggling so much to handle the migrants who are coming here now.

[00:14:25] Why is that? And, and I guess a follow up to that is, what could we be doing to handle it better?

[00:14:32] Brad Lander: Yeah, and this is a place where better management is needed than New York City has mostly been able to deliver. That’s for real. Some of that is that this was new, you know, it started in July of 2022.

[00:14:45] So, you know, coming up on, two years ago, it was unexpected and a number of things shifted. Changes got made in immigration and border policy that have led to the fact that most people are presenting themselves to customs agents at the border that like didn’t used to be true, used to be true that more people tried to get in without presenting themselves and therefore were fully undocumented and wouldn’t have come to the New York City shelter system because they were trying to stay away from government.

[00:15:14] So that shifted and we didn’t really kind of get ready for understand it. And then of course, when, Abbott, you know, put so many people on, buses, that combination. Then led to the fact that the city had this really unprecedented surge in people seeking shelter and had to basically double the size of our shelter system as people started arriving and.

[00:15:35] That was and remains a meaningful logistical challenge. it both costs real money, we’re spending, you know, over 3 billion a year now, mostly on shelter and the related costs of food and security and transportation, but mostly related to sheltering. And just scrambling to find the places, whether those are hotels or you know, warehouses or tents, getting all of that stood up is a big logistical challenge.

[00:16:01] And I don’t think the city did it all that well. It created five different agencies working on it, rushed out a bunch of emergency contracts on which we wound up spending way too much money because we weren’t getting price competition or a good coordination. But it also focused us kind of narrowly on shelter rather than asking the questions, what are the things that we could do to help people get.

[00:16:23] Work authorization, get on their feet, get jobs and be stable. And again, it was a reasonable to say that should be the job of the federal government and it really should be the job of the federal government, but the federal government is not doing it. And we could have said earlier on, okay, unfortunately, that’s just not going to change.

[00:16:40] Like Congress is stuck. There’s not going to be a lot of federal money. There’s not going to be, we should pressure the president. To grant temporary protective status to Venezuelans, which makes a huge difference, but other than that, we got to roll up our sleeves and say to people when they get here, and this is what I wish we would have done, we’re going to provide you with some shelter, but what we’re really going to do is focus on helping you get on your path.

[00:17:03] And so we’re going to help you file, you know, just figure out whether you have a status that’s appropriate, like TPS, or there’s a juvenile status, SIJS, or if not help you, if you want to file for asylum, which you have to do within that first year. And five months after you submit your asylum application, you’re eligible to apply for work authorization, and we’ll help you with that as well.

[00:17:23] And maybe while you’re waiting those five months, we’ll make sure you can get some English classes and maybe little workforce development. So if you want to be a construction worker, you can get your OSHA training certificate or, you know, similar. Credential, and then help you get on that pathway to all those jobs I mentioned.

[00:17:40] And then you’re going to want to move out of shelter because nobody likes living in a shelter forever. And we can’t afford either to have everybody here. So we’ll help you find a place, even in this expensive city and focus on the next set of people. And we really did not get to that until very late.

[00:17:56] Now I do want to give a little credit here because the city did. About a year after people started arriving, stand up an asylum seeker application help center and a TPS clinic that have now helped thousands of people. Unfortunately, it’s right at the same time that the city’s also imposed these really draconian 30 and 60 day shelter limits.

[00:18:17] And if you kick in somebody out of shelter after 30 or 60 days, that’s not enough time to. Go get that assistance applying. And then if we kick you out of shelter, it’s hard for us to stay in touch with you and get to help you get work authorization when you’re eligible. So a better system is possible that, you know, is both more compassionate, but also it’s just wiser and helps people on their pathways to stability.

[00:18:43] And unfortunately, we chose this other path, which has just not been that effective again and getting good contractors to do the work we’re spending a lot, you know, we just issued this report looking at staffing services for we’ve hired five different staffing companies for staffing all these different shelters.

[00:19:02] It’s not mostly city workers. It’s mostly City. And it’s not even mostly nonprofit workers where you have a nonprofit contract to operate a shelter. It’s mostly for-profit staffing companies. And we’re just spending all over the place. Some places the guards are making 50 bucks an hour. Some places the companies are charging us 150 bucks an hour.

[00:19:21] And we’re spending a lot of money on questionable contractors, not, you know, getting the services for the dollar and not focused on helping people get on their path to stability.

[00:19:34] Simon: And so my final question is just what do you hope people when they think about newly arriving migrants and the challenges and opportunities that we face related to migrants coming?

[00:19:46] What do you hope that they are thinking? What do you hope their mindset is?

[00:19:49] Brad Lander: Yeah, I guess what I’d encourage people to do is like maybe one day go through your day and bring a little notebook or make a mental note of all the immigrants that are in your life. In, you know, from your corner bodega to your kid’s childcare, to the building service worker at the, your office building, or, you know, just like, I do think once people look around and see New York City, it’s helpful to remember what the city is and that doesn’t have to be some big spiritual thing or a trip to the Statue of Liberty that really could just be, looking around as you go through your day and think about what the city would be like if all those people weren’t here.

[00:20:26] So that’s number one, like we, we need something that helps us reset a little and remember just who we are as New Yorkers. And the evidence is all around us, but you can get hard to see. And it’s, look, the pandemic I think shook everybody’s confidence in the future. And boy, right now, politics and national politics are shaking people’s confidence in the future.

[00:20:47] But what I would say about New York City. Is we came through the pandemic. It was reasonable to worry if people would ever want to ride the subway, live, work, go to a Broadway show, go to a club again, but they do. We’ve got good evidence that our city is growing and thriving. And if we make investments in its growth.

[00:21:05] We will all benefit from that, and that requires people continuing to come here as they have. And that’s what generates the economic value and the tax revenue. It keeps our libraries open and has good public schools and generates new businesses. And yes, there’s some big challenges we got to face. And again, housing is really an affordability issues are number one.

[00:21:29] So if you’re feeling like, look, I already can’t afford a place, you’re right. Let’s fight together for more investment in affordable housing that all families need. But we’ll be better able to do that in a growing city than in a shrinking one. And of course, New York has to be. that kind of inclusive place for all our fans.

[00:21:50] Simon: All right, well, with that Comptroller Brad Lander, thank you so much for coming on Rights This Way.

[00:21:56] Brad Lander: Great to talk to you, Simon. Thanks so much for inviting me.

[00:22:01] Simon: Thank you for listening. You can find out more about everything we talked about today by visiting nyclu.org. And you can follow us @NYCLU on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.

[00:22:13] If you have questions or comments about Rights This Way, you can email us at podcast@nyclu.org. Until next time, I’m Simon McCormack. Thank you for fighting for a fair New York.