How Mayor Adams and President Biden helped set the stage for immigration reform, however unwittingly

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By Dan Sears

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The last time Congress enacted immigration reform was 1986. Ronald Reagan was president. Ed Koch was New York mayor. “Platoon” was in the movie theaters. Space Shuttle Challenger exploded on takeoff from Cape Canaveral, Fla.

Since then, Congress and the White House have only known stalemate and inaction on comprehensive immigration reform, including the grant of asylum. But at least one leading expert on immigration issues thinks that could soon change, due in part to the arrival of hundreds of thousands of migrants in New York and other U.S. cities, as well as the acts and omissions of Mayor Eric Adams and President Joe Biden.

In an interview, Muzaffar Chishti, a senior fellow and director of the Migration Policy Institute office at New York University School of Law, said the challenge of dealing with so many newcomers at once has prompted a growing number of Democrats to change their unwavering, pro-immigrant policy views, making it increasingly possible a deal will be reached as part of a larger package including U.S. aid to Ukraine and Israel.

If anyone has a grasp of the long arc of immigration history and policy it’s Chishti, who has testified extensively on the issue before Congress, worked on the issue since the 1970s and chaired the boards of directors of the National Immigration Forum and the National Immigration Law Center .

In an interview, he discussed how this latest wave of migrants – a record 300,000 were processed at the southern border in December alone and more than 160,000 have arrived in New York City since the spring of 2022 – is fundamentally different from earlier waves; the pivotal roles Adams and Biden have played; and how Republicans have gained the upper hand in the public debate and policy.

The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Muzaffar Chishti is a senior fellow and director of the Migrant Policy Institute office at New York University School of Law.

Photo courtesy of the Migrant Policy Institute

There’s talk of a possible breakthrough on immigration reform in Washington. Does any of what you’re hearing sound promising, or is it just political noise?

Well, it’s promising only because the political need for this is real. The Republican leadership in Congress has decided to link a very contentious domestic policy issue like border security with a high stakes foreign policy issue like aid to Ukraine and Israel.

So the need to believe that there’ll be something happening on immigration just comes from that political need to reach a compromise on the aid packages. What the contours of that compromise are may decide whether it will finally happen or no.

Could any of these changes have the potential to take us out of crisis mode? And by us, I mean cities like New York and Chicago or border states who are struggling to keep up with the influx of people.

That depends on how you define the crisis. And, you know, I have for some time been saying that one of the difficulties about our present moment on immigration is that different political leaders have defined the problem differently. For the Biden administration, it has fundamentally been defined as a crisis of optics, a specter of disorder at the border.

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So bringing order to the border seems like a solution to the way the administration has approached it. To the cities’ mayors and governors, the issue has been costs associated with shelter. In their view, if we could just, you know, get people out of the shelter, we would solve the problem. The problem is that no one is looking at the whole problem.

A group of migrants in a caravan heading to the U.S. border on the side of the highway in San Pedro Tapanatepec of Oaxaca, Mexico.

Jose Torres/Anadolu via Getty Images

The problem is that millions of people from all parts of the world, not just Mexico and Central America, are coming to the U.S. southern border for the easiest entry into the United States and they’re using the asylum system as a way to do that. So unless you address the dysfunction of our asylum system, I don’t think we will solve the problem either for the border states or the results and problems it creates for the cities and states.

You can say this is an age old problem, or is one that seems to have this very kind of new manifestation. Did something kind of click that prompted this global wave, as you described it, to start arriving here?

Yeah, I think it’s irresponsible for many of our elected leaders to say that this is just another day in U.S. immigration history, that this is one more day in New York City’s association with migrants. No, we are clearly in a different chapter. The numbers are of a totally different scale.

There are both push factors and pull factors that are responsible for this. The push factors are the usual: war, instability, poverty. I think there are some new dimensions to those perspectives.

One is that the economic downturn from the post-COVID era is not fully appreciated. COVID was not just a health crisis. It was a huge economic event for a lot of smaller countries, especially for countries that have depended on tourism. So they took a big economic hit and people had to leave just looking for economic opportunities.

The second is Venezuela. Venezuela contributes hugely to this new flow. And Venezuela had a major political event after the fall of Hugo Chavez and even before that several million Venezuelans left Venezuela. And many of them went to Central and South American countries initially – 16 of them and we should all applaud them for having taken people in.

Mayor Eric Adams helps distribute donated food and clothing to families of asylum seekers in the city at public school last year.

Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

But after the COVID economic downturn, many of those countries became difficult for people to make a living in. And so you’re seeing a second tier of migration from those countries to the U.S. So those are really compelling push factors.

But on the other hand, the pull factors are also real. You could say Biden’s election was a pull factor. For people who thought of the U.S. as a difficult place to get to during the Trump era, suddenly thought, “maybe this is going to be an open administration.” So they decided to come to the border. The fact that we are not detaining families at all at the border became a pull factor.

And lastly, the fact that if you apply for asylum, you won’t get a hearing for seven years, during which time you can work legally and the chances of being removed, even if you lose your case are very slim, that adds to the pull factor.

Mayor Adams has been taking a lot of heat for his handling of the migrant issue. What has he gotten wrong?

First, he got wrong that migrants were being sent to New York against their will. The first response in New York was that Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is hijacking these people, kidnapping them, really sending them against their will to New York. That just proved to be wrong. People thought coming to New York was a good thing. And they actually got someone else to pay for their bus tickets. So instead of being a punitive activity, it proved to be a welcoming thing. And I think he misread that. The second thing, he thought New York’s response to this was to be anti-Abbott.

Adams said, “We are the city of the Statue of Liberty and welcoming.” And he himself went to Port Authority to receive them. That welcome mat did not last more than three or four days. So his tune changed and that made him suddenly look inconsistent, that the same mayor who was showing red carpet suddenly was saying “you’re not welcome” and that transformation happened when he realized the costs of housing people here.

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And here maybe he didn’t fully appreciate the importance of the universal right to shelter in New York in which New York City is unique. I’m going out on a limb here: I think it’s the only place in the world which has this kind of universal right to shelter. The State of Massachusetts comes close, where it has for families, but nothing like New York.

Elected leaders and immigrant advocates gather in Foley Square to call on New York City Mayor Eric Adams to stop 60-day shelter limits for asylum seeking families who face eviction from shelters.

Selcuk Acar/Anadolu via Getty Images

So that became a huge pull factor. Especially for migrant arrivals who had no in-built connection to networks in the U.S., who didn’t have a family, who didn’t have someone from their old village. So just being able to house them was a major driving force. He got that wrong. And then I think where he lost the political narrative was when he started making it look like this was the end of New York City, that this was such a catastrophe that New York could not handle it.

I think the discordant notes about how to deal with this crisis created a bit of a narrative problem for him. And lastly, I think he was just very indelicate with costs. First he said it would cost a billion dollars, then $3 billion and suddenly $12 billion. So the people started doubting the veracity of the figures.

What do you think the city has done well in terms of handling migrants?

It has created at least one reception center, in the Roosevelt Hotel and people know where they’re going. We don’t have tent cities. We don’t have the specter of Chicago, where we have forced people to live in parks or airport hangers. People have been – difficult as it is – accommodated and so I think that we can probably owe to the guarantee of the universal right to shelter. Where I think he is now beginning to get it right is, he’s saying, “Look, we have the responsibility of welcoming everyone when they have no place to go, but it can’t last forever.”

Migrants and their families check into a processing center at the Roosevelt Hotel in Midtown Manhattan on Jan. 9.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

There has to be a time limit associated with that. And I think the agreement that’s been reached with housing advocates, that we can house people for 60 days, seems like it’s going in the right direction. People have time to look for alternatives.

Do you think it’s possible to avoid street homelessness if migrants have less access to shelters?

My sense is that migrants will finally behave like migrants always have. This is the secret sauce of migration. This is why migration has always been seen as a positive story, that even when you are a recently arrived, you are a person with less than ideal means, that you find your way into the society by sharing the living room with a relative or a friend or someone from your village, and you get employed very quickly, even though that employment may not be lawful. But New York has a robust enough economy and a diverse enough economy that most people finally find a way to employment, and once they find a way to employment, things change.

Broadly speaking, what is the political impact of the current movement of migrants into various U.S. cities like New York? Is it making Americans even more deadlocked on immigration, or do you think it’s forcing the issue?

I think what we will probably see at the end of the day in this present chapter – let’s call it the “busing chapter” in American immigration history – is that we will see this as an inflection point in American history on immigration.

At least the political impact of this is that until the busing chapter, the general assumption was that Republicans are growing more and more skeptical about immigration and Democrats are uniformly not only pro-immigrant, but intensely pro-immigrant, like it would be to your disadvantage politically if you’re showing any skepticism about immigration.

Migrants arrive in New York City, courtesy of a chartered bus dispatched by Gov. Greg Abbott, Republican of Texas.

Arya Sundaram / Gothamist

That was, I think, the beginning of how Mayor Adams in New York behaved, many New York City politicians today behaved. I think during this chapter, you began to see the change in the politics of the Democratic Party. That now, leaders in the Democratic Party are openly challenging the unquestioned pro-immigration policy that anyone can come or we can be the land of opportunity at all levels.

Within political circles, it’s not unusual to hear people argue, ‘You know, Mayor Adams would have gotten more help from the White House if he just played nice instead of criticizing them in public.’ How much more could President Biden be doing to help New York handle tens of thousands of migrants?

Well, the president’s ability is reasonably circumscribed in the absence of Congress helping. Most important thing there is money. It may be a non-traditional thing to say, but money does solve a lot of problems. So the fact that New York City had to spend – whichever the number you want to use, $1 billion or $3 billion – that’s a lot of money without planning.

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The fact that they could not get reimbursed by the federal government became a huge factor, but the president had limited ability to compensate New York City. He obviously has spent a significant amount of money to New York City and other places through FEMA, there is appropriated money for these kind of relocation costs under FEMA, but that’s no match to the billions that the states and cities need to meet the expenses.

I think President Biden lost the opportunity to make a change, in my opinion, twice. One is, I think, the reluctance to acknowledge that we have a crisis. I think the president decided that using the word crisis was walking into the Republican narrative on the immigration problem. “And Democrats should not do it” was the theme. And that’s why many Democrats have been reluctant to use the word crisis.

The scene earlier in July under the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway where migrants established a tent encampment in Brooklyn.

Arun Venugopal / Gothamist

We can all disagree on what the nature of the crisis is, or even what the reasons for the crisis are. But we have to agree there’s a crisis. We had difficulty doing that. So we let the Republicans define the crisis, which was a political opportunity missed.

The second was that it’s the federal government that finally decides who is let into the border. It’s the border patrol, it is the ICE, which screens people. If we then let people in, then given the new nature of this crisis, federal government should have decided where people go. That’s definitely not New York or Los Angeles, these high-housing cost market areas of the country.

What else can you tell me about technology and its impact on this migration wave? We’ve met migrant bloggers with hundreds of thousands of YouTube followers.

So technology’s a totally new dimension to this problem. Actually, there are two. One is technology and one is corruption. And the two kind of feed off each other. One aspect of technology, this actually I learned from a border visit, border chiefs were telling me that when they see migrant arrivals of today, even compared to two or three years (ago), they come with cell phones which are three or four generations younger than yours and mine. People are heavily invested in the upkeep of technology.

They are connected through social media, and social media basically acts like your guide. It just tells you how to get from a country in Africa. How to get your visa in which country to what country and from there, how to get from that country to the south of Mexico, how to get from south of Mexico to the north of Mexico, which routes to take to cross and at what times of the day. Like real time information: that this is where border patrol is the least staffed. Those pieces of information have become very vital for the decisions of people.

People are surprised why the government couldn’t just send the message, “Look, if you come to New York, you’re not going to be guaranteed housing now.” If government starts spreading that message, it is no match to the messaging that is done by private actors in social media.

I’m curious, do you encounter migrants on a day to day basis, say, on the subway, selling candy, or on the street?

I think most of us who live in New York City have seen a different kind of activity on the subway. And you notice mostly when mothers are carrying their kids, you see more family units now. I think one, just occasionally talking to people, is that the men in the family are looking for or have gotten jobs in construction or other sort of low wage occupation and the mothers and the kids are looking to make extra money and they’re doing it by going into the subway or in subway stations selling small things like candy and cake and all that kind of stuff. Yeah, there’s a sudden rise in that kind of informal activity in New York City.

It’s been nearly 40 years since there was meaningful immigration reform. That was during the Reagan era. What was the lasting impact of those reforms?

The interesting thing about the Reagan reform is that it’s the only time in our history when we have legalized unauthorized people. We legalized 3 million people. It was a legislation that President Reagan campaigned for heavily, but both the Republicans and Democrats in Congress supported. So it was a real bipartisan effort. Now that era has disappeared. But the lasting impact of the ’86 law is that it obviously changed the lives of the 3 million people from feeling in the shadows to coming out, breathing freely. And impacted their families. Most importantly, it then allowed them to sponsor other people, to come to the United States through family channels, and you could say that the sense of the rise of the Latino power in our country can be traced to the people we legalized in 1986, and that changed in many ways the politics of our country and certainly of New York City. The number of people I meet who are in many ways proud beneficiaries of what happened in 1986 cannot be underestimated.

We are now in 2024. It’s an election year. Do you think there’s any chance we’re going to see any change on this issue by November?

I think to do anything on a contentious issue like immigration in a presidential election year is almost by definition a non-starter. But I think what makes it possible to even believe that something could happen is twofold. One is that by time the border security measures are being debated in Congress with a very important imperative of foreign policy, which is aid to Ukraine and Israel, you just have increased the political stakes, and that may make it sort of imperative for both the president and leaders in Congress to come to a compromise, and it’s hard to see how there could be a compromise unless there is a border deal.

Muzaffar Chishti, senior fellow and director of the Migration Policy Institute office at New York University School of Law.

Courtesy of the Migration Policy Institute

The second is that given the election and given that this is going to be a rematch of an election potentially between Trump and Biden, and given the fact that immigration was the signature calling card of Trump in the last election, it’s going to be his calling card again. So immigration is going to be critical to how the election messaging plays out so it is actually in President Biden’s interest in an election year to be seen that he was tough on immigration, because to go to the polls with the kind of perceived record on immigration that the president has of record number of not only arrivals but admissions into the country, that is a very difficult message to send.

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