WASHINGTON — On Sunday, buses arrived at the Watson Hotel on the West Side of Manhattan to transport migrants who had been housed there to a shelter that Eric Adams, the mayor of New York, was opening on the Brooklyn waterfront.
But some of the migrants refused to go, leading to a face-off with the New York Police Department that lasted into Monday. Immigrants’ rights groups criticized Adams, arguing that the dislocation was inhumane. City Hall fumed and New Yorkers wondered, not for the first time, just how such a standoff would finally be resolved.
“I'm extremely frustrated,” Adams told Yahoo News late last month, speaking of the thousands of migrants who have been bused to New York without, he says, any plan or coordination. He had recently returned from El Paso, Texas, where some 900 migrants enter the United States daily. In December, the city’s mayor declared a state of emergency. There was simply nowhere to house the migrants, he argued.
Yet the migrants kept coming, driven to make a perilous journey because of economic hardships, gang violence and repressive regimes.
Now, the problems of El Paso have become Manhattan’s problems, too. Republican border governors have recently started exporting the issue, putting migrants on buses to cities like New York, Washington, D.C., and Chicago. The cities were already an attractive destination for many migrants, who have little interest in staying in El Paso and other border cities; the buses served to press the point in a way that would attract attention.
That much has been accomplished, although — according to critics like Adams — little else has. Now, he and other mayors are turning to the Biden administration for help. “We’ve communicated with the White House,” Adams told Yahoo News. “We need more.”
So far, however, the White House has not responded to the request from New York, or other cities, with much enthusiasm. It has pointed to its new “parole” program, which allows migrants from Cuba, Venezuela, Haiti and Nicaragua to apply for legal entry into the United States, provided they seek that entry from home, via smartphone app, without traveling to the border.
There have been fewer migrants from those four nations apprehended at the border since the program was implemented, the Biden administration says. But those figures, however encouraging, say nothing about the thousands of migrants from Mexico, Honduras, Colombia, Brazil, Peru and, more recently, Ukraine.
And because migration waxes and wanes with the seasons, Adams and other mayors believe that the Biden administration should be using the winter months to do more preparation for the spring surge that is expected.
“The White House must have a real decompression strategy,” Adams says. Among his top requests is for the White House to appoint a single coordinator to handle migrants’ travel, instead of leaving that work to Republican governors whose primary concerns may be political, not humanitarian.
The Biden administration balked at Adams’s suggestion that it was not doing enough. “Look, we're going to continue to do the work,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told Yahoo News at a press briefing last week, when asked about the mayor’s request. She argued that the administration’s new parole program, alongside “board enforcement measures, have dramatically reduced the number of people attempting to enter the country unlawfully.”
Jean-Pierre also denounced the “stunts” she attributed to Republicans who were making the migrant crisis worse.
Since last spring, Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas and then-Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey began sending busloads of migrants who had entered their states without authorization across the border with Mexico to cities like New York and Washington, D.C., which had touted their “sanctuary” status during the Trump administration. Now, the Republicans reasoned, they could prove their progressive bona fides while also lessening the pressure on border communities in the Southwest.
“It pales in comparison to the stress on local resources,’’ a Ducey aide explained to the Arizona Sun. “Our communities are strapped.”
Since then, thousands of migrants have been bused to northern cities. In Washington, D.C., they have often been dropped off in front of the vice presidential residence on Massachusetts Avenue, a serene quasi-suburban stretch with no resources for new arrivals — and little public transportation.
The district’s mayor, Muriel Bowser, requested assistance from the National Guard to help deal with the estimated 8,000 migrants who had arrived in Washington. The request reportedly annoyed the White House — and was pointedly rejected by the Department of Defense.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who, like Abbott, is a potential Republican presidential candidate, also joined the fray. Florida is not a border state, but DeSantis earned national attention in September by using state funds to lure migrants onto flights from Texas to Martha's Vineyard, the tony Massachusetts island, which also has little capacity to house them.
In Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot set up nearly a dozen shelters for the 5,000 migrants who arrived from Texas. But the strain on city resources has been evident, and patience with the unending crisis appears to be running thin. Channeling her constituents’ frustration, Lightfoot has lashed out at Abbott — but also at the White House, which, after all, was much more likely to hear a fellow Democrat’s pleas than the Republican governor of a distant state.
“The federal government has to step up,“ Lightfoot said at a press conference late last year. “I know that they are under enormous pressures,” she added a few moments later. “This is not a new challenge at the border — but this is a new challenge for us. And we need federal support. Resources, communication, collaboration. And that has to come in short order.”
Last month, Lightfoot was forced to delay a plan to turn an unused school building into a shelter for migrants after protests from local residents.
New York has been by far the biggest recipient of migrants, and a total of 36,000 have arrived since the spring of 2022. Two thirds of them have stayed, straining the services of an already strained City Hall. Adams, who had been hoping to introduce a new post-pandemic normal across the five boroughs, was suddenly dealing with an entirely new problem.
Last fall, he opened a shelter for migrants on Randalls Island, the site of a number of sports fields, but closed it within a matter of weeks. Migrants kept coming, and Adams resolved — at a cost of $275 million — to house them in Midtown Manhattan hotels that had been struggling to recover from the coronavirus pandemic, which greatly reduced the number of tourists visiting New York City.
Then, last month, his administration began to work on creating a new shelter at the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal. It was in the process of moving migrants there that tensions at the Watson Hotel developed Sunday evening.
The crisis isn’t going away, Adams and other mayors recognize. If anything, it seems only to be deepening with time. Adams and other Democratic mayors were infuriated when, last year, Colorado’s governor — Jared Polis, a Democrat — also began to transport migrants to cities like New York, after officials in Denver protested that they were incapable of handling the influx.
“I have a Republican governor dumping on my city,” Adams told Yahoo News. “I have a Democratic governor dumping on my city. That is where the national government should have stepped in and said, ‘Wait a minute, let's coordinate this effort.’”
Polis has ended his busing program, but the broader crisis persists.
In a free-for-all where governors make many of the decisions about migrants, mayors like Adams believe that their cities will lose.
A senior aide to Adams acknowledged that the Biden administration “has made substantial strides reducing the flow of migrants across the border.” But, he added, “the migrants that were already in the United States are making their way to New York City in huge numbers.”
Most people agree that comprehensive immigration reform is the only lasting solution to the crisis. Most also agree that comprehensive immigration reform is an impossibility anytime soon, with the Republicans in charge of the House of Representatives and the presidential election looming.
“The fact is that this current situation is the fault of Republicans in Congress who have demagogued and stonewalled this issue for decades, but the federal and state governments can’t just point fingers at them,” the Adams senior aide told Yahoo News, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Adams has continued to press his case, even if it might cause friction with a president with whom he has previously had a warm relationship. “We need more help from the national government,” he said during a CNN appearance on Monday.
“I'm speaking directly to the administration,” he added.
It is not clear just how much the administration was listening.