Why New York Is Experiencing a Migrant Crisis

Why New York Is Experiencing a Migrant Crisis

Editorial credit: Ruben2533 / Shutterstock.com

By Will Freeman | October 5, 2023

What’s the scale of the current migrant crisis in New York City?

The city typically receives tens of thousands of new arrivals each year. But since spring 2022, numbers have been rising especially quickly. More than 118,000 migrants and asylum seekers, most of whom hail from countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, have arrived after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.

The influx of migrants is not unusual by historical standards; between 2010 and 2019, the city added nearly half a million foreign migrants [PDF] to its population. But the most recent surge has still strained city services. Today’s migrants are arriving with few resources and have had to rely on the city’s shelter system to a degree not seen in the past. As of September, nearly sixty thousand newly arrived migrants were living in the city’s shelters; about two-thirds of them families with children. Their sheer numbers have placed enormous fiscal pressure on New York City, costing it over $1 billion so far, and prompted officials to declare a state of emergency. Some estimates say the cost of housing could surpass $4.3 billion by July 2024; while this is a significant amount, it would account for less than 5 percent of New York’s budget in fiscal year 2022.

Legal services for asylum seekers are also stretched thin. Anyone applying for asylum must wait a minimum of six months before receiving a work permit. Many recently arrived migrants are  unable to find a lawyer to help them start the asylum application process, or are already undergoing the process but unable to work legally. Cities including Chicago, El Paso, Texas, and San Diego, have also seen an increase in their migrant populations, though not to the scale of New York City.

What are the regional factors at play?

Within Latin America, there are several push factors that drive migrants north. First, there are the well-known crises: the implosion of Venezuela’s economy under the authoritarian rule of President Nicolás Maduro, which has driven an exodus of more than seven million people and counting; the lingering effects of Haiti’s 2010 earthquake coupled with the country’s ongoing gang warfare, troubles that have pushed close to two million Haitians to flee the country; and the deepening dysfunction of Cuba’s economy, which is responsible for the outflow of one million migrants and refugees from the island.

There’s also the “ordinary” dysfunction of poorly functioning market economies and states, such as inequality and hunger in southern Mexico and northern Central America; surging criminal violence, particularly in Ecuador; and climate change–related disasters. The majority of Latin American migrants have resettled within the region, although a growing number of them are now heading for the United States due to the scarcity of economic opportunities.

Also driving migration are the growth of legal and illegal businesses that move migrants across borders—which now constitute multinational, multimillion-dollar enterprises—and growing information on social media about U.S. labor shortages and wages. U.S. foreign policy has an important role to play in reducing the intensity of these drivers, but it can hardly be expected to fix intractable crises and economic problems that are decades in the making.

What are some policy options? 

New York City is already limiting the cost of housing migrants and asylum seekers in shelters by evicting single adults after sixty days—a dubious legal move, given the city’s “right to shelter” requirement, which is being challenged in court. To help ease the pressure, the Joe Biden administration recently made some 472,000 Venezuelans eligible for temporary protected status, a program that allows migrants whose home countries are unsafe the right to live and work in the United States for up to eighteen months.

However, the U.S. Congress is really the only institution that can provide long-term solutions by changing migration legislation. For one, Congress could reduce the period of time that asylum seekers must wait between beginning the asylum process and applying for a work permit. U.S. Representative Chellie Pingree (D-ME) introduced a bill in March to reduce the wait period to thirty days. Another dilemma is that the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services—an agency that must fund itself through fees as Congress does not appropriate funds to it—does not have sufficient staff to clear the backlog of work authorization cases, leaving migrants waiting up to twenty months for documents whether they are seeking asylum or not.

Although there are nationwide labor shortages in durable-goods manufacturing, leisure and hospitality, and food and health services, the backlogged bureaucracy in New York means migrants there have no choice but to continue to rely on the city or work illegally. It doesn’t help that immigration courts are also backlogged with asylum cases, generating average wait times of between four and five years. Muzaffar Chishti, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, has recommended giving asylum officers stationed at the southern U.S. border the authority to determine asylum cases, a process that even subject to appeals, would only take months instead of years.

How are U.S. political divisions impeding a solution?

The debate over U.S. immigration reform has hit an impasse. Republican lawmakers accuse Democrats of facilitating “open borders,” and the Republican governors of Florida and Texas have spent millions of dollars to bus migrants and asylum seekers to Democrat-led northern cities, including Washington, DC, as part of a political-messaging stunt. For example, more than thirteen thousand migrants who arrived in New York in the last year were bused from Texas. Democrats, meanwhile, have also sustained intense debates over border policy.

Ironically, the crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border has become an excuse to avoid taking action toward a compromise that could make the U.S. immigration system less dysfunctional. As the 2024 presidential election nears, Republicans have even less incentive to contribute to a solution: a border in chaos is good optics for rallying voters against the incumbent party. But simply toughening up border enforcement is not a solution, at least based on the Donald Trump administration’s track record; despite employing a brutal deterrence campaign, migrants and asylum seekers fleeing desperate conditions continued arriving at the southern U.S. border in large numbers.

Moving forward, the United States needs comprehensive immigration reform that expands legal pathways for migrants to enter the country. Because there are so few pathways currently, many people view making asylum claims—however unlikely they are to succeed—as their only option, effectively breaking the system. On foreign policy, lending institutions such as the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation need more flexible rules so they can prioritize middle-income countries, such as those in Latin America, that are struggling to integrate refugees and asylum seekers into their economies.

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