How New York City Botched the Migrant Crisis

How New York City Botched the Migrant Crisis

It is not easy to leave your home and move elsewhere. It’s harder when you are moving to another country, leaving behind your old home and neighborhood, and harder still when you are fleeing persecution and violence because of who you are.  These difficulties are only compounded when the place you are moving to does not welcome you and actively tells you to leave – which is the response that faces asylum seekers both at the border and in supposedly liberal cities such as New York.

It doesn’t have to be this way. New York City was once the dream of those seeking a new land, and an opportunity to prove themselves. It inspired generations of immigrants, who struggled but ultimately found success and wealth. Why should it be different today?

The city’s “right to shelter” is a positive effort that is meant to guarantee a bed and shelter for anyone who wants it every night. However, this depends on having enough beds and the mayor has been trying to avoid this obligation as the problem worsens.

No one is happy with the situation as it stands today. Migrants are forced to sleep outside as shelters across the city have reached capacity. Thousands have been sent across the state to places like Buffalo, while they continue to be frustrated by a bureaucracy that fails to meet their needs. For those who live in the city, they will be covering the estimated $4 billion in costs on inadequate services. 

It’s clear these matters cannot continue indefinitely. There are a number of policy failures at the local, state, and federal level that undermine our ability to welcome newcomers and set them up for success.

Meet the demand for housing

The most important task of the city is to put people into stable housing, or at least provide some shelter. Keeping people outside during the searing summer months, then leading to the freezing winter, is going to lead to entirely avoidable human tragedy. During these events, called Code Red and Code Blue respectively, city officials work to bring in otherwise homeless people to shelters for the night. Yet if these shelters are full, people will be forced to brave the harsh elements with little to support them.

With a rising number of people who need shelter, it is paramount to establish new shelters as soon as possible. The city is scrambling to find new locations including hotels and parking lots but is facing opposition from members of the community who are not taking the scale of the crisis seriously. One proposed shelter to house roughly 1000 migrants, located at the Aqueduct Racetrack, was protested by a small group and the proposal was then dismissed by the city.

Protestors will say that the location is not appropriate, and that tents are not acceptable, and that the  plan requires community input. Yet in an emergency, an immediate response is better than long waiting periods where nothing happens. As long as this crisis persists, there should be a moratorium on community input for shelters.

Solutions need to go beyond the municipal level. The state, in its next legislative session, needs to reach a consensus on the governor’s housing compact and remove barriers to adding more units to the city and throughout the state. Small reforms like legalizing accessory dwelling units (ADUs) should be allowed over the objections of a small minority of Long Island residents.

In the month of July, Manhattan approved zero units of new housing, and that’s a bad sign. There is plenty of space in midtown and downtown Manhattan, where corporations are rethinking their use of office space. Yet a conversion from office to residential is not just costly but illegal. One key policy that needs to be prioritized is repealing the Floor Area Ratio (FAR) requirement—which restricts the total floorspace allowed on a given lot size—for residential housing. This would enable existing buildings to be eligible for housing units and could enable smaller lots to be redeveloped with more affordable apartments.

These changes should allow the city to apply for the recently announced federal Housing Supply Action Plan to get more funding to perform the necessary refurbishing.

Remove barriers to work

The overwhelming majority of the migrants who have come here are not looking for charity. They are willing to work and build a stable life for themselves. At a time when national unemployment is near record lows, there isn’t a better time for them to seek work in restaurants and other small gigs. Unfortunately, asylum seekers cannot request permits for months after they apply to asylum. This bureaucratic restriction should be repealed at the federal level, or at least suspended, to allow these people to contribute.

Aside from finding employment, it should be easier for them to run their own businesses. New York City has many food vendors who serve patrons in every neighborhood. Decades ago, the city placed arbitrary limits and mandated licenses for every food vendor, and has not done enough to raise those numbers. This equivalent of NIMBYism for food has led to a large informal market of vendor licenses where upcoming vendors must pay orders of magnitude more than the official permit just to be allowed to sell food.

Lifting this cap, or removing it entirely, would give migrants the opportunity to earn money without facing harsh policing. Decriminalizing food vending and ensuring it happens safely and legally can benefit everyone in the city through inexpensive options. It does not make sense to arrest people trying to make a living and doing so removes policing resources from greater safety challenges.

Share our prosperity

With more housing upstate, migrants will be able to settle in more places and diffuse the crisis. They could help revitalize old industrial cities, which has been happening in places like Paterson, New Jersey and Utica. New York should work with neighboring states and those immigrant communities to help resettle and integrate new migrants.

Engaging with local communities to help migrants is not dissimilar to the Welcome Corps, a refugee resettlement program where individual groups can sponsor and aid refugees. Improving our visa programs is an important step for the Department of Homeland Security to take.

Immigrants have long played a key role in the fabric of New York City. The borough of Queens is among the most diverse cities in the world, where you can find people and cuisine from hundreds of cultures around the world.

Yet  further out into Queens people find themselves more isolated from the rest of the city. A study conducted several years ago found that one in three apartments for rent were in a ‘transit desert’, defined as being more than fifteen minutes away from a subway station. After arriving, you then may need to wait a while for one to arrive during non-peak hours. Buses can also be infrequent.

Expanding our transit network eastward can open up new opportunities for communities beyond Flushing and Jamaica. Last year Flushing and Jackson Heights, two neighborhoods in Queens, had the top subway frequency outside of Manhattan.

We can reuse existing rail and improve service along the Long Island Railroad by expediting integration into the OMNY system and enabling single-fare rides for neighborhoods like Bayside to travel in and out of the city inexpensively and conveniently.

As New York City expands outward, more people have been moving to Queens and travel requirements change. The subway system was designed primarily for riders to get in and out of Manhattan rather than between other boroughs. Expediting development of the Interborough Expressway can help connect riders between Queens and Brooklyn in underserved locations. Using congestion pricing in downtown Manhattan can serve as a new funding source to improve everyone’s commute time.

A key goal is to help integrate migrants into their communities and into New York City. While it would be easy to find an undeveloped region in the outskirts, that would not enable them to easily get to work or have access to key resources. By improving our transit network and improving the frequency of buses at all hours of the day, we can ensure that newcomers feel connected.

These connections should happen in our neighborhoods and our work but also in our broader communities such as churches. For example, my hometown Catholic Diocese has slowly been facing a labor shortage of priests and deacons. A program that could sponsor migrants as they go through seminary school would be encouraged if the legal barriers could be cleared.

Streets of gold

In the recently published book Streets of Gold, Ran Abramitzky and Leah Boustan study the economic prospects of immigrants and subsequent generations as they integrate further into America over the last century. They find that while immigrants do not always become successful, their children do better than their parents and even their US-born peers.

Moreover, each generation of immigrants stirred a lot of fear among existing residents. They were believed to be too different and were looked down upon. We should make sure these migrants are seen to be just like us: having dreams for a better future and willing to work towards it.

At the Tenement Museum in downtown Manhattan, in the Lower East Side, you can take a guided tour of actual tenements. These spaces were just a room or two, rented cheaply to Jewish, Chinese, and other immigrant parents who spent their days struggling to earn a living. Their children, facing better success, moved to upscale neighborhoods. The museum’s display is a material reminder of what anyone versed in the city’s history already knows—New York City’s story has always been one of people coming from far away in search of a better life. It has been this continued search, and our continued acceptance, that has given this city its global renown.

When tens of thousands of people try to move to one place at the same time, it can put strain on any city. Yet New York already has all the tools it needs to not just handle it, but allow these migrants to be a part of its thriving history.

Those living in other cities who are watching this prolonged crisis will use it to fuel anti-immigrant sentiment. If even New York, a wealthy city known for welcoming immigrants and progressive politics, cannot handle these new migrants, what city can?

We need to ensure that we remove barriers to providing housing, temporary and permanent. We need to ensure they have access to work of all kinds, and connect them into our communities so they can share our prosperity. This isn’t going to be easy, as it requires policy changes at the local, state, and federal level to turn a crisis into an opportunity for everyone.

Featured image is Landing at Ellis Island