For far too long, too many Americans considered the border to be someone else’s problem — someone in Texas, maybe, or Arizona or California. People who didn’t live near the border might have condemned harsh tactics used there or offered their communities as sanctuaries for those who managed to slip across it. But for the most part, the challenges of the border remained at the border. Out of sight, out of mind.
That changed this year with the influx of hundreds of thousands of migrants in Northern cities, which is forcing even the most big-hearted places to grapple with what happens when too many migrants and asylum seekers show up on their doorstep overnight, a problem border communities know all too well. Chicago has housed migrants in abandoned schools, police stations and airports, sparking protests and at least one lawsuit. Portland, Maine, briefly commandeered a convention center. Massachusetts is putting up more than 6,000 families in emergency shelters and hotels, at an estimated cost of $45 million per month. About half are migrants.
Now a major reassessment is underway of what these cities can reasonably be expected to provide to people who have just crossed the border in search of safety and a better life and whether efforts to house and support them will encourage more to come. In a recent survey by Siena College Research Institute, 82 percent of New Yorkers called the arrival of so many migrants a “serious problem,” with 58 percent saying it’s time to slow the flow. New York is starting to think — and act — like a Southern border state now.
Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas must be pleased. This is exactly what he hoped for when he started sending busloads of migrants into so-called sanctuary cities in the North last year. “Bringing the border to Biden,” is what he called it. I’m no fan of Mr. Abbott. But his tactic is working.
Nowhere is this more apparent than New York City, where the emergency housing social safety net is being stretched to the breaking point. More than 10,000 migrants arrive in the city each month, about half of whom are being housed in shelters or hotels. Mayor Eric Adams has said that the $5 billion price tag of caring for migrants this year may force cuts to social services on which the neediest New Yorkers depend, including meals for older adults.
It’s gotten so dire that Mr. Adams — who campaigned on a pledge to keep the sanctuary policy in place — just wrapped up a whirlwind trip to Mexico, Colombia and Ecuador, where he begged people not to come. New York is full, he told people in Puebla, Mexico. “There’s no more room.” I doubt migrants will listen. Why would they? New York City is spending $383 per family per night to house homeless new arrivals, thanks to a consent decree from a state court that requires the city to provide shelter to those who need it.
People who apply for asylum in New York are more likely to get it than those who apply in other places. New York immigration judges deny only 26 percent of asylum cases, compared with 92 percent in Houston and 86 percent in Miami, according to TRAC, an information clearinghouse at Syracuse University. And migrants who make it to New York are less likely to be deported. Since 2014, sanctuary city and state laws have limited cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
It’s clear that the city’s well-earned reputation for welcoming immigrants has played a role in making New York the top destination. Nevertheless, Mr. Adams blames that “madman” — Mr. Abbott — for the crisis, even though only about 13,100 of the roughly 140,000 migrants who arrived over the past year were sent on buses chartered by Texas. (Mr. Abbott shot back on Fox News that New York and other liberal cities are to blame for the migrant crisis by offering sanctuary and “letting everybody live for free.”)
On his Latin America trip, Mr. Adams put his finger on the real problem: “Our hearts are endless, but our resources are not,” he told reporters. For that reason, this crisis threatens to be uniquely politically devastating to Democrats. Although both parties have failed miserably to create a safe and orderly border and an immigration system that works, Democrats are the only ones with endless hearts. Democrats are the ones who champion the expansion of the social safety net and the extension of that net to people who have just crossed the border. “No child should be excluded from early childhood education because of their immigration status,” declared Mr. Adams’s plan for child care and early education last year, which earmarked $10 million for child care for immigrants who aren’t eligible for federal subsidies, including the undocumented.
As a general rule, temporary migrants are not eligible for most federal welfare benefits, but many cities and states make emergency assistance available to noncitizens out of their budgets. For instance, Maine allows homeless noncitizens who have just arrived to get vouchers for housing and food out of the general assistance budget that cities administer. Illinois has a Medicare-like health insurance program for undocumented adults. Like New York, Massachusetts is obligated by law to find shelter for certain unhoused migrant families with children. And California plans to be the first state in the nation to offer food assistance to undocumented adults.
In theory, under modest levels of migration, cities should be able to make these investments in newcomers who eventually integrate into society, find jobs and pay taxes, sometimes for government services — like Social Security — that they never collect. Migrants frequently start new businesses that inject new energy into the economy and often work harder for less than Americans. But during immigration surges, too many migrants can overwhelm the social safety net, risking a backlash against not only immigration but also the welfare state.
In Maine, about 3,500 people are getting general assistance for food and housing, most of whom are asylum seekers in Portland. Officials say the city’s budget for social services grew from $9.9 million in 2019 to $36.8 million for 2024, and this summer leaders warned that without more help from the state, local taxes would have to go up or services could be cut. Illinois had to pause enrollment in its health program for most undocumented adults because costs were projected to surpass $1 billion next year. In Massachusetts, Gov. Maura Healey, a progressive Democrat, declared a state of emergency in August, saying the state is unable to house the number of families seeking emergency shelter, with those living in state-funded shelters having increased 80 percent from last year. She has asked state lawmakers for an additional $250 million to shore up the shelter system, an amount that has raised eyebrows in both parties as lawmakers question when — or if — this crisis will end. And California delayed its food assistance expansion, citing budget cuts.
Academics have long debated whether permissive immigration policies are compatible with a generous welfare state. Consider that Sweden, once one of the most generous and welcoming countries in Europe, radically tightened its immigration policies after 2015, when so many asylum seekers from Syria and Iraq arrived that towns ran low on housing and money for refugee stipends. It took three months for Sweden’s prime minister, Stefan Lofven, to go from fiercely defending migrants at a rally — “My Europe takes in refugees” — to reversing the country’s open-door policy, admitting, “We simply cannot do any more.” How long will it take the mayors of American cities?
The lessons are broader than managing limited budgets and public backlash. The 2015 surge of migrants in Europe is associated with the rise of far-right parties that want to curtail immigration or welfare benefits to noncitizens or both. Now that the border has come to cities like New York, there’s a danger that something similar could happen here. Mr. Abbott would no doubt pat himself on the back.
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