The Biden administration is walking on eggshells to appease Democratic mayors and governors who are facing increasing pressure over how to deal with the influx of migrants.
That tricky relationship highlights key Democratic weaknesses on immigration, an issue where Republicans have largely set the agenda, including by busing migrants to left-leaning cities across the north.
New York Mayor Eric Adams (D) last weekpointed to the approximately 100,000 migrants who have arrived in his city over the last year, saying “This issue will destroy New York City.”
That characterization was a dramatic escalation that has been brewing for months.
Governors in New York and Massachusetts declared states of emergency over the issue over the summer, while Adams did so last fall.
And while New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) has deemed it an “asylum seeker crisis,” she’s butted heads with Adams by resisting his calls to send migrants to shelters elsewhere in the state.
Hochul has also taken care not to alienate the White House, which hosted her last month for talks on how to improve state-federal coordination.
Adams’s combative approach has all but burned his bridges with the Biden administration — and rankled immigration advocates.
“Eric Adams is an anomaly. He has no idea how to run a government, so let’s just put him on the side. Clearly, as somebody who’s representing the city of immigrants, [he] is totally off base and hasn’t been able to coordinate with people on the ground. I mean, he’s just an anomaly,” said Beatriz Lopez, deputy director of Immigration Hub.
“And then you have mayors, reasonable mayors, who just want the Biden administration to embrace an opportunity that will help local economies that will help people who have been long settled in their states, in their cities, to just have an opportunity to work lawfully.”
While the Biden administration has taken measures to reduce the number of asylum seekers allowed into the country – including adopting a policy that hews closely to a Trump-era restrictions barring those who don’t first seek asylum elsewhere – numbers at the border have begun to tick up in July after falling in June following the policy shift.
And the focus on northern cities has been compounded by GOP governors in Texas and Florida, as well as in Arizona when under Republican leadership, as they have bussed migrants north, failing to coordinate with the cities while arguing the liberal enclaves need to witness the struggles of border communities.
Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson (D) struck a different tone from Adams while warning that his city is also strained.
“I’m not going to accept the notion that the city of Chicago is going to be destroyed … This is not a challenge that will overwhelm us,” Johnson said in an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times last week.
Still, he’s pitched the idea of heated tents as a way to house migrants ahead of the Chicago winter.
“These families are coming to the city of Chicago … If we do not create an infrastructure where we’re able to support and, quite frankly, contain these individuals who have experienced a great deal of harm, individuals who are desperate – if we do not provide support for these individuals and these families, that type of desperation will lead to chaos,” Johnson said.
The criticism has led to a chain of finger pointing. While government officials say they want more help from the federal government, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has blamed Republicans in Congress for failing to engage on immigration reform and for treating migrants like political pawns in bussing them around the country.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas during a roundtable with reporters said that while he does not agree with all “the rhetoric that is being expressed…I think the challenges are real.”
“These are welcoming cities, and I think they are committed to remaining so, but the strains that they are experiencing underlie their expressions of concern. And we have asked Congress for more sheltered services program funding. We hope that Congress will equip us to work with the cities to address the challenge,” Mayorkas said.
But he said the struggles are due in part to the efforts of GOP governors.
“Let’s take a step back, because one of the reasons that the challenge exists is the way in which these migrants are reaching these cities, and that is specifically in an uncoordinated way. When we have a governor send migrants to a destination without coordinating with that destination’s leadership, that is not a formula for the most efficient and effective means of addressing the challenge of migration.”
It’s not clear how much the GOP governors have exacerbated the problem. In New York, Texas has boasted of sending more than 13,000 migrants to the city, a fraction of the six-figure totals Adams is contending with.
Still, it’s clear some Republican governors are delighting in the dynamic.
“He could not last a week in Texas. They have so few migrants in New York compared to what we get every single day, Jesse. It’s just outrageous. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) said of Adams during an interview this week with Fox News’s Jesse Waters.
“What’s maddening is the fact that in New York and Chicago and D.C. and L.A. and other places, they put out policies self-proclaiming that they’re sanctuary cities, and they love to promote these liberal ideologies until they have to actually live up and apply them…This is a day of reckoning,” Abbott added.
In the wake of shelter crowding, some governors have made specific asks, including the additional funding that Mayorkas referenced.
But many have also focused on speeding work permits, something Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey (D) wrote last week would be a win-win in a state struggling with finding enough workers. Hochul and Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker (D) have made similar calls.
Mayorkas mentioned work permit issues as just one point within a larger broken immigration system he wants Congress to address.
“One of the elements that evidences how our system is ill-equipped to meet the moment is the fact that individuals who are applicants for asylum have to wait 180 days before they can work despite the tremendous need for labor in our economy and their eagerness to work,” he said.
That finger-pointing has grown old for many advocates, who know the administration understands just how unlikely it is that Congress will legislate on the matter.
The conversation for many advocates and Democrats has turned from immigration reform to work permits to allow migrants to sustain themselves outside of shelters, and to the executive actions Biden can take to expedite those permits.
In her letter to Mayorkas, Healey laid out a request to speed work permits through either DHS regulation or guidance rather than by Congress.
“We appreciate your direct engagement, but even with the exhaustive efforts of your team within the bounds of what is allowable by law, we will still be in need of expanded federal partnership,” she wrote.