With cold weather arriving across much of the country, and migrants continuing to stream toward the U.S. border with Mexico, Democratic mayors of cities grappling with an influx of migrants are seeking assistance from the federal government.
Mayors Mike Johnston of Denver and Brandon Johnson of Chicago met with White House officials on Thursday to plead for more help with their own cities’ growing migrant populations. New York Mayor Eric Adams, who was also supposed to attend, hurried home after his top campaign fundraiser was raided by the FBI.
The meeting followed a letter, written by Johnston and cosigned by Adams and Johnson, as well as Mayors Karen Bass of Los Angeles and Sylvester Turner of Houston, which pleaded for more help from the federal government, including better coordination at the border and an expedited process for work permits.
At an afternoon press briefing, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said that Johnston and Johnson met with Jeff Zients, Biden’s chief of staff, as well as assistant to the president Tom Perez and officials from the Department of Homeland Security.
“We understand what they’re going through,” Jean-Pierre said. “We understand what’s going on on the ground.”
But it was far from clear that the mayors got any of the commitments they sought.
Arriving on buses
Migration has presented a problem for Republicans and Democrats alike for decades: The last president to enact comprehensive immigration reform was Ronald Reagan in 1986. But border crossings have been especially high both in 2022 and 2023; conservatives blame Biden, charging that he has not been tough enough on securing the border. They also say his rhetoric has encouraged migrants to come to the border, though Vice President Kamala Harris flatly said in 2021, “Don’t come.”
In the spring of 2022, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott decided to take matters into his own hands by sending migrants by passenger bus to Washington, D.C. “Biden refuses to come see the mess he’s made at the border. So Texas is bringing the border to him,” Abbott said at the time.
Migrants — many of them Venezuelans fleeing desperate conditions at home — have also found their own way north. As a result, New York has seen an influx of 130,000 migrants, by far the most of any city in the country. Some 20,000 migrants have arrived in Chicago and 21,000 in Denver since early 2022.
“This issue will destroy New York,” Adams recently warned.
City budgets strained
“I’m extremely frustrated,” Adams told Yahoo News at the beginning of 2023. His frustration was reserved for the Biden administration, which he said was not doing enough to prevent migrants from entering the United States illegally — or helping those who were already here.
Borrowing a page from Abbott’s playbook, Adams also began to bus migrants, hoping to resettle them upstate only to discover that smaller communities around New York State were not eager to welcome the new arrivals, either.
New York has spent $1.7 billion to house and otherwise care for migrants; Chicago’s bill has been $320 million. And those outlays come as empty downtowns deplete municipal tax receipts, making any new spending tougher than usual. The Biden administration is asking Congress for another $1.4 billion to handle the migrant crisis; the mayors who came to Washington this week are asking him for $5 billion.
Undocumented immigrants who apply for asylum in the U.S. are generally unable to work during a six-month waiting period after they’ve begun the application process. Earlier this fall, the Biden administration granted 500,000 Venezuelans already in the country temporary protected status, meaning they could immediately seek work.
Big city leaders, however, say that isn’t enough. They increasingly want the federal government to take charge of an issue that they say is of its own making.
“The humanitarian crisis is overwhelming our ability to provide aid to the refugee population,” White House ally and Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker wrote to Biden last month. “Unfortunately, the welcome and aid Illinois has been providing to these asylum seekers has not been matched with support by the federal government. Most critically, the federal government's lack of intervention and coordination at the border has created an untenable situation for Illinois.”
In New York, migrants are processed at the Roosevelt Hotel in midtown Manhattan. If rooms are not available there, they are sent to one of more than 200 shelters around the city (a city law mandates that it has to provide shelter to anyone who needs it, though Adams is trying to curtail its provisions, arguing that it can only house migrants for short periods of time).
The arrival of migrants in neighborhoods across the five boroughs has tested New Yorkers and their image of a welcoming, diverse city. In the city’s most conservative borough, Staten Island, public opposition was especially intense after migrants were sheltered in a shuttered school.
“This is our battle for our neighborhoods, for our children, for our grandparents. For your equity,” public safety advocate Curtis Sliwa said at an anti-migrant rally.
A judge ordered the migrants to be relocated last month because the school was deemed unsafe.
In Chicago, Black residents who say they had been neglected for years by municipal institutions, were enraged by a decision to shelter migrants in a beloved community center.
“We come in a community of Black people where we already get the low scraps,” an attendee at a recent contentious town hall said. “And then you want to take the little scraps, the resources that we have, and put us at the bottom of the barrel? That's not fair, and I won't have it.”
The approach of cold weather could make shelter beds more scarce while also making it more difficult to house migrants in tents. An early snow in Chicago caught city leaders off guard, though they scrambled to house several families in a church basement.
“We got them into a place where they could have warmth and a sense of their space,” the Rev. Kathy Nolte of Oak Park, Ill., told the Associated Press.
Much as advocates are seeking to make things easier for the migrants already here, or on the way, many believe that the problem will persist until Washington can craft comprehensive immigration reform that addresses border security, creates pathways to citizenship for people already here and streamlines the process of seeking asylum.
“Our immigration system is broken, but it’s broken in all kinds of ways,” immigration expert Julia Gelatt of the Migration Policy Institute told Vox. And with Washington bitterly divided, a fix is likely far away.
Cover thumbnail photo: Michael Robinson Chávez/The Washington Post via Getty Images
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