What Eric Adams Is Getting Wrong About the Migrant Crisis
To manage the current crisis, Mayor Adams should avoid repeating the latest round of hype and hysteria about the difficulties of his job and instead project the attitude of calm competence that residents expect from City Hall.
“Never in my life have I had a problem that I did not see an ending to — I don’t see an ending to this,” the mayor said at a town hall in Manhattan. “This issue will destroy New York City.”
No, it won’t.
New York State, standing alone, would be the 12th-largest economy in the world, generating an incredible $2 trillion in economic activity every year — more than the entire gross domestic product of South Korea or Australia, and roughly equivalent to that of Canada. Most of that output is driven by our city and its residents (including the 136 billionaires who live here), who pay enough in taxes to support a $107 billion municipal budget.
If, as Adams estimates, helping migrants will cost $4 billion per year over the next three years — what Mayor Worst Case describes as “a $12 billion deficit that we’re going to have to cut” — that amounts to 3.7 percent of the budget. Inconvenient and painful, yes. But destroy our city? Not even close. A year ago, Adams ordered agencies to freeze hiring and reduce budgets by 3 percent. Gotham survived.
I doubt Adams consciously intended to supply political oxygen and talking points to political conservatives, including his 2021 Republican opponent, Curtis Sliwa, who is leading anti-migrant rallies and has vowed to challenge Adams in 2025. More likely, Adams, with all eyes on him at the town hall, was repeating a favorite tactic: publicly describing dire scenarios on the mistaken assumption that his words, alone, will inspire a surge of agreement and support from Albany, Washington, and the general public. They won’t.
And true to the mayor’s bad habit of refusing to correct or disavow even obvious exaggerations and embellishments, he is now doubling down on the overheated “destroy New York” rhetoric that the public mostly wasn’t buying in the first place. Our city is heading into a tough season for sure — the administration will likely have to shrink or defer worthy investments in child care, parks, schools, libraries, and sanitation — but in the short term, the things mostly likely to be destroyed by the migrant issue are the spreadsheet projections of Adams’s budget director and the vacation plans of overworked city employees.
Members of the Adams administration, much to their credit, are pulling off daily logistical miracles by delivering housing, food, education, and health services to thousands of newcomers every week and frantically setting up huge intake centers at Creedmoor Psychiatric Center, Randalls Island, and Floyd Bennett Field. Once people get settled, the city directs them to hotels or makeshift shelters throughout the city in compliance with the state’s much-maligned right-to-shelter policy, which mostly consists of common-sense rules like not placing women and children in congregate settings, not leaving people to sleep on the street or in city offices, locating appropriate language interpreters, and so on.
Nearly 40 percent of the 100,000 migrants who have come to the city have already left their city-provided shelter, either connecting with family or moving on to another city. Many of the remainder are stuck, though, unable to secure work permits under federal law for 180 days after applying for asylum. (Helping migrants with the paperwork on starting asylum claims is another critical task for city workers.)
The city badly needs federal relief on the jobs front, preferably in the form of the Biden administration’s granting Temporary Protected Status to migrants fleeing violent chaos in Venezuela. That act alone would allow a majority of the migrants coming to New York to start seeking work. Adams also needs help from Governor Hochul, who has inexplicably refused to issue the necessary executive orders that would compel suburban and upstate counties to accept some of the migrants flooding into New York City. Our state’s proven capacity to help resettle waves of refugees and other migrants won’t matter if the governor is too timid to use the enormous power at her disposal.
And Adams won’t get the help he needs from the state and federal government by simply screaming (falsely) that New York is about to go under. Inspiring confidence and building political support in the midst of a crisis starts with showing the world, despite one’s personal fears, that success is inevitable if we keep the faith and work together.
At least one other big-city Democratic mayor, coping with a migrant wave of its own, has explicitly rejected Adams’s doomsday rhetoric. “I’m not going to accept the notion that the city of Chicago is going to be destroyed,” newly elected mayor Brandon Johnson told the Chicago Sun-Times. “We are a city of big shoulders. We’ve been through difficult moments and challenges before. And we’re gonna get to the other side of this. I’m confident of that … I was elected to lead. This is not a challenge that will overwhelm us.”
That is exactly what a city needs to hear from its leader in a difficult moment. We also need a detailed public discussion of what services should be reduced and what new revenue can be raised. Adams has ordered agencies to prepare 5 percent cuts, but that top-line number hardly tells the whole fiscal story.
As you read this, our city is owed $2 billion in uncollected fees and fines — enough, in theory, to cover half a year’s cost of housing the migrants. Where’s the plan to round up that money? The trusty, oft-ignored Independent Budget Office has pointed out that hiring just 50 auditors in the understaffed Department of Finance could bring the city $165 million a year in revenue — nearly half a billion over the next three years.
A pied-à-terre tax on apartments owned by non–New Yorkers could raise $232 million a year, according to the IBO. Cracking down on building violations by lumping uncollected fines into property-tax bills would raise another $100 million a year. Using open-source software for some city operations instead of buying licenses from private vendors would save $36 million a year. Reinstating a Bloomberg-era program that paid a bonus to homeless-services providers whose clients exit city shelters permanently — something we could really use right now — would save the city $21 million a year.
There’s plenty of fat to be cut and money to be raised. We need a civic conversation about how to do more than just slash services. And a mayor ready to do more than tell the public that the end is near.
[Errol Louis is the host of NY1’s “Inside City Hall,” the preeminent political news show in New York City. Previously, he served as a columnist and editorial board member at the New York Daily News and was a talk show host of WWRL radio.
He has won numerous journalism prizes, and has taught at the Pratt Institute, Hunter College, Long Island University, and New York University. He has a B.A. from Harvard University, an M.A. from Yale University, and a J.D. from Brooklyn Law School.]