The influx of tens of thousands of migrants into New York City has created a major crisis, straining the municipal budget and challenging Gotham’s self-image as the “city of immigrants.” Expecting to spend at least $4.6 billion on the inflow, New York is being “destroyed by the migrant crisis,” in the words of Mayor Eric Adams.
The problem is so acute that Adams asked a judge to modify, in part, the notorious 1981 “Callahan decree,” in which the city acknowledged an absolute “right to shelter” for homeless individuals, and which establishes the legal requirement for New York to house the migrants now streaming into Manhattan after making their way across the U.S.–Mexico border. Adams carefully explained that he is not seeking to end the right to shelter, just to stay the obligation if the city “lacks the resources and capacity” to provide sufficient “sites, staffing, and security” to house a continuing inflow of needy migrants.
Advocates, elected officials, and media commentators were horrified by the suggestion that the city would ever consider denying services and shelter to today’s immigrants, who are “the next generation of New Yorkers,” according to City Comptroller Brad Lander. “New immigrants have driven NYC’s success for generations,” Lander avers. “This is a city built by immigrants.” On a similar note, historian Tyler Anbinder told The City website that immigrants fleeing the Great Famine in Ireland “became hugely important for turbocharging the New York economy, mostly in the building industry.”
It’s true that foreign-born populations contributed mightily to New York City. But in the same way that it would make little sense for people born in New York to take credit for the labor and input of past generations of native New Yorkers, it is meaningless to credit today’s Latin American migrants for the sweat of nineteenth-century Irish ditchdiggers, or to base today’s policy on the socioeconomic conditions of 150 years ago.
It’s useful to recall that, until recently, immigrants came to America—“the land of opportunity”—expecting nothing except the chance to work hard. Backbreaking labor was available to those who could manage it for 60-hour weeks, with no minimum wage, no safety regulations or standards, no compensation for injury, and no pay if work were suspended due to inclement weather, which was common in the building trades.
We’re commonly told that New York City today faces a severe housing shortage. But by historical standards—the same ones cited by sentimental advocates for migrants today—even the city’s shelter system for single adult men is a vision of opulence. The original Callahan decree set minimum space requirements of 80 square feet per resident in single-occupancy sleeping rooms, and 60 square feet per resident in congregate settings. In the 1860s, a typical tenement building might be crammed with so many residents that total space for sleeping, eating, and living would amount to 10 feet per resident. The Lower East Side at the beginning of the twentieth century had a population density of about 250,000 people per square mile, exceeded today only by some slums in Mumbai.
Outside of private charities, no social safety net existed in New York City, except for the publicly funded Almshouse, where only the truly destitute and most hopeless cases went. In 1882, leery of admitting migrants who might want to enter America to take advantage of its splendid workhouses, a parsimonious Congress passed a law that excluded any potential immigrant “unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge.” The idea of admitting future charity cases was so odious that “public charge” rules and the requirement that immigrants be sponsored by solvent relatives or employers became embedded in statutes. These mandates still exist today, if only as a technicality.
It is taken for granted, and not only in New York, that today’s migrants will help themselves to the goods that the government offers. Last September, the Department of Health and Human Services issued a new rule that noncitizens “who receive health or other benefits to which they are entitled will not suffer harmful immigration consequences.” Among the noncash benefits that will not count toward determining “public charge” status: Medicaid, food stamps, disaster assistance, pandemic assistance, tax credits or deductions, and government pensions. As for cash-based benefits, immigrants receiving Supplemental Security Income, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and “other similar programs” will suffer no ramifications as regards their legal status.
None of this is to say that New York should revert to the expectations of the Victorian era regarding the neediest people. We obviously don’t want human beings living in crates and suffering infant mortality rates of 30 percent. But we need to remember that the immigrants of yesteryear, and not so long ago, came to a New York that extended no social entitlements and no regulatory protections. Many thrived. There’s no honest comparison to be made between the conditions of immigration in 1900 and those of today—nor, alas, between the expectations of immigrants of 1900 and of today’s migrants.
Photo: Keith Lance/iStock