In late January, a group of activists protested in front of Manhattan’s Watson Hotel against “inhumane” living conditions for migrants. Having lived and dined at taxpayer expense in a three-star midtown hotel for weeks, some migrants are being transferred to taxpayer-funded shelters elsewhere in the city. Before police cleared the protest, many were demanding city-provided “permanent housing.”
Federal, state, and local policymakers all bear responsibility for New York City’s dreadful immigration crisis. Most immigrants living in shelters will end up either not filing an asylum claim or having their claim rejected in court. But those who do file will be able to stay, perhaps for many years, because Congress’s failure to hire enough immigration judges has forced the federal government to release into the country most people who present themselves at the border, as mass detention or quick adjudication aren’t options. But New York’s example shows that local decisions matter, too.
Cities near the border are flooded with thousands of migrants every day. Many of these people have no money and no friends or family to take care of them. Border cities and states facing this influx have made the reasonable decision to help some migrants travel to other places that profess to want them. When Florida facilitated travel for a group to Martha’s Vineyard, Democrats claimed that Republicans were using migrants as political props. Yet even blue states like Colorado and blue cities like El Paso have chartered buses to send migrants to cities farther east, demonstrating the scale of the challenge.
While Democrats decried these moves to the media, they didn’t all respond alike. In Martha’s Vineyard, Democrats quickly bussed the migrants elsewhere (but not before a series of photo-ops, of course). Following its “right-to-shelter” law, New York gave illegal immigrants free hotel rooms, three meals per day, and welfare. The cost of the hotel rooms is between $150 and $190 per room, per night. In other words, the city is paying at least $4,500–$5,700 per month for every family housed in these hotels-turned-shelters. That’s well above the city’s median rent and doesn’t include the costs of food and security.
The busing of migrants to New York outraged many, including me . . . at first. Like many of those riding on the buses, I am originally from Venezuela. Having come to America seven years ago in a much less precarious situation, I felt compassion for these new arrivals. When a friend from my church told me that she had met an asylum-seeking family in a hotel, I agreed to visit the shelter and help.
What I saw was the abject failure of national and local immigration policies. A Colombian family who had come with three kids and an elderly parent claimed to be persecuted by guerrillas but couldn’t name the group or cite any evidence to back up their story. They were comfortable living in the hotel, but they didn’t have a kitchen and complained about the food. Asked if they were working, they said they didn’t have permits; while the husband had been a barber and the wife a nail-salon worker, they wouldn’t be hired without a state license to practice in those professions. They were misinformed about the immigration system, telling me that they thought that, after a year living in the United States, they could get the equivalent of a green card. Such a policy does not exist; if they don’t file an asylum claim within a year, they can be deported. They don’t know how to do that, and they can’t pay for an immigration lawyer. Finally, according to the father, their teenage daughter had attended a Manhattan public school but stopped going after other girls threatened to kill her if she didn’t traffic drugs for them.
Many of these problems have policy solutions. But rather than be constructive, activists are stirring up the migrants living in shelters and lying to them for political purposes. One video showed someone instigating the Venezuelan migrants around him to protest. “This isn’t a shelter, it’s a detention center,” he said of the three-star Watson Hotel. “The city and the state have enough money to shelter everyone.”
Reality is more sobering. Last August, the Department of Homeless Services reported about 51,000 individuals living in city shelters. As of now, that number has risen 36 percent to more than 70,000 people being sheltered by taxpayers. At the average expense of a hotel room, the migrant crisis is costing New Yorkers nearly $400 million per year in housing expenditures alone. Even if the city manages to spend just $15 per person per day for food, the total cost rises to more than half a billion dollars a year. Of course, this figure doesn’t include security, education, and state-provided welfare costs.
New York has its priorities inverted. It makes living off the government easy and finding work, housing, or safety hard. If lawmakers wanted to solve this crisis, they would roll back criminal-justice reforms that undermine public safety for vulnerable migrants; unwind sanctuary-state and welfare rules that serve as magnets for people who can’t support themselves; make it clear that the housing guarantee doesn’t include recent border-crossers; allow the development of new housing; and remove the licensing restrictions that make jobs harder to find, especially for the migrants lawmakers claim to care about.
Hugo Chávez promised us Venezuelans free housing and food for all. He began a program called the Great Housing Mission that built public housing for thousands. Chávez and his successor’s policies destroyed Venezuela and led 7.1 million people to flee. I didn’t leave Venezuela because I wanted free housing. I left because I wanted freedom, the ability to work for myself, and safety. Those who come to New York City should want the same things—and if they don’t, New York shouldn’t want them here.
Photo by Leonardo Munoz/VIEWpress