On April 21, during a panel discussion with the mayors of the US four largest cities organized by the African American Mayors Association, New York City Mayor Eric Adams said, “The city is being destroyed by the migrant crisis…that’s going to undermine every agency in our city.” A couple of days earlier, Adams had complained during a press conference that the “national government has turned its back” on New York City. “Instead of standing on the steps of city hall,” he said during his remarks, “we should be standing on the steps of the White House.” Certainly, the mayor continued, “the labor of immigrants has allowed this country to be what it is.” But nonetheless, the arrival of more than 60,000 migrants since last year was a “humongous disaster” that would cost the city an estimated $4.3 billion dollars through fiscal year 2024. The next month, in a segment on a local news program on parents complaining about New York City schools being used to house migrants, Adams said, “It is not right for New York to carry the burden of this crisis.”
Unsurprisingly, the mayor’s statements were seized on by right-wing media and anti-immigrant organizations. “Dem-run sanctuary cities are ‘crying’ over ‘minuscule’ migrant surge,” Rep. Keith Self (R-Texas) told Fox News. Adams had provided perfect ammunition to expose what critics characterized as the hypocrisy of Democrats, which appears to have been the intent of Republican Governors Greg Abbott of Texas and Florida’s Ron DeSantis when they started busing and flying prospective asylum seekers arriving at the border to blue states and sanctuary cities. In recent days, Florida sent two planes with migrants to Sacramento, California, prompting Governor Gavin Newsom to call DeSantis a “small, pathetic man.”
The headline-grabbing and theatrical nature of these cruel political stunts masks a larger and more pernicious agenda: to further turn both politicians and the public against immigrants and the very idea of asylum in the United States.
After Adams announced plans to transport a few hundred migrants to hotels in towns in the Hudson Valley suburbs, a standoff ensued. Some counties challenged the move and turned to the courts to stop it. A public official in Rockland County’s predominantly white Orangetown referred to the transfers as an “unfortunate passing of the buck.” Steve Neuhaus, Republican county executive from Orange County, told the AP: “Who are these guys? Were they properly vetted? What are they going to be doing? Are they going to be roaming around the town?” The New York Post ran a viral story—that proved to be false—about migrants displacing unhoused veterans from upstate New York hotels. When migrants were temporarily placed in New York City school gyms, protesters took to the streets with signs saying “No asylum on school grounds,” and “This is an invasion of our schools.” One asylum seeker from Mauritania who was relocated upstate told the AP it was better in New York City where “no one cursed at you and said ‘go back to your country.’”
Adams offered the Republican governors an unlikely mouthpiece. “Mayor Adams is still playing a dangerous game of duck and weave,” Murad Awawdeh, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, said in an April statement, that Adams was “using inflammatory rhetoric to blame asylum seekers” and “fanning the flames of animosity towards immigrant New Yorkers.” Illinois Rep. Delia Ramirez told Politico, “It’s extremely disappointing and dangerous to hear anyone feed into anti-immigrant rhetoric, particularly the highest-ranking elected city official of one of the most diverse cities that is fueled by the contributions of the immigrant community.”
Adams has called out Greg Abbott over the “morally corrupt” practice meant to “hurt Black-run cities” like Chicago and Washington, DC. He has also advocated for expediting work permits for asylum seekers. But as Abbot and DeSantis know, language and imagery can drive public sentiment. Anti-immigrant rhetoric has been used over and over again in this country to cast foreigners as outsiders, invaders, threats, and a burden. Often, such narratives turn into exclusionary and harmful policies—from racist quotas to travel bans and public charge rules—and legislation such as Florida’s draconian SB 1718 law and Kansas’ “anti-smuggling” bill. The end result? The normalization of anti-immigrant attitudes and the erosion of community bonds.