the city politic

The Migrant Crisis Is a New Kind of Test for Kathy Hochul

Photo: Luiz C. Ribeiro for NY Daily News via Getty Images

Governor Kathy Hochul has so far managed to keep a low profile when it comes to New York’s growing migrant crisis. She has avoided press conferences while quietly working the phones in frequent conversations with the White House and City Hall. But a ruling by a state judge last week changed that, putting the governor in the policy hot seat. She now has both the obligation and the opportunity to take the lead on the challenging issue.

The stakes are high. If she succeeds, Hochul could become the kind of national leader whose name gets floated for cabinet positions or even a future shot at the White House. In the short term, she must prepare a response to Judge Erika Edwards of the Manhattan Supreme Court, who oversees the decades-old legal settlement that created the state’s right to shelter and recently gave Hochul a deadline of August 15 to lay out a plan for helping Mayor Adams handle the crush of migrants that has overwhelmed the city’s shelter system.

“What we’ve seen is that on the state side, no one has been treating this as an urgent matter, and the result is that the city has not had the resources that it needs,” attorney Josh Goldfein of the Legal Aid Society said after a recent closed-door court hearing. “The judge made it clear that the state needs to start treating this as an urgent matter and that they have responsibilities they have to meet.”

That’s not quite fair: Hochul, who declared a state of emergency in May, got the state legislature to allocate $1 billion to help Adams handle the migrant surge, including $767 million for housing expenses, $162 million for support from the National Guard, and $137 million for health care. That’s a sizable down payment on the $4 billion–plus Adams says it will cost to house the migrants. “I have a feeling we’re gonna need another billion dollars next year,” Hochul told me on Tuesday.

Gov. Hochul faces both an obligation and an opportunity. Photo: Lev Radin/Pacific Press/Shutterstock/Lev Radin/Pacific Press/Shutters

But in addition to state money and an aggressive hunt for more beds, Hochul must supply a crucial missing ingredient: the confident, high-profile, public-facing leadership that only a governor can provide.

Remember how, at the height of the COVID pandemic, ex-governor Andrew Cuomo famously delivered televised briefings with candid, detailed explanations of the tangle of medical, legal, logistical, and fiscal issues he was grappling with? In addition to calming a panicked public, the fact-filled briefings helped Cuomo build the leverage needed to strike deals with the White House, make demands on behalf of his fellow governors, and rally local officials to pressure the Trump administration for vaccines and other help.

That high-wire act later backfired on Cuomo: His actions on nursing homes drew widespread criticism, and an ill-conceived, self-congratulatory book documenting his COVID management (for which he took a multimillion-dollar advance) resulted in an ethics investigation, a lawsuit (that Cuomo ultimately won), and became an item in the state assembly’s impeachment proceedings that pushed him to resign. But Cuomo’s masterful rise to national prominence remains a modern example of Lincoln’s famous observation that “with public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed … he who molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions.”

Hochul, if she chooses, could play a similar role in building on — and explaining to New York and the rest of the nation — our state’s little-noticed but extraordinarily successful track record of quietly resettling thousands of refugees in upstate cities and towns in recent decades, creating what some leaders have called a “refugee renaissance.”

New York should stop treating the migrant crisis as a short-term issue of where to place the next 500 or 2,000 arrivals. We’re way past that point. A year ago, the first buses, chartered by the Texas state government, began ferrying Venezuelan asylum seekers to midtown Manhattan. Back then, local media outlets like Fox 5 News reported that 54 people had shown up without prior notice to City Hall. As more buses began arriving in the following days, the city’s immigration affairs commissioner, Manuel Castro, who had himself crossed the U.S.-Mexico border when he was 5 years old, made a point of traveling to the Port Authority Bus Terminal to greet newly arriving people with a handshake and a word of welcome.

Newly arrived migrants. Photo: Brendan McDermid/REUTERS

Castro condemned the Texas stunt at the time as “morally corrupt” and “cowardly.” His boss, Adams, even threatened direct political retaliation against that state’s governor, Greg Abbott. “I am deeply contemplating taking a busload of New Yorkers to go to Texas and do some good old-fashioned door knocking,” he said. “For the good of America, we need to get him out of office.”

But 12 months later, as the early trickle turned into a flood, it’s clear that Texas is no longer the sole source of new migrants, and Venezuela isn’t the only point of origin. As the Daily Mail noted, the line of migrants sleeping outside the intake center at the Roosevelt Hotel recently included men from Ecuador, Chad, Sudan, Bhutan, Mauritania, and Senegal. New York is part of a global phenomenon that saw a record-high 100 million people displaced across multiple continents last year due to persecution, wars, and human rights violations, according to the U.N. high commissioner of refugees.

“Even before Governor Abbott was busing people to New York, people were making their way here on their own. And it has been a really diverse immigrant population — folks from Africa, folks from Eastern Europe, with the vast majority coming from South and Central America,” Murad Awawdeh, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, told me. “For the most part, the demographics are not changing very much. But this is the population that’s been coming.”

We know about some of the headline-grabbing conflicts, like the ongoing armed conflicts in Ukraine, Yemen, Syria, and Sudan. But other slow-burning tragedies are displacing people every day, like the disaster in Haiti that recently led the State Department to order all U.S. government personnel to leave the country due to “kidnapping, crime, civil unrest, and poor health-care infrastructure.”

“There are no elected officials in Haiti. Zero. None,” journalist Gary Pierre-Pierre, founder of the Haitian Times, told me recently, referring to the 2021 assassination of the country’s president, the refusal of his successor to call elections, and the steady attrition of local mayors and legislators who left office at the conclusion of their terms. With gangs in control of crucial infrastructure on the island, we should expect a new wave of people fleeing the chaos to end up in New York. The same is true for the string of countries across central Africa that have recently been wracked by military coups, including Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mali.

Far from fearing the coming wave of migrants, New York should build on existing, successful efforts to quickly help them get settled, much of which has been documented by local media stories and a series of studies in a book called Immigration: Key to the Future, published by the New York State Bar Association.

From 2002 to 2022, Buffalo became a new home for 16,000 refugees, many of them Burmese, Bangladeshi, and Sudanese, who helped reverse a 70-year decline in the city’s population. In Syracuse, an estimated 5,656 refugees settled between 2009 and 2014, reversing that city’s longtime population decline and pumping millions into the local economy.

Utica has absorbed more than 17,000 refugees from dozens of countries since 1979, mostly from Southeast Asia, the former Soviet Union, and the lands that once made up Yugoslavia. One in five city residents is now a refugee or the child of refugees; economic studies found that early years of spending on language, health, and education services later led to stable, taxpaying families.

“That is the endgame,” Hochul told me. “Buffalo’s population was declining; it went up by over 8,000, which is a big deal for a city that size. I have walked the streets. I have gone to the refugee centers. I know what they did in Buffalo. But here’s the difference: They all have legal work status, and in fact they’re required to work for five years in order to receive permanent legal status. That’s the difference. So they’re taking jobs immediately, and employers are saying, we’re so grateful you’re here. People from Burma and Thailand and Somalia, that is now part of the fabric of a place like Buffalo. They’re doing the same in Utica. Albany is doing the same. So we need to get legal work status, and it changes everything.”

New York’s path to success, says Hochul, lies in getting the White House to approve expedited work authorizations for asylum seekers and then figuring out a way to get them plugged into upstate jobs.

“This could change everything, if we could get legal work status, temporary protected status for, for example, people coming from, let’s say, Venezuela. Treat them as we treat the people from Afghanistan and Ukraine and Cuba and Haiti,” she said. “I got a call, people said to me, ‘I need them in my North Country, Lake Placid Hotel, or a restaurant over in Syracuse, or a nursing home on Long Island. There are so many jobs that they could be absorbed into our economy so easily. Five thousand open farm jobs today. We have to get the crops, that produce, down here to New York City restaurants.”

New York doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel to make that happen. Our state’s Office of New Americans, launched in 2012, is the country’s first legislatively created office designed to help integrate immigrant families into the state economy. Hochul needs to beef up the size, authority, and visibility of the office and give its leaders a crash course on best practices learned by grassroots organizations like the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees in Utica, Refugee and Immigrant Self-Empowerment in Syracuse and Buffalo’s International Institute.

We should also take advantage of the expertise of the International Rescue Committee, which works with refugees all around the world and whose global headquarters on East 42nd Street is a couple of blocks from the city’s migrant intake center at the Roosevelt Hotel.

Someday, we will look back and marvel that New York in 2023, even after centuries of converting ragged, desperately poor immigrants into healthy, housed Americans, had not created a robust, properly staffed, well-organized bureaucracy with the sole, explicit goal of getting massive numbers of new arrivals moved from shelter to stability. It may not be the mission Hochul expected, but it’s one she can no longer avoid.

The Migrant Crisis Is a New Kind of Test for Kathy Hochul