New York Governor Kathy Hochul tours Banco de Alimentos (Food Bank of Puerto Rico) in Carolina, Puerto Rico on November 11, 2022. Photo credit: Xavier Garcia / Captiva Digital Media

Politicking? Part Three: How undocumented immigrants, displaced people determined the 2022 NYC election cycle

8 mins read

The practice–and blanketed acceptance–of modern-day political sparring reveals no long term solutions in displaced New Yorkers and the city’s immigration crisis.

Midterm elections are a thermometer gauging the public’s fluctuating temperature on current affairs. Often, they reveal the newest trends of seemingly endless political debate. Whatever the hot topic of the day, the midterms give us insight into what the state of the union is and what it has the potential to be. 

That said, minor changes in rhetoric or public sentiment could mean the difference between maintaining a stronghold in Washington D.C for Democrats, or making a comeback for Republicans. This past election was important because state-wide legislative seats that represent New York interests at the Capitol were up for grabs.

While Governor Kathy Hochul (D) won another term in office after defeating GOP contender Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY), the margins (52.9% to 47.1%) were considerably close for a blue state. Plus, as more results come in, elections show traditionally-held Democratic districts have turned red. The answer for this flip lies in political rhetoric being ever more divided. Knowingly or not, every polarizing political jab and gimmick impacts societal norms as well as social capital.

That said, key factors like public safety or the precarious economy perpetually rule the civic discourse. In this case, the elections centered language and sentiments against two of the most vulnerable populations: immigrants and the homeless. 

In particular, Florida Gov. Greg DeSantis’ and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s shuttling of migrants to New York’s Port Authority over several days remains a hotbed issue even after the midterm elections. Leading up to the November races, Gov. Abbott taunted Mayor Adams’ embrace of over 17,000 asylum-seekers “with warm hospitality” among his “ill-considered policies.”

“It is morally reprehensible and unethical to use other human beings for your political advantage…[but w]inning is all important. So [politicians] all throw honesty and ethics out of the window. Trump has made this an art form,” expressed Linda Flores-Tober in a written statement to the Ark. Flores-Tober is the Executive Director at the Elizabeth Coalition to House the Homeless in the NYC Metro Area.

When reviewing the campaign agenda of the GOP gubernatorial candidate for New York, the southern governors are not the only ones with a hostile view of immigrants. Rep. Zeldin voiced a strong opposition against immigration in the state. In an August 2022 press release, the Suffolk County-raised Zeldin said that Gov. Hochul needed to take “immediate, substantive action” to roll back policies regarding migrants. He also accused Gov. Hochul of providing “incentivized illegal entry,” like New York’s Green Light Law, where over 800,000 non-citizens in New York advocated for obtaining driver’s licenses.

On that same note, the first district representative is not alone in his views. Public polls showed Gov. Hochul’s 26-point lead shrink to a 6-point difference. Until the very end, Gov. Hochul fended off her increasingly-popular Republican opponent.  

New York City Mayor Eric Adams tours the City’s Asylum Seeker Resource Navigation Center in Manhattan on Thursday, September 15, 2022. Photo credit: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

Rep. Zeldin’s positions were accented by a bold gesture from Gov. Abbott. This past September, the Texas governor who just was re-elected in the midterms, ignored coordinating with NYC officials prior to bussing migrants to the Big Apple. The numbers spiked so high that the Adams Administration opened a temporary tent city to house those who were relocated.

“What DeSantis did will earn him a toasty place when he dies…[and the voting public] don’t know what to do about it and most have resigned themselves as this is just the way it goes,” Flores-Tober said. 

Gov. Abbot’s move is a part of HB 9, or Operation Lone Star, the governor’s effort to fund and improve “indigent defense” with military personnel at the border. Outside of costing Texas taxpayers $12 million, there have been minimal consequences. However in New York, the relocated immigrants have exacerbated the state’s already-flailing local economy. By increasing city homeless numbers in the midst of staffing shortages that address the issue, the political maneuvering by Gov. Abbot stretches low-income resources even thinner. In total, Mayor Adams said there are now 61,000 people in the NYC shelter system. 

Even more, Gov. DeSantis joined in shipping asylum-seekers like chattel to NYC after five months of Texas’ actions. Allegedly, he promised employment and housing services in other parts of the country to those who were relocated, before purportedly leaving them stranded and further stressing NYC resources. The Florida governor who was also just re-elected sent asylum seekers to Washington D.C. as a sign to express outrage for the way the Biden-Harris Administration is dealing with the overwhelming numbers of immigrants at the border.

“The Biden-Harris Administration continues ignoring and denying the historic crisis at our southern border, which has endangered and overwhelmed Texas communities for almost two years,” Abbott said. “Our supposed Border Czar, Vice President Kamala Harris, has yet to even visit the border to see firsthand the impact of the open border policies she has helped implement, even going so far as to claim the border is ‘secure.’”

While in New York, a historical sanctuary city, was forced to declare an immigrant-related state of emergency. In his address, Mayor Adams retorted “[Gov. Abott is] using people who are seeking to live the American dream as [a political] prop…It’s inhumane, it’s un-American and it’s unethical.”

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses . . .

The reason New York accepted the migrants is because of the landmark 1979 case Callahan v. Carey. The court decision granted any homeless person the right to shelter in NYC. However, even that is coming into question after Florida and Texas governors added unhoused persons into a fractured homeless shelter system. 

Indeed, the Adams Administration pin-pointed immigrant inhabitants as a vital cause of the City’s deteriorating homeless resources in the state of emergency address this summer. Reportedly, the new immigrants increased spending by $1 billion. All of which affect the relationship between how New Yorkers, along with how other Americans perceive, as well as treat unhoused persons. 

On September 18, the humanitarian crisis worsened as an asylum-seeking mother committed suicide at an NYC shelter. Since, migrant complaints have spanned everything from lack of food or healthcare, to basic human respect or decency. To remedy the situation, Adams has even considered waging legal action against Texas. 

Albeit, not everyone remembers things happening exactly that way. Some residents like Joshua Goldfein argue that Mayor Adams is the initial cause for Gov. Abbott‘s actions. Goldfein is a staff attorney at The Legal Aid Society in New York City.

“The Mayor said ‘we have a problem in NY because the governor of Texas was loading up buses full of people and sending them directly to intake [at homeless shelters] . . . and that’s why our shelters are so crowded’,” Goldfein explains to Ark Republic. “But, that was not true. [Migrants] were coming on their own.” 

Goldfein, an advocate for the city’s asylum-seekers and homeless, says that the Gov. Abbot began sending asylum seekers to the city after the mayor’s complaints. “So, you could argue that the Governor of Texas got the idea to [shuttle migrants] from the Mayor.” In Goldfein’s opinion, “If [Adams] hadn’t said that [the mass relocation was caused by Gov. Abbot it] may have never happened.”

Moreover, Goldfein states that Mayor Adams was using the former as a “simple explanation” for stressed shelter resources rather than “avoid[ing] taking responsibility for the factors that were within his control.” 

Earlier in the year, Mayor Adams slashed the budget of agencies serving displaced NYC populations by $109 million. He said his reallocation measures would increase the City’s financial reserves. On the other hand, Goldfein lists what he sees as factors that led to the chaos in a city taxed by the mass replanting of migrants: understaffing and hiring freezes of the homeless resource department; flaws in moving people already in shelters, while trying to slow the pandemic-era eviction moratorium; limited lawyers defending people in housing court; and in general, preventing residents from becoming homeless in the first place. 

Moreover, even the Deputy Commissioner for Public Information, Julia Savel, alleged that NYC Department of Social Services commissioner Gary Jenkins covered up multiple right-to-shelter violations for immigrants. Having served as the former chief spokesperson for New York City’s Department of Homeless Services, Savel complained to City Hall multiple times, but to no avail. Later on, the whistleblower was later fired.

The immigrant speaks through the ballot

NYC congressional districts map.

A major player on the federal stage, New York electoral results dictated American political control. For instance, New York presently holds 27 members in the U.S. House of Representatives. Tied with Florida for having the third most representatives in the country–19 Democrats and 8 Republicans. This past election cycle, 26 Congressional seats were up for reelection. Also, Brooklyn-born U.S. Senator and Majority leader Chuck Schumer ran for reelection, of which he won. 

Naturally, the state’s most populous city is a crucial chess piece. The NYC metropolitan area hosts approximately two-thirds of the state’s population. Thus, their election outcomes help dictate which side gains the majority stake in the three branches of federal government, such as Congress. In the state, the elections were also terse because the last census was used to redraw New York’s political maps.

However, the Republican gubernatorial candidate’s words did not hold in NYC. The “City that Never Sleeps” is one of the most important migration hubs in the nation and arguably in the world. In 2017, Fiscal Policy Institute found that the state was home to 4.5 million foreign-born individuals, with 575,000 in NYC of the total 817,000 being undocumented. By 2020, those numbers rose to 5.8 million migrants according to data gathered by the Vera Institute for Justice. 

NYC’s population is nearly 40 percent immigrants and about 60 percent of households have an immigrant or at least one foreign born parent in the home, according to a 2021 Mayor’s Office Immigration Affairs report. The largest group of said population are Latinos, who grew by over six percent since 2010 says the City. Interestingly, this has been mirrored in the political terrain. However, migrants and refugees from all over makeup the expanded figures.

Moroever, 77.5 percent of undocumented immigrants made up nearly one half of the labor force in 2017 according to the Mayor’s office despite low wages. Contributing upwards of $40 billion, or three percent of New York GDP, and over $1 billion in taxes in recent times.

While some areas of a blue state turned red, NYC maintained a Democratic stronghold. Yet and still, Mayor Adams warned post-elections that some communities with Asian and Hispanic residents are experiencing a political “hemorrhaging” resulting in them leaning towards the Republican party. Namely, those who said they immigrated to the U.S. using legal channels. 

Notably though, every immigrant approached for this article was apprehensive or outright refused Ark Republic’s requests for interviews for fear of retaliation or persecution by American agencies or the surrounding public. All have noted that despite their negative feelings regarding their migration experience and treatment, they do not wish to bring unwarranted attention to themselves or their families.

Indeed, the connotation of political leaders’ language who are anti-immigration was rather pointed. To many seeking better lives, it was a contradiction. Especially for immigrants who are fleeing failing economies, authoritative regimes, and persecution—similarly to the forefathers of the U.S. Consequently, these types of political games create a political butterfly effect that will unfold even more in the next two years.

This story is part three of Politicking, a 4-part series that is part of a fellowship funded by Center for Community Media at the Newmark J-School.

Yolanda Aguilera focuses on culture, policy, domestic, international relations, and the African and Latin Diasporas.

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