Urban Matters | If We’re True to Our Better Selves We Can Meet the Migrant Challenge

Urban Matters | If We’re True to Our Better Selves We Can Meet the Migrant Challenge
By Ruth W. Messinger | September 27, 2023

We are at a challenging moment in the ever-unfolding story of our city. But it’s actually a place we have often been before.

The immediate challenge is, of course, the entry into the city during the last year of over 110,000 migrants fleeing oppression and violence in their home countries south of the border, in Africa, and elsewhere.

But a bigger, more consequential, and even existential challenge is: How will we, the people of this city of immigrants, respond? And for the last few months, politically and administratively, we have been doing really badly on that front. Each level of government has blamed another. The plea for State and Federal funding assistance – entirely legitimate – was the sole subject of several mayoral press conferences, meaning that no other options were put forward.

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Then it got worse.

At a community “town hall” earlier this month,  before the mayor was even asked about the migrants, he responded to a generic question about City services by first summarizing some successes. But then he proclaimed they would be eroded by the immigrant arrivals, an issue that “will destroy New York.”

His effort to backtrack the next day, claiming that he meant that local spending for the immigrants would hurt the basic services budget of the City, did not take the spotlight off his angry and divisive words. In fact, they have been quoted regularly by protesters demonstrating against migrant shelters since he said them.

At the same time, we’ve learned of serious flaws in a $432 million contract the City wrote to a company that promised to help relocate immigrants Upstate despite their having no experience doing this sort of work. The contract’s provisions seemingly did more to enrich the company than to hold it accountable for performance. Then the company’s CEO resigned for “personal reasons” after it came to light that he had lied about his resumé, giving himself a college degree he hadn’t earned. Wisely, the City controller has put a hold on approving the contract.

There has, fortunately, also been some recent good news. Last week, the Federal government, while still not properly responsive to the legitimate plea for funds to support the outlay the City is making, suddenly granted many in the immigrant population who’ve come from Venezuela temporary protected status (TPS). That will enable a significant cohort of our new New Yorkers to get work authorization. It will only come once a great deal of paperwork is completed – but it’s a true victory, nonetheless.

And the outpouring of positive concern from New Yorkers continues to amaze. Consider how The New School’s own excellent InsideSchools project stepped up to help migrant families navigate school enrollment; the continuing success of an entirely volunteer free store, the Little Shop of Kindness, now in a wonderful space donated by the Seventh Day Adventists; and the offer from over 200 houses of worship to house new New Yorkers if City guidelines could be made more flexible.

In addition, there are groups in the City and Upstate – secular and faith-based – that continue to greet busloads of arriving migrants, offer food and transportation, and provide legal and health services out of mosques, churches, synagogues, and storefronts. The entering class of rabbinic scholars at the Jewish Theological Seminary spent their first day filling 300 backpacks with school supplies for migrant students. Some prominent businesspeople who see the labor potential represented here, and are ready to employ people as soon as possible, are asking government to expedite the receipt of working papers. There are more such stories every day.

There is also a covenant, drafted by secular and faith organizations, which lays out all the work they are doing and will continue to do to help this population. It also petitions government at all levels to become more collaborative, transparent, and accountable. This QR code provides access to that document, signed by more than 250 faith leaders.

To be sure, there are many people in government trying to avoid divisive rhetoric. We need more of them to speak out. We also need their collaboration in developing a major initiative for volunteers to help asylum-seekers and TPS immigrants complete the paperwork that will give them work options.

We should all proceed knowing that history is on our side. Throughout that history, new groups of immigrants to New York, some of them our forebears, have arrived, put down roots, spread branches, and helped build the city as they were advancing themselves.

Today 60 percent of New Yorkers are immigrants or first-generation children of immigrants. That should be part of every statement the mayor makes. His rhetoric about immigrants destroying our municipal budget should stop. Even if his projection of $4 billion a year in new costs is accurate (which many others think is not the case), it is only four percent of our total budget. A much more nuanced commentary would be more constructive and could unify instead of divide.

During my past two decades of work in international human rights and social change, I’ve drawn strength from the groups that set out on their own to find ways to reach across differences and build for justice. Sometimes, gloriously, they’ve won their battles. Too often, however, their best efforts were stymied by political leaders determined to keep them down, more interested in advancing themselves and fighting with others for power.

I want New York City to be better than that: To celebrate all the resilience and determination of our newest residents; to remember that we are a city of immigrants, built by immigrants; and to find ways to unite local, State, and Federal officials to be there as these new New Yorkers get jobs, enroll their kids in our schools, put down roots, and help our economy.


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