Since August 5, Texas has been sending busloads of migrants—at least 900 people so far—to New York City after they’ve been processed and released by Customs and Border Protection. In New York, they can “receive the abundance of city services and housing that Mayor Eric Adams has boasted about within the sanctuary city,” Texas Governor Greg Abbott told reporters. “I hope he follows through on his promise of welcoming all migrants with open arms so that our overrun and overwhelmed border towns can find relief.”
The fact that most asylum seekers have no plans to settle in border towns is immaterial to Abbott’s stunt. For his purposes, all that matters is the appearance of chaos—and that’s exactly what he’s providing. Adams says Abbott’s administration has refused to coordinate with the city and hasn’t even disclosed when buses are expected to arrive or how many people are on board. When officials in New York complain about being overwhelmed, Abbott gets to accuse liberals who claim to support immigration of “hypocrisy,” as he did on Sean Hannity’s show.
Abbott has indeed revealed the inherent contradiction of so-called sanctuary cities, though not in the way he thinks. Sanctuary cities, including New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago, commit to limit their cooperation with federal immigration agencies. But there’s no legal definition of what a sanctuary city is, and while Adams has said that it is the city’s “responsibility” to help arriving asylum seekers, that promise has proved to be largely hollow. For the most part, it’s local immigrant advocacy organizations and mutual aid groups that have been handling the intake and providing migrants with the resources they need to start life in a new city. And while it’s true that the city has placed some migrant families who have nowhere else to go in homeless shelters, Adams has accused migrants of straining the city’s overburdened shelter system—even though his first budget proposal cut $615 million from the Department of Homeless Services. In his eight months in office, Adams has reignited a war on so-called quality-of-life crimes, disproportionately targeting working-class people of color, many of whom are undocumented. This is the actual hypocrisy of tough-on-crime sanctuary cities: Their leaders purport to welcome immigrants, and may even make some efforts to do so, while presiding over a criminal legal system that punishes them at the earliest opportunity.
For instance, the NYPD has been confiscating mopeds, which delivery workers, many of whom are immigrants, say they need to do their jobs. The city requires mopeds to be registered with the DMV and for their drivers to be licensed, stipulations many undocumented immigrants may be unaware of. While undocumented immigrants can apply for driver’s licenses in New York, it’s likely that some are afraid that doing so will put them on the radar of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Advocates say the NYPD has been seizing legally operated mopeds, too, and not giving delivery workers a chance to get their vehicles back. Adams is also increasing enforcement against street vendors. In May, officers arrested a woman for selling fruit in a subway station without a license.
Everyday criminalization disproportionately harms immigrant New Yorkers. Shortly after Donald Trump took office, the NYPD tried to assuage people’s fears by saying no one would get “deported for jumping a turnstile.” But as Gothamist reported, any two convictions for crimes “involving moral turpitude,” including turnstile jumping and petty theft, can qualify someone for deportation, even if they have a green card. This year, Adams said he wants district attorneys to start prosecuting people for fare evasion again.
In fact, every time someone is arrested in any city, their data is sent to federal criminal databases accessible by ICE. The NYPD doesn’t honor ICE detainers, meaning it doesn’t hold people after they’ve made bail so ICE can pick them up. But ICE can still arrest people elsewhere. In 2018, the agency made headlines for arresting immigrants at courthouses in New York.
Still, it’s undeniable that New York City is friendlier to immigrants than Greg Abbott’s Texas is. Immigration judges in the city are far more likely to grant asylum than their counterparts in Texas, and both the city and state governments have attempted to protect immigrants in other ways. Anyone who lives in the city can get an IDNYC card regardless of immigration status, and that information isn’t shared with federal law enforcement. Migrants arriving from Texas have obtained the ID cards in order to work while they wait for their asylum claims to be decided in court. During the pandemic, the state’s Excluded Workers Fund distributed up to $15,600 to New Yorkers who weren’t eligible for unemployment or federal relief, including undocumented immigrants. The city even passed a noncitizen voting law that would have allowed legal permanent residents and people with visas to vote in municipal elections, though it was struck down by a judge as unconstitutional. These efforts, while well-meaning and often helpful, are only a starting point. One of the simplest ways New York could help immigrants is by ending the prosecution of “quality of life” crimes that so often lead to ICE arrests and deportations.