Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and author of the book “OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own. View more opinion on CNN.
New York is a city of immigrants. If you were to poll riders on any given rush hour subway car, I suspect you’d find people who hail from a dozen or more different countries. A map of New York’s neighborhoods is a mosaic of ethnic enclaves; a walk down many city blocks is a festival of restaurants, clothing and groceries representing nations near and far. The United Nations is here, in its gleaming building on the East River – and this week, representatives from its member states are meeting at its General Assembly – and this city is a fitting home for its mission of cooperation and connection across borders.
This is what makes New York City great. And how we treat newcomers – how we welcome them – is what makes New York City good.
But that goodness is currently being manipulated by xenophobic conservative governors, most notably Greg Abbott of Texas and Ron DeSantis of Florida, who are shipping migrants to New York and other sanctuary cities, or those that sometimes refuse to comply with draconian anti-immigrant laws that would deport people simply for seeking a better life in the US. New York City alone has received some 13,000 migrants, according to the city’s mayor, Eric Adams; nine buses full of people arrived just this weekend.
This volume of newcomers has put tremendous strain on New York’s already over-stretched shelter system. New York City is unique in that it is required to place every homeless New Yorker in a shelter bed every night, or face fines. But with 9,500 migrants currently in the shelter system, it has almost maxed out its capacity.
For the red state governors who fall into DeSantis and Abbott’s camp, this is the point: They say that they’ve been taking on the burden of dealing with desperate newcomers, and they think that liberal states should share in the problem. Maybe, they seem to think, this will make liberals get tougher about border enforcement.
But tough border enforcement already exists – more than two million people have been apprehended at the border this year alone, a new record. Tough border policies do not solve the problems driving the current wave of migration to the US from places including Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua. According to Customs and Border Protection data, the number of migrants from those countries is up 175% since August 2021 (while the numbers from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras are down 43%).
The problem is authoritarian governments that have made life unlivable for their citizens –people who want the kind of freedom and opportunity conservatives say makes life in the US so great. Most of the people coming from these countries are not law-breaking criminals so much as people yearning to break free of tyranny, subjugation and poverty. That at least some of this suffering is being caused by left-wing governments could, for a more empathetic conservative party, be a reason to welcome these folks, who are legally seeking asylum.
This is cruel, but it’s also self-defeating. Immigration is only a problem if you keep immigrants scared, poor, desperate and unable to contribute to their new home. Enable people to have security, work and the ability to plan for their future, and they put in more than they take: They create more jobs, and contribute more in tax revenue than they pull out. Their kids become the next generation of entrepreneurs and job-creators.
Some of the same conservatives who wring their hands over an alleged crisis in childbearing, claiming that American women simply are not having enough kids to keep the economy growing and support retirees, also oppose welcoming in new immigrants and their children. Why?
The US currently has some 11 million open jobs, with employers badly in need of labor, much of it not requiring a high school degree, let alone a college diploma. One major cause of this shortage: The radical drop-off in immigration into the US caused by the pandemic.
Instead of treating men, women and children like political pawns and humiliating them for photo ops, conservative politicians could be working across the aisle to help newcomers find stability, which would in turn enable them to fill open jobs and get their kids in school and on the path to upward mobility – a win all around.
To do that, we need much more investment in immigration courts so that asylum claims and other immigration matters can be processed in a reasonable amount of time, instead of making those claiming asylum wait years and years to know if their futures are safe and secure. Conservative states also need to invest in new arrivals, helping them to find jobs and housing so that they can start giving back to their new homes. Buses to blue states may be politically appealing, but it’s not actually beneficial to state economies.
And progressive states, of course, should continue doing all they can to help the newcomers that arrive – and must also demand that our leaders in the federal government embrace more humane immigration policies, including welcoming those fleeing authoritarianism and helping them to find security as soon as possible.
Immigrants are not a problem. Immigration is only a problem because our support systems are weak and underfunded, our court systems understaffed and still reeling from pandemic shutdowns, and some of our neighboring countries oppressive basket cases. For the most part, these problems are solvable – at least the ones within our own borders. But they aren’t going to be fixed by more brutal border policies that force people to take ever-greater risks. And they certainly can’t be fixed by trafficking scared and confused people – and turning their tragedy into a vindictive political joke.