Michael Bloomberg: How Biden and Congress Should Fix the Immigration Crisis in Our Cities

Our long-broken immigration system has now become a full-blown crisis with the collapse of the asylum process. The Biden administration has failed to address the steep price many cities are paying for a system they didn’t create and borders the cities don’t control. The White House ought to recognize the political damage the crisis will do to Democrats up and down the ticket in 2024 if it doesn’t take swift and decisive action.

The number of people seeking asylum at the southern border increased under President Donald Trump and has grown further under President Biden. The partial border wall has done nothing to slow the flow. Both parties created the problem, and both parties must work together to fix it.

For starters, current federal law prevents asylum seekers who have already been admitted into the United States from immediately working. The process of receiving a work authorization can take a year or longer. In the meantime, how are asylum seekers expected to pay rent and feed themselves and their families? This amounts to state-enforced poverty and vagrancy — against people who have shown extraordinary fortitude and grit in journeying here, often at great risk, for the opportunity to work and build a better life.

In New York City, denying people the ability to work is especially taxing because of a 1981 legal settlement, in which the city agreed to provide shelter to all homeless residents seeking it. That agreement was never intended to be a blanket guarantee of housing for an unprecedented flow of refugees, but that is what it has become.

The city has done an admirable job of finding, in short order, shelter for the more than 100,000 asylum seekers who have arrived since last spring. Currently, the city is housing about 60,000 in some 200 sites, which has forced it to take over more than 140 hotels. According to the Mayor’s Office, the cost to taxpayers, at $383 a night, is running into billions of dollars a year. New York City Mayor Eric Adams has been pleading for months, to little avail, for federal support to deal with a flood of asylum seekers.

New York is hardly alone. Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, Denver and other cities are also experiencing an influx of asylum seekers who have no housing and no means of legally earning money. Meanwhile, the federal government is failing to provide the resources necessary to hear asylum cases in anything approaching an expeditious fashion. It can take six or seven years for an applicant’s case to be resolved.

Think about it: We have a system that essentially allows an unlimited number of people to cross our borders, forbids them from working, offers them free housing, and grants them seven years of residency before ruling on whether they can legally stay. It would be hard to devise a more backward and self-defeating system.

We are a nation of immigrants because we are a land of opportunity. To deny immigrants the opportunity to work — and force them to rely on public handouts — is as anti-American as anything I can think of. It is harmful not only to the refugees, but to our country — especially at a time when so many businesses are facing labor shortages.

Critics who have latched onto Mayor Adams’s recent comments that the crisis will “destroy” the city seem more concerned with his words — spoken in understandable frustration with Washington — than with the problem itself. Solving the crisis will not be easy, especially with a divided Congress. But ignoring it will only make it worse, while also elevating the political fortunes of xenophobes and eroding public support for immigration reform.

It’s imperative that Congress and the president work together to secure the resources and adopt the policy changes necessary to fix the asylum process. That means creating a system that is:

Compassionate. America’s refugee laws were designed to help those who were uprooted by World War II and to protect those escaping repressive communist regimes, but the laws are now being used by those fleeing economic hardship and gang violence. Their cases can be heartbreaking, and the United States must do more to help other countries address violence and poverty. But the asylum process should be orderly enough to ensure that we can prioritize taking in — and helping resettle — those fleeing war and state persecution.

Fair. Those who wait their turn for a visa should be respected. The circumvention of standard immigration pathways only reduces incentives to follow the rules.

Just. Justice delayed, as the saying goes, is justice denied. Congress should provide the resources the administration needs to ensure that asylum claims can be resolved in days or weeks, not years.

Practical. If the U.S. government lets you in, it should let you work. It’s the American way, and it’s what generations of immigrants have done. President Biden should use his executive authority to permit many more people to work, and he should work with Congress to ensure that all others can, too.

Rational. Housing costs should not be borne by taxpayers, who cannot possibly be expected to pay to house all the people who arrive every year. Mayor Adams is right in seeking to update the city’s consent decree in order to make this clear, and the Biden administration should reach out to mayors around the country who recognize the power of refugees to help revive and spur local economies.

Humane. When it admits asylum seekers, the federal government should not force local governments to shoulder the burden alone. Cities need federal support to help connect asylum seekers, many of whom arrive with nothing, to employment, housing and services.

Tackling the crisis in ways that stay true to our history and values is the best way to help asylum seekers, support cities and prevent xenophobes from gaining political power.

Michael R. Bloomberg (@MikeBloomberg) is the founder of Bloomberg and Bloomberg Philanthropies, served as mayor of New York from 2002 to 2013 and was a candidate for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

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