New York’s Mayor Eric Adams is fond of speaking about how his religious faith guides him. “I can’t separate my belief because I’m an elected official,” he said earlier this year at an interfaith prayer breakfast. “When I walk, I walk with God. When I talk, I talk with God.” It’s consistent with his upbringing in a Pentecostal church in Brooklyn where the Rev. Herbert Daughtry presided, merging religious faith with political activism as a critic of Mayor Edward Koch in the 1980s.
It’s a Bible-based faith, so as Adams confronts the crisis of finding housing for the more than 113,000 migrants who’ve come to New York in recent months, he would need to wrestle with one of the central themes of both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament: the imperative to welcome strangers. For Christians, there is Jesus’ standard for final judgment: “I was a stranger, and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35). This distills dozens of references to migrants in the Hebrew Bible. For example: “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:33-34).
It’s a challenge not only for Adams, but for the entire city. The crunch of asylum-seeking migrants from across the southern border has more than doubled the number of people needing housing in city-run shelters—112,800, including 59,900 recently arrived migrants, as of September 13. The city’s “right to shelter” policy does not stem from charity; in 1979, a judge ruled that under the New York State Constitution, the city and state were required to shelter the unhoused, or “Bowery derelicts,” as the opinion said. In 1981, the Koch administration settled the case by agreeing to standards for the shelters and compliance monitoring. Ever since, mayors have been trying to water down or get out of the consent decree, and Adams has joined them.
The multi-billion-dollar cost of sheltering such a sudden influx of homeless people has touched a sore spot in the city’s psyche—the fear of fiscal insolvency, which has lurked ever since near-bankruptcy in the 1970s. The budget challenge is real, but Adams’s hyperbolic attempt to focus attention on it has stoked anti-immigrant fervor both locally and nationally. He made headlines with remarks that “this issue will destroy New York City” and that “the city we knew, we’re about to lose.”
New York mayors tend toward doomsday predictions when facing a budget nightmare in order to get attention from aloof federal and state officials. Adams’s estimate of a $12 billion cost over three years is close to a worst-case scenario, judging from a report from the city’s Independent Budget Office. But in any scenario, the cost is still big enough to plan for across-the-board spending cuts in the city’s annual budget of $107 billion, larger than that of all but four states. (The City Council has to approve the budget for it to take effect.)
Adams is right that in this case, the feds and the state have a responsibility to do more to help the city out of its hole. President Biden and Congress have a duty to fix a long-broken immigration system, or at least in the short term to make it possible for arriving asylum applicants to take jobs so they can work their way out of city shelters. For the 2023 fiscal year, New York City received 29 percent of the pot of money the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Shelter and Services Program allocated nationally to organizations that help migrants during their first forty-five days after federal immigration authorities release them. But the amount the city got—$107 million—is minimal compared to the need, and shows how badly Congress has failed to help localities across the country with expenses that the federal government should be responsible for. For 2023, the grants totaled $364 million nationally.
The state, which has a legal responsibility for housing New York’s homeless, has tinkered with state and federal funding formulas over the years to reduce its share of the overall expense, according to the city’s Independent Budget Office. So the city’s share of funding shelters for families increased from 42 percent in 2018 to 76 percent in 2022, even before the current crisis.
Meanwhile, a frenzied “No Migrants” movement will ensure that any budget cuts needed to balance the books in New York will be blamed on the asylum seekers, the poorest of the poor. My Brooklyn neighborhood, located three miles from a national park where the Biden administration has agreed to let the city shelter more than two thousand unhoused migrants, has become a hotbed for this anti-immigrant sentiment. The National Parks Service and the city announced on September 15 that a deal had been struck to lease land at Floyd Bennett Field, a former airport that has been part of Gateway National Recreation Area since 1972, for temporary shelters for one year.
There are many good arguments against sidestepping a federal law that created parkland “to preserve and protect for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations an area possessing outstanding natural and recreational features.” I’ve been part of a community garden at Floyd Bennett Field for more than thirty years, and I go fishing there occasionally—yes, a place in Brooklyn for casting for bluefish, growing zucchini, and even camping. I can’t say I like the idea that the Interior Department has given in to the latest of various city attempts over the years to push its problems to this parkland on the city’s periphery.
But then there’s that inconvenient bit of Scripture: “I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.”
Radio personality Curtis Sliwa, the Republican candidate on the losing end of Democrat Adams’s landslide mayoral victory in 2021, has played the role of outside agitator at multiple rallies in the neighborhood, trying to stoke fears that the migrants will be terrorists.
In one rally outside Floyd Bennett Field, he recalled the 1993 and 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. “We seem to forget and now we are allowing terrorists to cross our border,” he continued. “Their number one location to strike and try to clear the table for a third time is New York City. And we have made it so easy for them.” All the terrorists have to do is to “cross over the Rio Grande…. Who meets them on the American side?” he asked.
“Eric Adams?” someone shouted.
“Nope,” Sliwa replied. “Catholic Charities, which is a racket.” Sliwa, who spent several of his high-school years at a prestigious Jesuit school, Brooklyn Prep, castigated the church agency for carrying out its mission of welcoming the stranger.
Local Democratic elected officials in Brooklyn have shared the stage with Sliwa. My Assembly representative, Jaime Williams, was especially enthusiastic. “Our mayor said it will destroy our city!” she shouted at a rally. Williams, herself an immigrant from Trinidad and Tobago and a former project director at Catholic Charities of Brooklyn and Queens with a master's in social work from Fordham, declared herself “sick and fed up,” then led the crowd in a chant of “Close our borders.”
One of the most telling comments I’ve heard about the controversy came from Anne Williams-Isom, deputy mayor for health and human services and a Fordham alumna who held a chair in child-welfare studies at the university. In one of her periodic briefings, she noted that resources had to be set aside to provide mental-health services, not only for asylum seekers traumatized by their journey, but for the employees who experienced secondary trauma while trying to counsel them to find jobs and housing.
In observing the immigration courts, I’ve noticed that so many of the people who work in this terrible system are coping with some degree of trauma. It comes from hearing asylum seekers set out their stories, in harrowing and often credible detail. I think of the case of a Guatemalan woman who I saw cry through most of a two-hour hearing as she described how a failed relationship with a man who had political influence led to years of threats and beatings, and then escalated into blackmail threats aimed at her children, which prompted her to flee. I don’t think anyone disbelieved her, but her sufferings didn’t fit easily into the legal categories for asylum. Her petition was denied.
Defense and government lawyers, judges, court staff, caseworkers: many seem burnt out. And now the same is happening to some of the city workers who are trying, person-to-person, to undo the knots of the U.S. immigration system. It’s a system that, over time, shocks the conscience.
As for Mayor Adams, he would lead us to believe his conscience is clear. “When I'm talking about making sure that we handle the asylum-seekers crisis, that's based on my faith,” he said in an interview with WINS Radio’s Susan Richards. “And so instead of saying, ‘He's making these tough decisions because he's inhumane,’ no, I'm making them because I'm compassionate, because I care about people, because that's how I was raised: to care about people.”