In El Paso, Texas, they’ve declared a state of emergency as hundreds of men and women are sleeping on sidewalks, but the crisis has spread to America’s largest cities. In New York, Mayor Eric Adams has lamented the pressure on his city’s already-strained budget — with people camped out in cheap hotels and bus terminals — and Chicago leaders have been forced to house migrants in public buildings and even police stations.
The situation is poised to worsen with the US government losing its power to quickly expel migrants using a pandemic-era measure known as Title 42 that’s expiring on Thursday. It’s also placed Biden in a standoff with Republican and Democratic leaders at the state and local level who say they need more federal help to handle the influx.
Pedro Tonito, 43, and his family have been in the US for two weeks after a months-long journey from Venezuela that involved a dangerous crossing of the Rio Grande, he told Bloomberg News. They’re now among dozens of young migrant families staying at a La Quinta Inn in Queens as they wait for documents to be able to live in the US.
“It wasn’t easy to make this decision, to leave our home and entire family back in Venezuela,” Tonito said in Spanish. “But we didn’t have a choice. We lost our jobs. We would go days without eating. My children were starving.”
The New York mayor has urged the administration to better coordinate response efforts and speed up federal financial assistance and work permissions for migrants. He’s said the city is receiving around 500 migrants per day from border states, and his office expects those numbers could double with the end of Title 42.
Read more: New York City Suspends Shelter Rules as Migrant Numbers Surge
Adams was not included on a list of Biden campaign surrogates released Wednesday, even though the Washington Post reported in March he would be included. The omission was reported earlier by Politico.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she took emergency measures to respond to a “surge of new arrivals since last month,” including 48 people she said were bused this week by Texas Governor Greg Abbott. She called for more aid from federal and state governments.
The tensions with Democrats come at a difficult time for the president, whose political team has looked to fellow party members to boost his reelection campaign. Biden’s also stuck in a high-stakes showdown with Republicans over raising the US debt limit and is set next week to embark on a trip to Japan, Papua New Guinea and Australia.
“The Biden administration had two years to prepare for this and did not do so. And our state is going to bear the brunt,” Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat-turned-independent who represents a battleground Biden won in 2020, said last weekend on CBS News.
While immigration has become a political albatross for Biden, mass migration to the US predates his presidency. Violence, poverty and political repression in Latin America have driven people north. Mexican and Central American migrants have sought to enter the US through the asylum system, recently joined by growing numbers of people from South America and the Caribbean.
El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser declared a state of emergency last week ahead of the lifting of Title 42. This will allow the city to open up temporary shelters ahead of an expected surge in migrants once the order expires. He said some migrants are under the false impression that they will be able to stay in the US without any documentation once Title 42 ends.
The Biden administration has responded with new rules that would quickly reject asylum claims for most people crossing the border who did not first seek protections in countries they traveled through, while allowing in more migrants who schedule a meeting with immigration authorities before entering the US.
Nearly 1,500 military personnel are also being sent to the southwest border to help authorities with logistical tasks, and the Department of Homeland Security said it will award $290 million to communities taking in migrants, on top of $135 million already allotted.
But some state and local leaders say those measures are still not enough. New York City received just $30.5 million of the more than $350 million it requested from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to manage costs related to the migrants. Illinois asked for more than $100 million in additional federal funding but will not receive close to that amount, according to Jordan Abudayyeh, a spokesperson for Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said Wednesday the administration has been constrained by “outdated” and “broken” immigration laws and Congress’ decision to grant only around half of Biden’s request for $4 billion to handle the influx.
Mayorkas said Thursday at the White House that FEMA personnel are used only for specific kinds of emergencies, but added that the agency is coordinating to distribute $363 million to cities and communities that need funding for shelter and services.
“I cannot overstate how much of a challenge it is going to be and how we all have to deal with it as one administration and one country. Fundamentally, we need Congress to act,” Mayorkas said.
While budgets have been stretched, a surge in migrants could help ease labor shortages that have plagued companies in the US and driven up wages, which in turn has helped fuel inflation.
But a fresh wave of migrants at the southern border could also renew pressure on small towns in the region. Arizona Governor Katie Hobbs this week announced her own “preparedness plan” to help shelter and transport migrants.
“Without much more robust action from the federal government, the current situation will only get worse,” she said Monday. “As of today, we have not received an adequate response.”
Also on Monday, Texas Governor Abbott, a Republican, ordered additional national guard units to the border. The troops will be sent to “hot spots” to turn back migrants.
Back in New York, Tonito said his family is receiving meals and his children are attending school nearby, but they have no money and aren’t legally allowed to work.
“I’m here to work. I’ll do anything – cook in a kitchen, clean toilets, construction, it doesn’t matter. We came to work hard and to live the American dream,” he said.
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