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New York and Texas go to battle over a surge in immigrants

Migrants from Venezuela who boarded a bus in Del Rio, Tex., disembark in D.C. on Aug. 2. (Stefani Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images)
5 min

New York Mayor Eric Adams (D) is no stranger to media stunts. Over the weekend, though, he was taking issue with someone else’s: Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R).

“It is unimaginable what the governor of Texas has done,” Adams said during a news conference outside of the city’s bus terminal. “When you think about this country, a country that has always been open to those who are fleeing persecution and other intolerable conditions, we’ve always welcomed that. And this governor is not doing that in Texas.”

What did Abbott do? He implemented a policy in which migrants being released by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection after being stopped at the border with Mexico could receive free transit to Washington and New York. The New York Times interviewed one recent arrival in Washington, who explained that he’d been given a choice between paying $50 to go to San Antonio or getting a free ride to the nation’s capital. He chose the latter.

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On Friday, Abbott proudly announced that the first busload of migrants to New York had reached their destination.

“In addition to Washington, D.C., New York City is the ideal destination for these migrants, who can receive the abundance of city services and housing that Mayor Eric Adams has boasted about within the sanctuary city,” he said in a statement. “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.”

City officials were skeptical that the arrivals were the first from Texas. In mid-July, Adams called for additional support from federal officials to deal with the influx, claiming at the time that “families are arriving on buses sent by the Texas and Arizona governments.”

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) similarly asked for support from the federal government, requesting National Guard support to process the busloads of migrants arriving in her city. That request was denied.

There are a few different things overlapping here that should be disentangled. One is Abbott’s explicit election-year jockeying to elevate immigration as an issue. Another is the explicit political response from Bowser and Adams, using Abbott’s efforts to cast him as the problem instead of the migrants.

This is all triggered, of course, by the increase in migrants stopped at the border with Mexico. And that, in turn, is complicated by an important aspect of migration to the United States: whether new arrivals have family in the country.

By now, you’re probably aware that there’s been a surge in apprehensions at the border. The top-line figures don’t tell the whole story; most of those apprehended are not then released in the United States while their cases are processed. But tens of thousands are, and they will often seek out communities where they have relatives or where there are others from their home countries.

One of the interesting patterns in recent months is that an increasing percentage of those stopped at the U.S.-Mexico border are not from Mexico or the three Central American countries that have long made up a significant portion of arrivals. In 2021, about a quarter of those apprehended at the border were from other countries. In 2022, more than 40 percent have been from other nations.

That matters in part because cities like New York and Washington have relatively small populations of people from Mexico and Central America. Census Bureau data from 2020 show that cities with large populations of Mexican-born residents are largely in Texas, with the exception of Chicago. Foreign-born residents from other countries outside of Central America tend to live in more populous counties.

So New York has a large population of people from Latin America — but a lot of them are from the Caribbean and often didn’t arrive by crossing the border with Mexico. Seattle has a lot of foreign-born residents, largely from Asia. (Asians make up an estimated 14 percent of undocumented immigrants in the U.S.) In southern Florida, the foreign-born residents are heavily from Cuba and other Caribbean nations.

What this means for New York and Washington is twofold. First is that since more of those stopped at the border are not from Mexico and Central America there may be more arrivals who have relatives in those cities who are arriving independently of efforts by Abbott. On the other hand, those taking advantage of the free transportation offer may be less likely to have family at their destination and therefore fewer resources — income, housing — upon arrival. Migrants in that group may then require services from the government. (The man in the Times article, arriving from Venezuela, provided an example of that.)

The political flexing masks a real, understated point. In his statement, Abbott’s team touted how the busing effort was “providing much-needed relief to Texas’ overwhelmed border communities.” Speaking to the Times, the administrator of a New York City nonprofit that’s been aiding new arrivals lamented the increase, saying, “the infrastructure in New York is not built for this. We are not on the border.”

As Adams noted in July, though, he’s bound by a commitment that Abbott isn’t: providing resources for those migrants. He’d just rather blame Abbott than immigrants for the way in which that strains the city’s resources.