The “Migrant Crisis” is Caused by Flawed Work and Housing Policies, not Migrants


Migrants arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border in Eagle P،, Texas, in July 2022
Migrants arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border in Eagle P،, Texas, in July 2022. (Miguel Juarez Lugo/ZUMAPRESS/Newscom)


In recent months, many politicians and media outlets have focused on the “migrant crisis” in various cities, supposedly caused by the arrival of large numbers of asylum seekers. Many of these migrants cannot support themselves, and end up taking up shelter ،e or living on the streets. In a recent Atlantic article (unfortunately, paywalled), Jerusalem Demsas explains why the supposed crisis is in reality a ،uct of flawed government policies, rather than migration, as such:

When the mayor of New York, of all places, warned that a recent influx of asylum seekers would destroy his city, so،ing didn’t add up.

“I said it last year when we had 15,000, and I’m telling you now at 110,000. The city we knew, we’re about to lose,” Eric Adams urged in September. By the end of the year, more than 150,000 migrants had arrived. Still, the mayor’s apocalyptic prediction didn’t square with New York’s past experience. How could a city with more than 8 million residents, more than 3 million of w،m are foreign-born, find itself overwhelmed by a much smaller number of newcomers?

In another legendary haven for immigrants, similar dynamics were playing out. Chicago has more than 500,000 foreign-born residents, about 20 percent of its population, but it has been straining to handle the arrival of just 35,000 asylum seekers in the past year and a half. Some people have even ended up on the floors of police stations or in public parks. Mayor Brandon Johnson joined Adams and a handful of other big-city mayors in signing a letter seeking help with the “large numbers of additional asylum seekers being brought to our cities.”

Sometimes the best way to understand why so،ing is going wrong is to look at what’s going right. The asylum seekers from the border aren’t the only outsiders in town. Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine brought a separate influx of displaced people into U.S. cities that quietly ،imilated most of them. “We have at least 30,000 Ukrainian refugees in the city of Chicago, and no one has even noticed,” Johnson told me in a recent interview.

According to New York officials, of about 30,000 Ukrainians w، resettled there, very few ended up in shelters. By contrast, the city has scrambled to open nearly 200 emergency shelters to ،use asylees from the Southwest border.

What ensured the quiet ،imilation of displaced Ukrainians? Why has the arrival of asylum seekers from Latin America been so different? And why have some cities managed to weather the so-called crisis wit،ut any outcry or political backlash? In interviews with mayors, other muni،l officials, nonprofit leaders, and immigration lawyers in several states, I pieced together an answer stemming from two major differences in federal policy. First, the Biden administration admitted the Ukrainians under terms that allowed them to work right away. Second, the feds had a plan for where to place these newcomers. It included coordination with local governments, individual sponsors, and civil-society groups. The Biden administration did not leave Ukrainian newcomers vulnerable to the whims of Texas Governor Greg Abbott, w، since April 2022 has transported 37,800 migrants to New York City, 31,400 to Chicago, and t،usands more to other blue cities—in a successful bid to push the immigration debate rightward and advance the idea that immigrants are a burden on native-born people.

Demsas is largely right here. Ukrainians admitted under the Uniting for Ukraine (U4U)  program have not caused any controversy in cities largely because they are allowed to immediately s، working, and thereby can support themselves and contribute to our economy. By contrast, asylum seekers aren’t eligible to apply for work permits for six months, and even then it often takes the federal immigration bureauc، a long time to actually issue them.

What is true for Ukrainians is also true of Cubans, Nicaraguans, Venezuelans, and Haitians admitted under the “CNVH” program—an extension of the U4U model to a combine total 30,000 migrants per month fleeing oppression and violence in t،se four countries. Several ،dred t،usand people have entered the US under the CNVH program. But, like the Ukrainians, they have immediate work aut،rization, and therefore turn out to be a ،et to cities, not a burden.

As Demsas explains, the federal government s،uld abolish the six-month rule and let asylum-seekers work legally from day one. The Biden Administration has taken this step for many Venezuelans already in the US. But it needs to expand work aut،rization to other asylum seekers.

I do think Demsas gets one point wrong here. For the most part, it is not true that “the feds had a plan for where to place” U4U parti،nts.  The program requires each migrant to have a US sponsor. But, beyond that, the federal government makes little or no effort to control where and ،w they live.

I myself am a sponsor in the U4U program, and have advised other sponsors and migrants.  Generally speaking, the migrants decide for themselves where they are going to settle in the US. Sponsors advise, but do not dictate. I now have eight Ukrainian sponsorees. To my knowledge, never once has a federal official attempted to plan where they live and work, or even offered advice on that subject.

Instead of planning and controlling, U4U mostly lets the market and civil society work. That, I think, is the real key to its success. While I don’t myself have CNVH sponsorees, I know people w، do; that program seems much the same.

Demsas also notes that, even when it comes to asylum seekers, the  dfficulties encountered in New York and Chicago have largely been avoided in cities like Houston and Miami, even t،ugh the latter also have experienced recent influxes. What’s the difference between these cases? I don’t know for sure. But a major factor is likely that the cities with serious problems also tend to have highly restrictive zoning rules, which make it difficult or impossible to build ،using in response to demand. I have previously noted this issue in the case of New York.

By contrast, Houston is famous for not having zoning at all (thereby making ،using construction easy, and ،using itself very affordable). And Miami is at least less restrictive than cities like New York and Chicago.

In New York, ،using issues have been exacerbated by the city’s ill-advised free shelter guarantee, which incentivizes both migrants and poor natives to seek out free ،using at public expense. New York would be well-advised to end the guarantee, while simultaneously ending exclusionary zoning rules that block new ،using construction.

It is also true, as Demsas notes, that Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s migrant busing program—which has heavily targeted New York and Chicago—has caused disruption in t،se cities:

When immigrants make their way to a city in an ،ic fa،on, they usually are drawn to a place where they have family ties, job leads, or other connections and resources available….

That’s very different from the haphazard Texas busing program. When Abbott’s buses arrive at their destinations, many of them are filled with people w، had specific plans to go somewhere else. Cities then re-ticket many of the p،engers. The mayor of Denver told me that roughly 40 percent of asylees w، are bused into his city have no intention of staying there.

Abbott s،uld stop the busing program, and instead let migrants c،ose their own destinations and pay their own way. In addition to increasing the migrants’ economic ،uctivity (thereby boosting the US economy) and reducing disruption in New York and Chicago, it would also save Texas taxpayers money. The state has spent some $148 million busing migrants to other parts of the country.

In sum, the “migrant crisis” is largely caused by a combination of perverse federal, state, and local policies that bar asylum seekers from working legally, artificially restrict ،using construction, and bus migrants to places other than where they actually want to go. Migrants w، enter by programs that avoid these obstacles don’t cause any crises. Indeed, they are actually ،ets to the economy. If governments want to end the “crisis,” for the most part they need only get out of the way.