Influx of Migrants Exposes Democrats’ Division on Immigration

In recent years, Alisa Pata, a lifelong Democrat living in Manhattan, has spent far more time worrying about Donald J. Trump than immigration. But now, as she reads about the influx of migrants coming to her city, that’s starting to change.

“We have too many people coming in,” said Ms. Pata, 85, as her older sister unpacked a travel Scrabble board for a game in the park. “Biden could do something more about putting our borders up a little stronger. I mean, we’re not here to take in the whole world. We can only do so much.”

Sitting a few feet away, Daniela Garduño, 24, who also supported President Biden, had the opposite view. She cringed when she heard Eric Adams, the city’s Democratic mayor, say that the asylum seekers would “destroy New York City.” It reminded Ms. Garduño of the conservative politicians in her native Texas.

She left the state for New York expecting more liberal politics, said Ms. Garduño, a paralegal. “And now it seems like there’s just so many echoes.”

In some of the country’s most liberal cities, Democrats are wrestling with the complications of a dysfunctional immigration system and a set of problems that for many years has largely remained thousands of miles away. The new wave of migrants, some bused north by Republican governors, is exposing fissures in a party that was for the most part unified against the hard-line immigration policies of the Trump administration.

Most strikingly, much of the debate over incoming migrants is happening not in swing states or battleground suburban counties, but in some of the most diverse — and deeply blue — corners of the country.

In interviews with more than two dozen voters in the Democratic strongholds of New York, Boston and Chicago, most embraced the migrants, whom they saw as fleeing difficult and desperate circumstances. They largely praised the Biden administration’s decision to expand temporary protected status to 472,000 Venezuelans, allowing them to work legally in the United States for 18 months. Many said they believed that the new arrivals should be allowed to try to support themselves and saw plenty of available jobs to be filled.

“The restaurant industry has been lacking cooks, bus people and dishwashers for years now — we were calling cooks unicorns because nobody could find them,” said David Bonomi, 47, a Democrat who owns a restaurant in Chicago’s Little Italy. “If there’s people who are here looking for a better life, looking for opportunity and willing to do those jobs, I’m absolutely for it.”

But many expressed frustration with the Democratic leaders managing the new arrivals, and some worried that the Biden administration’s new order was only encouraging more people to come.

“There are all kinds of empty dwellings in Chicago. Put them in there, and let them work,” said Charles Kelly, a retiree who was riding his bike in Chicago’s Ravenswood neighborhood on Thursday. “People are lying on the sidewalks, and I’m like, why? People are begging for jobs and guess what, here’s your work force right here.”

Recently arrived migrants in a makeshift shelter at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago in August.Credit…Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune, via Getty Images

But at the same time, Mr. Kelly wondered if the border could be temporarily closed to give cities time to accommodate the migrants already here, a policy once proposed by Mr. Trump and one that would face major legal hurdles.

“It’s overwhelming the system,” he said. “They should be monitored closely. I don’t know exactly how to do that but the federal and state governments should be doing more.”

The reality that Democrats like Mr. Kelly are grappling with is complex. After a drop this spring, unlawful crossings at the Southern border are rising sharply, and migrants cannot work legally while they wait to be processed through the clogged courts. While allowing some to work may ease the strain, critics note that it could also encourage more to come.

For decades, attempts to pass systemic fixes through Congress have crumbled. A broad immigration overhaul is now considered a nonstarter given Republicans’ internal divisions.

In New York, more than 113,300 migrants have arrived since the spring of 2022. Local officials have struggled to respond, and the city has estimated that it would spend about $5 billion this fiscal year to house and feed migrants. Last fall, Mr. Adams declared a state of emergency.

Chicago has taken in 13,500 migrants and spent at least $250 million, while Washington has taken in 10,500 migrants since the first bus arrived outside the home of Vice President Kamala Harris. In Massachusetts, the state’s shelter population rose 80 percent in the last year after the arrival of thousands of migrant families. Many of the asylum seekers who have arrived in recent months are Venezuelans fleeing the economic collapse of their home country.

LaQuana Chambers, 41, saw a racial bias in the way some Democratic politicians were talking about the new arrivals and denounced what she viewed as efforts to pit the migrants against citizens.

“When it was Ukrainian immigrants coming in, there wasn’t this much of an uproar,” said Ms. Chambers, who works for the city’s education department and lives in Brooklyn. “If you’re white and European, people will easily digest that, they’re OK with that. But if you’re brown — no.”

The situation presents a potential political danger for Mr. Biden and his party. Nationally, Republicans have gained an edge with voters on immigration over the past year. Roughly four in ten Americans said they broadly agreed with Republicans on the issue in a June survey by Pew Research Center, about 10 points more than agreed with Democrats. That was a notable shift from a year earlier, when roughly equal shares of Americans said they agreed with each party.

Polling on views about the recent wave of migrants has been largely limited to New York. A survey released this week by Siena College found that 51 percent of registered Democrats in New York considered the recent migrants to be a “major problem.” Only 14 percent, however, ranked it as the single most important issue for the governor and state legislature, far fewer than those who selected economic factors like cost of living and the availability of affordable housing.

Some Democratic politicians have responded by adopting talking points that sound almost like they were lifted from their Republican rivals, a sign that they fear a political backlash. They have activated the national guard, petitioned the White House for expedited work authorizations and pleaded with Mr. Biden to take a more aggressive approach.

Mr. Adams, who has said the president has “failed” the city by not doing more, praised Mr. Biden’s move this week to expand temporary protected status but also pressed the White House to extend protections to migrants from other nations.

Mayor Eric Adams staged a rally in August to call on federal officials to expedite work authorization for asylum seekers.Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

Most Democratic voters said the issue was not prompting them to reconsider their support for Mr. Biden, whom they still vastly prefer over Mr. Trump or any of his Republican primary opponents. But the political implications might be most visible among swing voters in crucial suburban battlegrounds, where voters in recent elections have punished Democratic candidates for what they perceive as the declining quality of life in cities.

Robert Speicher, 60, a retired social worker on Long Island who worked with undocumented immigrant families, said his heart broke for the migrants.

“They just want to work and stay in the shadow. This myth that they’re here to suck our system dry — they don’t want that,” said Mr. Speicher, who voted for Mr. Trump in 2016 and skipped the election in 2020, after being disappointed by the former president.

But he added that he believed Mr. Biden’s policies had failed to secure the border, escalating what he saw as a crisis.

“Why are these 500,000 people getting to cut the line?” he said.

In Watertown, Mass., a city outside of Boston, Josh Fiedler, 48, said that recent reports about cities struggling to deal with the new population of migrants made him think more about the border crisis that has animated Republicans for years.

But it did not lead him to support Republican solutions. He said he would like to see an increase in foreign aid to Latin American countries to improve conditions.

“I didn’t realize it was a problem until it happened,” said Mr. Fiedler, a quality assurance analyst and a Democrat. “The border states have complained for a long time. Something needs to be done.”

Robert Chiarito in Chicago, Melissa Russell in Somerville, Mass., and Heather Knight in San Francisco contributed reporting.

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