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Eric Adams

Eric Adams Says Asylum Seekers Are Going to Cost $4.3 Billion. Where Does That Number Come From?

Is Adams being realistic? Or is he using migrants to blow a “supermassive black hole” in the budget?

NYC Mayor Eric Adams, in a navy blue suit, stands next to a chart projecting asylum seeker costs.

Mayor Eric Adams, members of the Adams administration, and elected officials urging the Biden administration to immediately enhance paths to work authorization for asylum seekers currently in the U.S. (Ed Reed / Mayoral Photography Office)

In Eric Adams's telling, asylum seekers are two things: a vulnerable group whose care is part of honoring the city's immigrant legacy, and a vampiric drain on its budget. "The city is being destroyed by the migrant crisis," Mayor Adams said earlier this month, citing a price tag of $4.3 billion as justification to make deep cuts to City agencies.

In presenting his revised executive budget on Wednesday, the mayor backed down from proposed additional cuts to the library system, among other things, and brought his revenue estimates more in line with the Council's sunnier projections. Yet he did not budge on the astonishing, agency-funding-level line item for asylum seeker expenditures. But for the City to hit $4.3 billion in asylum seeker spending by the end of the next fiscal year, it would, on average, have to spend significantly more every single month between now and then than it has at any point so far, even as it ostensibly shifts from an emergency posture to a more cohesive and cost-effective approach. So where does that $4.3 billion figure come from?

The logic, as explained by Adams's budget director Jacques Jiha during a press conference last week, is very simple. Between last summer and now, the City has seen a greater number of asylum seeker arrivals every month when compared to the month before, and a corresponding increase in the number of people in the City's care every day. If we just extrapolate that line out, assuming consistent positive linear growth indefinitely, then the costs will escalate wildly.

But why would we expect the growth to just continue on an upward trajectory forever? Asylum seeker arrivals aren't like labor costs, where we can essentially expect a somewhat predictable growth for the foreseeable future. Most of the reason that the City deemed the situation an emergency is because their rates of arrival shot way over any precedent.

Comptroller Brad Lander, who has examined the City's spending on asylum seekers, acknowledged that Adams's projections were basically a continuation of the current pattern, but defended it as a reasonably cautious approach. "One of the challenges in any budgeting is you don't have a crystal ball. So we don't know exactly what will happen. How many folks will keep coming here? How many of them will seek shelter in the shelter system? We don't know," he said. "A trend based on things continuing as they have roughly been in recent months is the kind of prudent budget guess one makes when one's trying to project budget numbers out for a while."

Nonetheless, Lander chided the administration for not doing more to reduce the actual costs of accommodating asylum seekers. "This budget does not contain resources to support people in filing their applications for asylum and then filing their work authorization six months later, and it doesn't contain new resources to help both asylum seekers, and also folks that have just been in shelter a long time, to get out of shelter," he said. "In the blueprint that City Hall released six weeks ago, there is some language about doing this, but it projects creating a whole new agency, and it's not clear whether they are doing that, whether they have done it, whether they've done any hiring for it."

Still, while a straight trend line might be the most prudent way of gaming out costs in the absence of any other information, we do have some information and ability to make assumptions here—and there's really not much to indicate that this rapid growth will just keep replicating itself over the next year and a half.

Adams points to the impending end of Title 42, a COVID-era ban on almost all migrants entering the United States, as a reason to assume the number of asylum seekers will continue to grow, but the Biden administration has been working assiduously to layer on additional restrictions to the rights of asylum seekers ahead of the policy's end, including by reinstating a version of a Trump-era border restriction that would target migrants who'd transited through any other country before reaching the U.S. border.

Just Wednesday, the Biden administration announced a new initiative that would establish so-called processing centers in Colombia and Guatemala to screen would-be migrants for eligibility in the refugee resettlement program as well as other, temporary humanitarian programs, while expanding the use of expedited removal—a tool for rapid deportation—along the border region itself. These more planned-out resettlements typically place immigrants in pre-selected communities around the United States rather than letting them all chaotically end up where they end up, which is often New York.

To be clear, many of these efforts are a misguided trampling of humanitarian migration protections, which are supposed to be independent of domestic political considerations—but they do cast into doubt whether the unprecedented volume of arrivals that the Adams administration warns about will ever materialize. Even if Title 42 expires and the number of asylum seekers shoots up, the mayor's estimates depend on an average daily census of asylum seekers in City shelters in fiscal year 2024 that's much, much higher—about two-and-a-half times higher—than in fiscal year 2023, topping out close to 30,000 per day.

This prognosis requires at least one of two scenarios to come true: Either there's a massive increase in arrivals that cancels out and then counteracts any reduction in the existing migrant population in City shelters, or there's practically no reduction in this population, meaning that arrivals could remain steady but would compound with a stagnant population of current shelter-dwellers. If the former doesn't materialize, the latter scenario would itself be a significant failure for the Adams administration, which is supposed to be trying to move folks out of shelter and into more permanent housing.

Also, within the next few months, a portion of the asylum seekers now in the city will have left New York City altogether; anecdotally, many already have, as was relayed to me recently by Juan Carlos Ruiz, a pastor and longtime jack-of-all-trades fixer for immigrants arriving in New York.

While there has been much valid hand-wringing about federal law and bureaucratic backlogs pointlessly keeping asylum seekers from obtaining work authorization, they are ultimately eligible, and will get it sooner or later. Even if the Biden administration doesn't increase the use of humanitarian parole or offer Temporary Protected Status, which could make a chunk of migrants immediately eligible to work, thousands will in all likelihood receive their work cards in the next several months, and with the ability to legally work secured, will leave the shelter system.

So why the dire outlook, without engaging with all the countervailing evidence, and leaving even policymakers with little explanation about the methodology? A source close to the City budget negotiation process speculated that it's a way for the mayor to create a giant budget shortfall that can then be used to play hardball on the cuts. The source said that the Council doesn't disagree that the City needs and should get assistance from the state and the feds (which is shaping up to be a total of $1.6 billion), but that the Council needs receipts if Adams is going to put what they described as a "supermassive black hole" in the budget without justification.

I've asked City Hall several times now for a specific breakdown of how it arrived at its estimates, and have gotten back only vague expressions of concern over Title 42 and the trajectory to-date of migrant arrivals. I have no idea how the administration has extrapolated that straight upward line that Jiha points to. It looks like it might be more or less a simple linear regression using the data points so far, which would be an absurd way to project out something as dynamic and complex as the population of asylum seekers in the City's care.

Perhaps this is a well-thought out model that incorporates all the complexities I've outlined above, but perhaps not. Either way, the City's budget process is hinging on it.

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