Among the casualties of the digital age’s belated arrival to the decrepit hallways of our city’s government is the subway token, those little brass coins that would grant one entry to the City’s mass transit system. In this age of Metrocards and OMNY, the broke or defiant limit themselves to jumping turnstiles and darting through emergency exits, but in the era of the token it was possible to actually fool the machines with so-called slugs—fake tokens, similarly weighted commemorative or religious coins, even washers that could mimic the real tokens well enough to let one through.
Mayor Eric Adams would have been a transit cop in the ’80s, the heyday of the slug, and no doubt saw many of them in action; he may have even arrested someone for using them. In the ensuing decades, Adams first rose through the ranks of the police department and then New York’s political ecosystem, but he never forgot the power of the slug, or more specifically, what it accomplished: a misdirection, just enough to throw the machine off and let you get your way.
Asylum seekers find themselves as Adams’s latest slug, a convenient deflection away from criticism about his administration’s management of the rent and homelessness crises. This was set off last Tuesday by the mayor’s somewhat bizarre request for federal assistance to deal with a supposed influx of newly arrived migrants to the New York City shelter system, ostensibly drawn in part by the city’s unique position as a right-to-shelter jurisdiction. The request noted that 2,800 migrants had arrived; later that same day the number was amended to “close to 2,500,” before the mayor settled on over 3,000 on Thursday.
It’s been abundantly clear through this saga that both the concrete numbers and how and when these migrants arrived was beyond the point. Adams has insisted that the governors of Arizona and Texas are busing the migrants to New York, going so far as to insinuate that those governors were lying in their denials to reporters, despite the fact that no one has produced any evidence to back up his claims. (These states have bused migrants to Washington, D.C. as a political stunt, but not NYC.)
In doing so, Adams has ultimately adopted a rhetorical tactic more associated with these red state executives, of foisting blame on desperate asylum seekers for the more intractable failures of government — the eviction crisis, the bureaucratic hurdles to affordable housing, the conditions in shelters. He’s doing what he can, you see, but “this is a crisis that was only aggravated by the influx of asylum seekers,” as he said at a press conference this week. No one disputes that more asylum seekers have been showing up seeking services in recent months, but homeless advocates uniformly dispute that they’re some sort of sudden, massive rush. As if to dispel any doubts about his approach, the always-candid Adams also said “from monkeypox to COVID to asylum seekers, this is a moment where leadership matters,” either inadvertently or cavalierly lumping migrants in with two viruses.
Still, Adams knows well enough not to stray into the language of blaming migrants themselves outright for this supposed strain on social services, as his counterparts in states like Texas do as a matter of course and routinely include in their legal filings challenging any Biden administration attempt to make the immigration system more humane. To his credit, in between bemoaning their arrival, he’s made sure to make clear that the city absolutely won’t turn them away or try to stop them from coming, saying also that “we can actually find locations to place our homeless brothers and sisters and those who are seeking refuge here in our city.” He’s signaled that the city will step up, even if begrudgingly, just as he knows to describe the purpose of his homeless sweeps as compassionately moving people into shelter and housing rather than brushing away the victims of a housing market the City has failed to control.
Diversions are useful not only in what they pantomime but what they deflect from, and it’s no coincidence that this is downstream from the city’s homelessness crisis. Some of this is, without a doubt, out of Adams’s control; he can’t single-handedly reverse national wage stagnation or cut through regressive zoning, and he has made some laudable commitments to funding expansions of needed safe haven beds. Yet the mayor has also decided to buckle to NIMBY opposition in canceling planned shelters, has kept up his encampment sweeps despite their general failure to actually bring people into the city’s services structure, allowed homeless people’s belongings to be tossed, and let the office tasked with investigating income discrimination against low-income New Yorkers dwindle, as of April of this year, to zero staff.
Focusing on asylum seekers deflects the blame to one of the groups least able to defend themselves, while winking at the broader national dialogue that uniformly relegates them to bargaining chips. It sets Adams up as a foil to conservative southern governors, whom he blames for foisting this blight upon us. He gets to play the role of the principled and inclusive mayor that won’t turn the problem away, but that still leaves the asylum seekers as the problem. By buying into that framing at all, he’s granting it credibility, as evidenced by the fact that his declarations supplied an entire depot of ammunition to right-wing media that instantly ran with the “NYC mayor validates fact that immigrants are a resource strain and a burden” framing. It doesn’t matter. They’re the slug of the day.
Felipe is a contributing member of the New York Daily News editorial board and lecturer at NYU's College of Arts and Sciences and CUNY's Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism. He writes for a variety of publications about politics and immigration, and is co-creator of the weekly immigration policy newsletter BORDER/LINES.