Migrant crisis puts Democrats on defensive in NYC Council races

New Yorkers’ concerns over the mushrooming migrant crisis have put Democrats on the defensive and offered Republicans a potentially powerful line of attack in next month’s most competitive City Council races.

Candidates in swing races said in interviews with the Daily News that the top issue for many voters remains public safety — the headline issue in the 2021 mayoral race and the 2022 governor’s contest — but that the city’s handling of tens of thousands of asylum seekers is close behind. A recent Siena College survey found nearly 60% of New York City voters agreeing with Mayor Adams’ assessment that the migrant crisis will “destroy” the city.

The issue has additional salience because the City Council has oversight over the allotment of resources to asylum seekers, and because some of the most competitive races are playing out in areas heavily affected by the influx, said Evan Stavisky, a Democratic political consultant. He described the migrant crisis as a “defining” issue of the election season.

“The influx of migrants places a tremendous burden on the city’s ability to deliver resources,” Stavisky said. “And politicians in New York have demagogued about the newest immigrants for 150 years.”

As Republicans have sought to center migrants in local political conversations, Democrats have taken differing tacks in response, in some cases attempting to outflank the GOP with conservative-sounding criticism of their own party’s handling of the crisis, and in other cases painting the Republican Party’s viewpoint as xenophobic.

“Republicans in New York City right now have one of the easiest jobs in the world, because all anyone expects them to do is point at stuff and say, ‘That’s a problem,’” Councilman Justin Brannan, a Democrat running for reelection, said of the migrant challenge. “No one then asks them the follow-up question of: ‘OK, so what’s your solution?’”

justin brannan

City Councilman Justin Brannan is pictured in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, on Monday, Feb. 20, 2023. (Gardiner Anderson for New York Daily News)

Gardiner Anderson for New York Daily News

City Councilman Justin Brannan is pictured in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, on Monday, Feb. 20, 2023. (Gardiner Anderson for New York Daily News)

Brannan, thrown by redistricting into a heated southern Brooklyn race against Republican Councilman Ari Kagan, has largely tied his political mast to the Adams’ approach — calling for more support from President Biden and the state, urging a suspension of the city’s right to shelter and accusing Republicans of exploiting racism.

“A lot of the concern and fear and anxiety from people that oppose migrant shelters are mainly coming from my opponent,” Brannan said of his district. “I don’t think anyone doubts New Yorkers’ compassion.”

Kagan, who has denounced Adams’ handling of the crisis, insisted that he has not demonized anyone, noting that he is an immigrant himself. “But I believe current policies are broken, and current policies are inhumane toward New Yorkers and toward migrants,” Kagan said.

ari kagan

New York City Councilman Ari Kagan at Luna Park in Brooklyn on Saturday, April 2, 2022.

Barry Williams for New York Daily News

Councilman Ari Kagan. (Barry Williams for New York Daily News)

In a politically purple area of northern Queens, former state Sen. Tony Avella, a Democrat, has taken a much harder line on migrants in an election rematch with Councilwoman Vickie Paladino. Avella has asserted that he is far more critical of the Adams administration on the migrant issue, and that all immigration into the U.S. should be paused.

Avella said the city should sue the federal government and the states of Texas and Florida over their roles in transporting asylum seekers to the city. He graded Adams, a moderate Democrat, “between a C and a D” on the migrant surge, and sought to tie Paladino to the mayor.

Tony Avella and Vickie Paladino. (Jeff Bachner; Barry Williams for New York Daily News)
Tony Avella and Vickie Paladino. (Jeff Bachner; Barry Williams for New York Daily News)

“I’m the one who’s more vocal on this issue, and Vickie Paladino is backing up the mayor,” Avella said. “I’m sorry. The mayor’s a Democrat. But I’m going to have to disagree with him.”

Paladino, a first-term Republican who has a cordial relationship with the mayor, has panned New York’s sanctuary city policies as “tragically insane.” Her campaign did not reply to interview requests for this story.

About 133,000 asylum seekers have arrived in the city since April 2022, and roughly 66,000 remain in the city’s care, according to the Adams administration. The mayor’s office, which has sought to suspend the city’s shelter protections for the homeless, has projected the migrant crisis could cost the city $12 billion by summer 2025.

The city has also opened more than 200 emergency shelters to house asylum seekers, prompting Republican resistance, even as the left-wing of the Democratic Party has hammered Adams for declaring that the crisis could “destroy” the city.

Ying Tan (Ying Tan For NY)
Ying Tan (Ying Tan For NY)

If many Democrats have hardened their tones toward immigration going into the Council elections, some Republican candidates have seemed to take pains to avoid using overly harsh language as they chide Democrats, perhaps cognizant that over-the-top criticism may alienate voters.

“We have to find a way to help all these migrants who are already in our city,” said Ying Tan, the Republican nominee in a three-way race for a diverse Brooklyn district spanning Sunset Park and Borough Park. “We have to make sure that everyone is taken care of.”

Tan did not harshly criticize Adams’ handling of the challenge, saying that tweaks to the shelter protections would not prove an effective solution, and that the federal government must step in. She supports relocating the arrivals across New York State and the country.

“I don’t think he can do it alone,” Tan said of Adams.

Kristy Marmorato, the Republican challenging Councilwoman Marjorie Velázquez in the Bronx, likewise spoke in measured terms about the migrant crisis.

“We need to handle it a little bit better,” Marmorato said. “We need to start all working together to figure out a solution to this issue.”

Marmorato said she supports suspending the city’s right to shelter for migrants and closing the southwestern border. She declined to grade the performance of Adams and Gov. Hochul, also a Democrat.

Velázquez’s campaign did not make her available for an interview for this story, and did not immediately reply to a question about whether she supports a suspension of the right to shelter. In a statement, Velázquez said the city needs “more resources and comprehensive reform from the federal government.”

The race between Brannan and Kagan — an increasingly personal mudslinging fest — has created perhaps the most explosive fireworks around the issue of migrants. Both candidates support suspending the right to shelter and oppose an expansion of asylum seeker shelters into the district. But Kagan wants to cut deeply into city spending on the arrivals.

Brannan said Kagan has joined “racist” anti-migrant rallies. Kagan shot back that Brannan has shifted his positions to better align with Kagan’s and district voters. (Brannan suggested his positions have been more consistent than Kagan’s.)

Kagan said Brannan has incentivized migrants to come to the city by supporting city spending and by calling for more federal spending to help the city.

“Vote after vote, I believe his votes are absolutely fiscally irresponsible,” Kagan said of Brannan, who is the chair of the Finance Committee. “His position is very simple: Let’s spend more money on migrant shelters.”

Brannan said that the city should be focused on getting more money from Washington. He charged that Kagan has been acting in a “really disgusting and divisive way” and has “zero solutions.”

Basil Smikle, a public policy professor at Hunter College and one-time strategist for Hillary Clinton, said outcomes in close city races could reflect whether city voters are beginning to view the migrant crisis through a similar lens as suburban voters who are anxious about the influx.

“If that’s the case, I do think that signals a bit of a shift in how New Yorkers see themselves,” Smikle said. “And that will have ramifications for statewide politics.”

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