I oversaw border protection. NYC and Chicago are doing what they can

by Gil Kerlikowske

As America’s immigration crisis expands and evolves, migrants are being bused to urban centers in the interior of the U.S., putting an unprecedented strain on cities that have never had to grapple to this extent with challenges deeply familiar to American border communities.

New York and Chicago have experienced the brunt of these relocations, with more than 12,000 migrants arriving on buses since spring 2022 from Texas, Florida and even Denver after the Mile High City decided to cap the number of migrants it would take on itself.

These migrants, an increasing number of whom are escaping tough conditions in Venezuela, have been living in police stations, repurposed commercial buildings and even O’Hare International Airport as many seek formal asylum. Many have even been forced to live on the streets in subfreezing temperatures. The status quo is untenable.

With their cities the new epicenters of the migrant crisis, New York Mayor Eric Adams and Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson have called on Washington and the White House to do more to provide critically needed federal assistance. Adams and Johnson have also taken decisive action at home.

Johnson, for example, just months into his role, has moved quickly to advance the city’s efforts to expand temporary housing, case management and medical support infrastructure for the 20,000 migrants who now call Chicago home in advance of the frigid Midwestern winter.

The city has opened two dozen emergency shelters in unused buildings across the city and is repurposing several vacant lots to accommodate the thousands still without shelter — and those still to come — in winterized encampments staffed by professionals, with climate control, meal and shower facilities and security.

This is a daunting task — in governing and execution. Chicago will likely have spent $360 million on the migrant surge by the end of this year, with local leaders and residents demanding more answers and solutions than what city leaders, navigating what is clearly uncharted territory, have developed.

Johnson is doing the best he can with what he has.

Chicagoans, understandably frustrated by the city’s efforts to balance resources for feeding and sheltering migrants with the needs of the city’s own citizens, are generating immense political pressure for the mayor. That kind of pressure had, until last summer, been reserved for border communities and the federal government. And, as they learned long ago, it’s the kind of decisions that must ultimately be balanced against the harrowing human reality of the migrant crisis. As so many communities are learning for the first time, it is a nearly impossible situation, with no easy answers.

In New York, Adams also has worked to honor the city’s role as a migrant destination by matching local resources with federal support. He has called on President Joe Biden to launch a “decompression strategy” for newly affected cities and recently made headlines for a more immediate decompression by offering migrants one-way plane tickets to leave the Big Apple. It was a move that followed months of strained social services, the closure of several shelters for asylum-seekers due to safety concerns and relocation of some to other cities in New York, including Buffalo.

There are no easy solutions to America’s growing immigration challenges. Migrants have a right to seek asylum when they encounter a U.S. border official, a mechanism established by international law following the atrocities of the Holocaust and World War II and later adopted by Congress in 1980.

Under U.S. law, a person can seek asylum if they feel they face persecution at home due to their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion. Once their claim is made, they have the right to remain in the United States as they begin a complex process involving the Departments of Justice, State, Health and Human Services, and the court system.

If status is granted, asylum-seekers qualify to work and may apply to become a permanent resident and eventually an American citizen if they meet the criteria of U.S. citizenship.

While vital today, temporary housing and services are, by definition, not a long-term solution. Any significant, durable relief from our immigration challenges will come only through changes to our immigration laws in Congress, a body that has kicked this can down the road for decades without meaningful progress.

And, until those changes come, the new mayors of two of America’s largest and most welcoming cities should be recognized for continuing to meet this incredibly challenging moment.

Gil Kerlikowske was commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection from 2014 to 2017.