Inspection room, Ellis Island, New York, N.Y.

Inspection room, Ellis Island, New York, NY / Library of Congress / Public Domain

I am going to critique the whole storyline of the “crisis at the border” and the “migrant crisis” in our cities, including in NYC. However, in making this critique, I want to acknowledge the degree of suffering, exhaustion,  and trauma being experienced right now by migrants, service providers, volunteers, and city officials. The immediate needs of asylum seekers  are pressing and urgent. And the work of providing necessary support is endless as new desperate people arrive and unhoused people are all around us. 

But we have to ask, What’s wrong with this picture of crisis? My answer is that the headlines and social media posts about the migrant crisis are diverting us from talking about—and organizing around—what is actually going on. We need to be clear about what the so-called “crisis” at the border is actually about, and we need to find allies to build a movement for a just society for all of us. 

I began the collective project of understanding migration in the 1960s by working closely with people who had fled the murderous Haitian Duvalier dictatorship yet didn’t have the right to settle in the United States. At that moment, most migrants came as visitors, overstayed their visas, and joined the workforce as part of what became the millions of people who have been designated undocumented. Transforming an undocumented status was sometimes possible, unlike the situation migrants face today. 

I had a friend who had the ceiling of his shabby apartment fall on his head and a friend whose child had brain damage from eating lead paint chips. Neither ever went to the authorities. I knew people who would not seek help for fear of deportation when they were hit by a car, were seriously injured at work, or were grievously ill. 

Back then, I interviewed an official of what was then the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) about the status of undocumented migrants. The official said that the government could easily locate migrants without residence documents but that the INS never had enough funds to actually round people up and deport them. Instead, the INS did just enough to remind people that the government was watching—enough to make them fearful. And so I saw how the laws about “illegality” worked. In other words, the US immigration system created a silent, compliant, super-exploitable workforce. 

I also saw what social movements could do. In the 1980s, migrants’ responses to the untenable conditions they faced began to change. Falsely blamed for the AIDS epidemic, Haitians took to the streets and shut down the Brooklyn Bridge. They began to build and join movements for migrant rights and social justice.

Today, politicians and media are creating fear not just among migrants but among the general population. But what is not being said—and must be said—remains much the same.

What should we be talking about instead of crisis? 

First of all, we need to say loudly and clearly that it is in the interests of the vast majority of the people in this country to allow people from elsewhere to settle here. We need to directly state this simple fact—mass migration is a social good. We need it, and we want it. The United States definitely needs workers of all skills to come, settle, raise families, and continue to build our cities and towns. The US Chamber of Commerce in January 2024 stated, “We hear every day from our member companies—of every size and industry, across nearly every state—they’re facing unprecedented challenges trying to find enough workers to fill open jobs. Right now, the latest data shows that we have 9.5 million job openings in the US but only 6.5 million unemployed workers. … If every unemployed person in the country found a job, we would still have over 2 million open jobs.”

The US Census Bureau in November 2023 projected that with a “zero-immigration scenario … population declines would start in 2024. The population in this scenario is projected to be 226 million in 2100, roughly 107 million lower than the 2022 estimate.” This population would be older and have fewer people of working age contributing to social security and public programs. The Republican desire to turn women into breeders by outlawing abortion of course begins to make sense in relation to their zero migration policies and the shrinking US population. 

The problem, then, is not a migration problem or a border “crisis” but rather a question of political will. Another way to disentangle this is to realize that the awful conditions at the border and the dumping of asylum seekers out of shelters into the streets without access to work or food happens not because the country can’t provide proper conditions but because, unlike the beginning of the twentieth century, political and corporate leaders refuse to welcome migrants into a citizen-workforce.

The problem is not the numbers, which are not overwhelming in comparison to the past. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Ellis Island processed an average of 5,000 people a day—but was able and often did process over 10,000 per day. On April 17, 1907, 11,747 people were processed. No passports or visas were required in those first two decades of the twentieth. It took, on average, less than eight hours to conduct a health review, conduct a general screening, and decide about accepting each immigrant. Only 2 percent of those who arrived at Ellis Island were denied entry. Those who entered had the right to work, settle, and apply for citizenship

The so-called crisis at the border is not because 10,000 people are arriving per day, or that the country doesn’t need immigrants, or that it is impossible to process large numbers. The real crisis is that our asylum system is transforming migrants into precarious workers without the ability to demand protections or rights—not protection at work, not rights to decent housing, not rights to social benefits, not rights to bring their families to settle. We have made an artificial barrier of insisting that almost the only way people can come and settle is to apply for asylum and become refugees. And the rate of rejection is high—in 2021, only 37 percent of the applicants who entered the US and then applied for asylum were granted asylum

  The system is not funded to welcome people and give them the right to work and settle. Instead, we have a vast privatized for-profit migration industry to register, track, and communicate with applicants for asylum. Eventually, after six months of suffering and super-exploitation—or more directly if they are parolees—the entrants are allowed to work, in employment made especially precarious because their temporary legal status means deportation is still likely for most at the end of the day. And what our political leaders have recently been negotiating are ways to make it less possible to apply for or win asylum.  

Most current politicians, of either party, are increasingly advocating for a migration system where people come and work temporarily without rights; then, when they have contributed to the economy, they are dumped back into the impossible conditions from which they are trying to flee. These political “leaders” laud temporary work visas and “circulating” migration, in which workers on short-term contracts are bound to a specific employer and work without rights, including the right to change employers or organize against exploitation, and without benefits. This is an economy in which other countries bear the cost of educating children and health care, while the US is prevented from becoming a more diverse society. The policy of circulating migration is one that ensures that the majority of the population remains white. Racism and the exploitation of workers come together. People are reduced to pure labor. They are not considered to have the right to housing or even shelter. They are defined as disposable. The creation of a global category of unfree labor and of disposable people is underway.

Moving to shut down the border and commit to a world of temporary migration—which apparently Biden as well as the Republicans are competing with each other to do—is the beginning of broader attacks on us all. It is linked to the denial of the right to shelter and the failure of cities to house their people. The attack on migration is the canary in the coal mine, signaling a broad denial of the view that government has a responsibility to equitably tax and then use tax money for public benefits. That is to say, the commitment to a just society is being wiped out, and the treatment of migrants is the normalization of dehumanization that threatens us all.

 Dehumanization is all around us. The attack on migrants is the cutting edge, the beginning of a massive campaign to take away the rights that previous generations struggled for—rights to housing, education, health care, retirement income, disability income, unemployment, safe working conditions, clean water, safe food, and clean air. 

 Let’s say what needs to be said. Attacking migrants and the right to shelter normalizes a world in which poor people live, give birth, and die in the streets. Meanwhile, increasing numbers of the people are thrust out of their homes as rents and evictions increase, the stock of affordable housing shrinks in NYC and around the country, and the unhoused are criminalized. If you don’t have a right to housing and you don’t have a right to live on the streets, then the system no longer treats you as a human being; if you are displaced and dispossessed, you are disposable. A global category of the unfree is being created. 

The talk about the crisis at the border diverts us from talking about the perpetuation of truly criminal housing policies structured to meet the desire of developers for maximum profit , not to meet the need for decent, truly affordable homes. Foregrounding this struggle for shelter is a key point in opposing dehumanization.

And dehumanization is increasingly everywhere. We see dehumanization in women defined as breeders rather than as humans with rights to control our bodies and be free to travel. We see dehumanization in the banning of books and courses that teach the histories of people of color, LGBTIQA people, and struggles for equality and justice. We see it in the denial of the right of Palestinians to have the right to even be alive, to have a future.

Right-wing authoritarians, including many politicians and corporate executives, are rich, organized, and have built a vocal base mobilized to fear migrant “hordes at the border.” It’s time for those who believe in migrants’ rights and human rights to say NO to the “migrant crisis” drumbeat. Instead, we need to say we support the right to migrate, settle, and build richly diverse societies that protect all life and the planet. It’s time to unite and learn from  Joe Hill. Facing his execution by a government firing squad for organizing migrants and non-migrants in the early twentieth century in Utah, Joe advised us to not “waste any time in mourning. Organize.”

An earlier version of this talk was presented at the NYC Partnering for Migration Justice Summit, hosted by the Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility at The New School and Fordham University, on February 2, 2024.