1904 sepia photo portrait of an extended Serbian Roma family

Serbian Roma family at Ellis Island (1904) | Augustus F. Sherman / New York Public Library

We are witnessing a historical moment where migration and displacement across the world are on the rise. And if New York is the world’s capital, it should come as no surprise that this moment has also arrived here, in the city of immigrants. Unlike other cities with immigrants, it is impossible to dissociate migration from New York. Indeed, the history of the city has been shaped by consecutive and unorderly waves of migrants and refugees seeking safety, opportunity, a new home. The nationality, race, and ethnicity of the newcomers may have changed over time. But let’s not forget that these newcomers were almost always initially met with hostility and skepticism by those who came before them. Irish, Jews, Italians, Chinese, Mexicans, the list is long, have witnessed discrimination and racism but against the odds persisted, by crafting their space, creating community, and constantly remaking the city we know today. In times of crisis, they revitalized abandoned neighborhoods and became “essential workers” who kept the city running when the rest of us applauded from our windows in the safety of our homes.   

In the past two years, the city has experienced another “migrant crisis.” Though their numbers are far from unprecedented in the city’s long history, the more than 100,000 new arrivals from different countries and continents have inevitably stretched city resources and capacities thin. The city’s response comes amidst polarizing political rhetoric, immigration policy deadlock, and the mainstreaming of anti-immigrant sentiment in our societies. But anti-immigrant discourse and sentiment seem rather hollow in New York, where migration has been essential to its existence: How can migration, the process that created the city, also be responsible for destroying the city? More than anywhere else, in New York, the migrant crisis—essentially a migration governance crisis—is an existential one: it interrogates not only the capacity of the city to welcome newcomers but also the city’s broader prospects. The new arrivals have acted as a prism, revealing the spectrum of persistent crises that plague New York: the housing crisis, the homelessness crisis, poverty, growing inequality, and the longstanding systemic injustice that vulnerable groups—migrants and citizens—continue to face. 

If there is a measure of a city’s success, it is determined by its growth. New York City has been decreasing in population, which is a worrying sign. New York City’s success, if not existential identity, will be determined by its ability to keep the newcomers by harnessing the opportunity to address the longstanding issues that the city has been grappling with. That means innovating and finding solutions amidst policy stalemates, partnering and coalescing around common issues and struggles, and thinking boldly—as has been done through the history of the city, including by its migrant communities.

Over the years, the city has developed a dense social infrastructure that has contributed tremendously to addressing people’s needs and advocating for their rights. Organizations, initiatives, scholars, artists, and activists are working tirelessly and creatively to support established communities and new migrants. By focusing on these perspectives, we take a crucial step forward: moving away from the “crisis” framing and toward building the sustainable responses, stronger partnerships, and policies that are much-needed for new arrivals, migrants, and New Yorkers.