Op-ed | Right to shelter is for homeless New Yorkers, not influx of new migrants

Asylum seekers sleep outside of the Watson Hotel
Asylum seekers sleep outside of the Watson Hotel in Manhattan
File Photo by Dean Moses

“Streets do not exist in civilized societies for the purpose of people sleeping there,” said then New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani in 1999. Say what you will of the former Mayor, but our streets were safe in the 1990s, and that continued into the Bloomberg years. Sadly, only a decade later, we are witnessing a precipitous deterioration of the city this once was. 

This current crisis is the predictable outcome of disastrous decisions. Thirty-two years ago, the city and state signed a consent decree establishing a landmark “right to shelter” for New Yorkers to settle a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of the homeless facing overcrowding in shelters. The basis of this new right, it was argued, was an article in the New York State Constitution that stated, vaguely, that “the aid, care and support of the needy are a public concern.”

It is prudent for city government, especially in the largest city in the United States, to take care of its neediest. But a blanket “Right to Shelter” mandate has allowed government officials to abuse, misconstrue, and apply this new right far too broadly, including to migrants crossing our border illegally. This is a twisted and backwards use of the law, as not only are migrants not “homeless New Yorkers,” they are not Americans by law and certainly are not “New Yorkers.” Many, if not most, do not even have legitimate cases for asylum.

The next bad decision was made in 2014, when the City Council passed, and Bill de Blasio signed a package of laws that officially made New York City a sanctuary city. The laws, among other things, prohibit the NYPD and city agencies from cooperating with the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement in their attempts to detain and deport migrants who entered the United States illegally.

These laws set the stage for the disaster wreaking havoc on our city today. For nearly a decade, instead of helping the federal government enforce the law to protect New Yorkers, our politicians required local agencies to help break the law.  

And most recently, President Biden created a massive loophole in federal immigration laws when he ended so-called Title 42 immigration restrictions, placing open border policies into overdrive.

Despite constant pleas for help from Democrats like Governor Hochul, Mayor Adams and others in state and city office, President Biden seems way more concerned in finding less offensive names for migrants, rather than answering their calls and actually dealing with the reality of the unprecedented crisis we’re experiencing. With hundreds sleeping on our streets and thousands pouring in every day, this crisis is getting worse by the minute, with no end in sight.

In truth, who can blame the migrants when our government rolls out the red carpet for them? At the local level, limitless benefits and handouts have served as an inducement sweetening the deal. To date, New York City has accepted close to 100,000 migrants who we have enabled to enter our country while ignoring and circumventing our legal system. 

Back in March, the city was spending $5M each day to house migrants in hotels and shelters. Today, that number is closer to $10M. Even former Democratic Governor David Paterson warned that this crisis, in tandem with other bad policies, could push the city and state’s back to the fiscal crisis we faced in 1970’s.

I speak as an immigrant, an immigration attorney and an elected official: The Right to Shelter mandate SHOULD NOT apply to migrants. If it does, then it essentially applies to everyone on the planet. Kindness and compassion are some of the foundations upon which our country is built. But we are also a nation of laws.

New York’s taxpayers have been left in the lurch by a President and a federal government that will not secure the border and refuses to help our city deal with the consequences of their incompetence. As we approach a breaking point, something has to give.

Political opportunism over common sense and the law of the land has become the brand of New York City issue after issue. But we cannot allow the reckless disregard towards law abiding New Yorkers and lack of action by our President and federal government to just be “politics as usual.” Give the right to shelter to homeless New Yorkers, and our streets back to The People! 

Inna Vernikov is a New York City Councilwoman and Minority Whip, representing the South Brooklyn neighborhoods of Sheepshead Bay, Manhattan Beach, Homecrest, Brighton Beach, and parts of Midwood.

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