Frustrations over migrant crisis in NYC leads to breakdown between Mayor Adams and President Biden

ByEdward-Isaac Dovere and Priscilla Alvarez
Friday, September 1, 2023
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NEW YORK -- The relationship between President Joe Biden's White House and Eric Adams began breaking down in private months earlier than previously known - and long before the New York mayor started publicly blasting the president over the migrant crisis in his city.

"There's no leadership here," Adams told a group of Biden aides last October in the chief of staff's office, demanding the president do more to help his city handle a massive influx of migrants.

The issue is one of the most sensitive issues for the White House, and for Biden's reelection campaign. Intergovernmental affairs director Julie Chávez Rodríguez, chief of staff Ron Klain and Homeland Security Adviser Liz Sherwood-Randall bristled. They were doing everything they could at the White House to lead without Congress pitching in, they said. Biden had done more than any previous president and much of what Adams was asking for would either require congressional action or would likely immediately be challenged in court.

It was a moment, which is being reported now for the first time, that prefaced a total breakdown of the relationship between the White House and the mayor's office. CNN's conversations with multiple sources revealed the political partnership has devolved into finger-pointing and frustration between Adams, the president, their aides and advocates who complain that the leaders have both been blundering through a response to a crisis that more than one told CNN feels like "playing hot potato with people."

A year later, Adams has long moved past private bashing of Biden, even headlining a rally on Thursday in Manhattan that slammed the administration's response arrival of migrants. Beyond the sniping is a creeping fear among White House and New York officials that the failure to find solutions and tamp down concerns won't just leave thousands of migrants in limbo but could blow up into a major political problem for Democrats heading into 2024, the sources told CNN.

While other cities have been seeing a growing number of migrant arrivals, New York City has become the epicenter of the crisis, after the number of newly arrived asylum seekers since spring 2022 surpassed 100,000 last month with costs projected to run up to $12 billion in the coming years as people line up in search of housing and other basic services.

There are efforts to bridge the divide. Tom Perez, who took over from Chávez Rodríguez - now Biden's reelection campaign manager - as director of the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, recently spent time in New York to try to smooth over tensions over the migrant crisis and coordinate with state and city partners, according to multiple sources.

Natalie Quillian, a deputy White House chief of staff, has also been involved in coordinating federal efforts to address New York's concerns, but even that has been a source of tension, with Adams feeling fobbed off after having a regular line of communication and several White House meetings with Klain.

"The mayor has every right to be aggrieved," said New York Rep. Ritchie Torres, a Democrat from the Bronx. "It is fundamentally unfair for the failure of the immigration system to fall disproportionately on the shoulders of a single city. It's hardly in the president's interest to stand by while the migrant crisis rages on and Republicans weaponize it."

In City Hall, they complain that they're not just bearing the brunt now, but that the costs will eat away at the rest of the agenda that Adams had been hoping to pursue in a city still struggling to come back from the pandemic. And the only reason anyone is paying attention, he and those around him believe, is because he has used his platform to make as much noise as he can, demanding that the federal government take care of a situation that only exists because it was the federal government that let these people into the country.

"The White House has made the conscious decision that it's better politics to let New York suffer than to actually try to fix the problem," said one person close to Adams. "The city is being left to deal with this colossal problem itself."

They'll work it out, stressed campaign spokesman Kevin Munoz.

"President Biden counts Mayor Adams as a friend and partner," Munoz told CNN. "He looks forward to working with the mayor on issues impacting New Yorkers, and to win the White House again in 2024."

A problem for Empire State Democrats

Biden and Adams are a long way from the president pulling off half of his peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich and offering it to the mayor as they sat next to each other in the back of the presidential limo in February 2022, riding around New York City together, in Biden's early embrace of the new mayor as the kind of pragmatic leader Democrats needed in their next generation. Neither has even picked up a phone to call in over a year.

While Biden advisers argue that the voters they need in battleground states will not be thinking about what the mayor of New York City has to say in deciding who they will support for president, New York Democrats - still bruised from the 2022 races - are not so sure.

They worry Adams will end up feeding and validating right wing talking points just like they say he did in 2022 when talking up how dangerous crime had made his city, with an impact that could run from the presidential race down to the New York House races that Democrats need to win to take back the majority.

It's not just the images of the migrants on the streets that could prove disastrous politically, they say. It's the Republicans already making an issue of the local and federal government spending on assisting migrants.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, whom sources tell CNN has been trying to thread demands for a more robust response and being a Democratic team player who's not as critical of Biden, has been left trying to be the mediator.

She went to Washington for a two-and-a-half hour meeting with White House chief of staff Jeff Zients on Wednesday and ended up extracting more commitments than she had expected, including taking steps to ensure migrants who are eligible to apply for a work permit in New York City are encouraged to do so and pledging support from federal agencies. Biden was down the hall in the Oval Office meeting with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, but didn't stop by.

While others are also trying to cool tensions - "The drama is unfortunate and really needs to end," said New York Rep. Jamaal Bowman, a Democrat - multiple members of the congressional delegation who have rarely been Adams allies warn that they are likely to soon join him in hammering the administration more publicly.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, both from New York, have been among those pushing for more help and frustrated that they are not getting it.

But sympathetic as many are to the humanitarian crisis in New York, a wide range of advocates and officials accuse Adams of grandstanding.

Regina Romero, the mayor of Tucson, Arizona, told CNN that she was among the mayors who spoke up against Adams during another private meeting with White House officials in Washington earlier this year.

"The Biden administration has been listening to the needs of my city and other mayors along the border and working very, very closely to help us," Romero said. "Instead of laying blame on the Biden-Harris administration, I would be more than happy to hold hands with Mayor Adams and really direct our concerns and the concerns of millions in this country and go to Congress and say, 'It's time for you to act now.'"

White House on defense

Since Biden took office, his administration has grappled with record migrant arrivals at the US southern border. While administration officials avoided a border crisis over the summer, US cities have continued to grapple with the arrival of asylum seekers.

"The reaction of Democratic mayors and governors earlier this year is part of what got the White House's attention and got them more engaged in trying to get a more orderly system at the border," one source close to the White House said. "It's one thing when the attacks are coming from the other side. It's different when it's your own team that's questioning what you're doing."

Central to what Adams is asking for is expediting work authorizations, so that people who are already in New York City would be able to get legal jobs and wouldn't be forced to rely on the social safety net.

But the process for applying for asylum and a work permit is based on current immigration laws, which require a 150-day waiting period to apply for work authorization and an additional 30 days to be eligible for approval - and in recent years, it's made more difficult because of an immense backlog.

Immigrant advocates argue that the Biden administration should expand the number of Venezuelans - who make up many of the migrant arrivals in New York - eligible for a form of humanitarian-relief known as Temporary Protected Status. That, they say, is perhaps the easiest form of action - without congressional action - the administration could take to satisfy the ask from New York. The Homeland Security secretary has discretion to designate a country for TPS.

"Adams joined a Republican political fight rather than having an accurate conversation about what the real solutions are, one of which is redesignating TPS for Venezuela. That's something the Biden administration could do today," said Alida Garcia, vice president of advocacy at FWD.us and a former Biden White House aide.

Administration aides contend they are continuing to do everything possible.

"Without congressional action, this administration has been working to build a safe, orderly, and humane immigration system and has worked to identify ways to improve efficiencies and maximize the resources the federal government can provide to communities across the country to support the flow of migrants," a White House spokesperson told CNN.

Adams has also been pushing for more funding, but the Biden administration has said they're limited in what they can do without Congress and citing the more than $140 million in federal funding this fiscal year to the city and state of New York, as well as a request to Congress for an additional $600 million for the Shelter and Services Program.

"If you're in government, your job is to figure out what to do with tools you have and the tools you have is for the wrong thing," said Cecilia Munoz, the former director of the White House Domestic Policy Council under President Barack Obama, referring to the changing migration demographics and stressing the need for immigration reform.

A hemisphere-wide problem

Unprecedented migration in the Western Hemisphere has posed a steep challenge for the administration on the US southern border and in cities, like New York, where asylum seekers choose to go as they go through their US immigration court proceedings - a process that can take years.

While the destinations migrants are choosing are not dissimilar from previous years, the lack of US ties and efforts by Republicans to send people to Democratic-led cities as an affront to Biden has exacerbated the situation.

Washington, DC, Chicago, Philadelphia, Denver and Los Angeles are among a host of other cities grappling with arrivals.

Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey, a Democrat, also issued an order activating up to 250 National Guard members to provide basic services for migrant families at emergency shelters, the governor's office said in a statement on Thursday.

Following a tense meeting over the summer between many members of New York's congressional delegation and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, the department dispatched an assessment team to work with state and local officials and identified about two dozen ways where New York City could better manage the migrant crisis.

"The structural issues include governance and organization of the migrant operations, including issues of authority, structure, personnel, and information flow," Mayorkas wrote in a letter sent to both the city and state that was obtained by CNN. "The operational issues include the subjects of data collection, planning, case management, communications, and other aspects of the day-to-day operations."

But it hasn't quelled concerns in New York, where multiple officials tell CNN that they feel the federal government is trying to blame the city for the migrant problem it hasn't solved.

"Our requests from the federal government remain the same," said Adams spokesperson Kayla Mamelak, "and quite frankly, unaddressed."

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