Opinion: An influx of migrants does not equal more crime

A look at how rhetoric is doing more harm to asylum-seekers, as well as Black and brown New Yorkers

A bus carrying migrants from Texas arrives at the Port Authority Bus Terminal on August 10, 2022 in New York.

A bus carrying migrants from Texas arrives at the Port Authority Bus Terminal on August 10, 2022 in New York. (Photo by Yuki IWAMURA / AFP) (Photo by YUKI IWAMURA/AFP via Getty Images)

When did seeking asylum become a crime?  

The criminalization of migrants isn’t new, but the consequences for migrants are real. There are not only clear “insiders” and “outsiders,” but the current migrant crisis exposes the long-standing narrative that low income Black and brown people are scapegoated as “others” that disrupt “law and order.” Some have gone even further to villainize them, as a former president referred to them (even in a recent rally) as “rapists” who are “bringing drugs” and “bringing crime.” New York City Mayor Eric Adams has become prolific in stoking fear throughout the city by continuing to exacerbate these false and toxic ideas within his response to the migrant crisis.  

Last month, Adams took his hardest stance yet, which targets undocumented migrants who are accused of a crime. In his latest effort to overturn sanctuary laws, Mayor Adams is single-handedly putting an additional target on migrants’ backs, which completely misses the mark on the real issue at hand.  

There are several glaring red flags in the rhetoric Mayor Adams is using which, is not only harmful towards migrants, but also potentially triggering violence. Adams, suggesting asylum-seekers could lead to the potential destruction of the city, positions migrants directly as a threat. Let us be clear: his remarks incite further racial, economic, and status divisions in the city. And Adams added, “the city we knew, we’re about to lose.” 

The specific language of “losing the city” is reminiscent of the divisive Trump era in which Donald Trump called for the “building of a wall” across the U.S.-Mexico border. Mayor Adams is utilizing a similar rhetorical maneuver to criminalize and “otherize” migrants.  

These narratives are not only toxic, but they also become the fuel that powers Adams’ very dangerously misguided policing machine. Just a few weeks ago, Mayor Adams donned a bulletproof vest (on top of his Fendi scarf) to accompany NYPD officers, who were conducting an early morning police raid in the Bronx. As a form of justification for the raid, the NYPD characterized the crimes committed by migrants as the “largest robbery pattern plaguing the city,” and called migrants who committed such crimes “ghost criminals.”   

Mayor Adams and the NYPD have been stroking fear throughout the city with such hyperbolic statements with divisive language to terrorize New Yorkers about what they call the “wave of migrant crime.” But a closer look at the facts reveals that this massive wave is more like a ripple. What Mayor Adams and the NYPD have not said enough is that crime rates as a whole in New York City are down compared to this time last year. Furthermore, when examining crime rates of neighborhoods where migrant shelters are located, crime is also down. According to The Daily News, major crime categories are down 7% from February last year in Brooklyn’s 63rd precinct, where a major migrant shelter is located. In Manhattan’s East Village, crime is down by 7.5%. The only category that is up is felony assault and that is by a less than 30 percent increase –  that is 24 incidents this year compared to 19 in 2023.  

In a recent press conference about the migrant crisis, Mayor Adams said, “This small number of people are breaking the law and having a huge impact on our public safety and that’s why we zeroed in on them.” But perhaps he needs to loosen the Fendi scarf around his neck so he can see the numbers clearly again. If he is actually the “on the ground mayor” that he proudly proclaims, then he needs to actually put the time in to speak to migrants who are actually on ground instead of spending so much time with police.   

But of course, Mayor Adams doesn’t truly want to fix the problem. He addresses issues by creating more issues. Like the time he said the right to shelter does not apply to migrants and began imposing 60-day stay limits for migrants, which the city comptroller is now investigating

In addition to the stay limits, Mayor Adams is slamming migrants again – this time with a curfew. He implemented an 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew at over a dozen migrant shelters, impacting more than 3,000 migrants. 

The way in which Mayor Adams is otherizing migrants is similar to the way he criminalized homelessness and mental illness. On Nov. 29 2022, Mayor Adams introduced a plan that would give police and emergency medical workers the power to put homeless people who they deem have mental issues in hospitals as they see fit. As previous incidents have shown, police have very limited capacities in handling mental health crises as is. Sending police to address these situations is not only inhumane, but ineffective.   

The migrant crisis is an issue of housing and infrastructure, not law and order. Government officials and media need to be more mindful of the language used to discuss these issues, as such rhetoric only fuels negative stereotypes about immigrants. These statements are not only hurtful, but they become the fuel to rapidly shift into harmful legislation that can severely impact migrants’ lives. 

Candacé King is an African American Studies scholar and Emmy-Award winning journalist who is currently the Manager of Storytelling and Content Strategy at Common Justice.