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Hochul, facing low poll numbers, tries new tactic to address the state's migrant crisis

Gov. Kathy Hochul addresses the state's migrant crisis in a speech on Aug. 24, 2023.
Mike Groll
Office of Gov. Kathy Hochul
Gov. Kathy Hochul addresses the state's migrant crisis in a speech on Aug. 24, 2023.

Gov. Kathy Hochul delivered a livestreamed address this week to showcase how she’s handling the state’s migrant crisis. As Karen DeWitt reports, Hochul is stepping up her messaging on the controversial issue as her popularity has taken a hit in a recent statewide poll.

Hochul said she wanted to tell New Yorkers directly about what she’s doing to resolve a crisis caused by the influx of over 100,000 asylum-seekers to the state in the past several months.

Hochul says she’s freed up space in state buildings and helped New York City designate over 200 shelters to house migrants, allocated $1 billion dollars in the state budget and deployed over 2,000 National Guard troops to help.

The governor also emphasized that the crisis is not of her making. She put the blame on Texas Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican who has bused the migrants to New York City. But she also called out President Joe Biden, a Democratic ally of Hochul’s who has so far not largely responded to her repeated requests for help.

“This crisis originated with the federal government,” Hochul said. “And it must be resolved through the federal government.”

Specifically, Hochul wants a waiver of the six-month waiting period before the asylum-seekers are allowed to seek employment. She says she also wants “significant” funding from the president, and Congress, to reimburse New York’s costs, which she says could rise to $4.5 billion dollars next year. The governor is also seeking help with housing and providing education for migrant children, and money to test the newcomers for potential transmissible illnesses like tuberculosis, and to get them COVID-19 and other vaccines.

Hochul did not cover much new ground in her speech. She’s told reporters for months now that she’s been speaking to the White House on a daily basis, asking for the work waivers and the financial assistance.

But her efforts have so far been largely unsuccessful. The Biden administration did grant permission in late August to repurpose Floyd Bennett Field, a former U.S. Navy air station in Brooklyn, to house over 2000 migrants who are single adults. The site has attracted protests from local residents who oppose the conversion of the site.

The governor did announce a new program , launched by her state Department of Labor, to help connect asylum seekers to jobs, once they do get their work authorization from the federal government.

Earlier in the week, a Siena College poll found that Hochul’s favorability rating is the lowest it’s been during her two-year tenure as governor. Siena pollster Steve Greenberg says that New Yorkers of all political viewpoints, including most Democrats, believe the influx of migrants to the state is a “serious problem.”

“Certainly her handling of the migrant issue does not help her numbers,” Greenberg said.

The governor also rallied many of the state’s congressional and local elected officials to support her stance. Her aides sent out a news release highlighting comments from them and from organizations like the state’s restaurant association and groups that work with refugees. Noticeably absent was New York City Mayor Eric Adams. The governor and mayor, who have been allies on many issues, have seen their relationship fray over the migrant crisis.

Two major advocacy groups that did not sign on are the state’s Legal Aid Society and the Coalition for the Homeless.

Both groups have filed a lawsuit, trying to expand New York City’s right-to-shelter policy to the rest of the state, arguing that the state’s constitution requires it. Hochul disagrees and is opposing them in court.

Josh Goldfein, staff attorney for Legal Aid, says even though the governor did not announce any major new policies, he credits Hochul for focusing greater attention on the migrant crisis and putting more pressure on the president and Congress to take more responsibility.

“I think there is a sense that the bigger-picture message needs to be stronger, and that the governor is trying to raise the profile of the issue,” Goldfein said. “Maybe she doesn't need to say something different than what she said. She just needs to say it in a different way to get people's attention.”

The Legal Aid Society and the Coalition for the Homeless, along with several other groups, wrote a letter to Hochul on Monday, urging her to do more to settle the migrants in regions outside of New York. Goldfein says the governor could use her executive powers to override local emergency orders banning the asylum-seekers.

“What we need is for the governor to really take ownership of some of these issues and show some leadership to help people relocate to the communities that need, you know, an influx of people, and that would welcome new arrivals.”

Hochul in her speech, said she won’t “force” other parts of the state to shelter migrants. The busing of migrants to regions in the Hudson Valley and the Albany, Rochester and Buffalo areas has been politically unpopular.

Republican state leaders were critical of Hochul’s speech. A spokesman for the state’s Republican Party, David Laska, said in a statement that “communities across the state are strained far beyond their ability to handle this influx.” He says until Hochul calls on Biden to close the Southern border, “her position on immigration will remain fundamentally unserious.”

By the end of the day on Friday, Hochul continued her focus on informing New Yorkers about what she’s doing about the crisis. She announced that she’s extended an emergency order to continue mobilizing the national guard, and to aid the state and local governments to more “ quickly purchase necessary supplies and resources, including food and equipment”.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for the New York Public News Network, composed of a dozen newsrooms across the state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.