President Biden is under growing pressure to curb record numbers of migrants crossing into the United States — not just from the usual Republican critics, but also from Democratic mayors and governors in cities thousands of miles from the border.
What used to be a clear-cut, ideological fight between Democrats and Republicans has become a bipartisan demand for action, and some of the most intense pressure on Mr. Biden is coming from places like Boston, Denver, Chicago and New York, where leaders in the president’s own party are issuing cries for help.
Publicly, the Democratic politicians have described mounting crises in their cities. Privately, they are in almost daily contact with Tom Perez, director of the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, and other administration officials. For the most part they are not calling for the kind of severe border restrictions that Republicans are demanding, but they want help with overflowing migrant encampments, packed shelters and busted budgets.
The intraparty pressure has turned the politics of immigration upside down at the beginning of a campaign year. And it has increased the likelihood that Mr. Biden and Democratic lawmakers will approve immigration concessions to Republicans that would have seemed improbable just a few years ago.
In Denver, more than 36,000 migrants have arrived in recent months, with 4,100 still in city shelters, and more are arriving daily. In Boston, migrants have camped out at the airport. In New York, more than 164,500 migrants have poured into shelters since April 2022, with many still living in one of the 215 hotels, converted office buildings or tent camps set up to accommodate them.
“It’s both a humanitarian and fiscal crisis,” said Mike Johnston, the Democratic mayor of Denver. “We aren’t going to sit by and watch moms and 6-month-olds in tents on the streets in 10-degree weather. But by refusing to do that we are on the path to spend $180 million next year and could not do that either.”
“As mayors we are so frustrated,” he added, noting that many of the migrants arriving in his city must wait for months before they can work legally in the United States. “This is actually a solvable problem, if we had work authorization, federal dollars and a coordinated entry plan.”
The flood of migrants into the big cities has been anything but coordinated.
Most have arrived, unannounced, on buses or planes sent by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who argues that cities far from the border should get a taste of the flood of migrants in his state. Democratic mayors have lashed out at Mr. Abbott for what they say is a political stunt, using human beings as props.
So far, the stunt seems to have worked, by delivering the migrants — often without coats, or family members in the U.S. — to the cities far to the north.
Mayor Eric Adams of New York filed a lawsuit on Thursday against 17 charter bus companies seeking $708 million in compensation for transporting migrants from Texas to the city without paying “for the cost of continued care in violation of New York’s Social Services Law.” Last week, the mayor issued an executive order that requires buses with migrants to arrive in the city only between 8:30 a.m. and noon, Monday through Friday, or face fines and impoundment. Many buses have diverted to cities in New Jersey instead.
In Denver, Mr. Johnston was at one of the city’s migrant encampments on Wednesday, feeling upbeat that his team was transferring all 300 people, including some children, out of the cold and into shelters and apartments.
But even as the process was underway, several new busloads of migrants from the border arrived, courtesy of Mr. Abbott.
“They literally pulled in as we were moving people from this encampment,” Mr. Johnston said in an interview.
A record number of people worldwide are fleeing conflict, climate change, political turmoil and economic hardship in their homelands, according to the United Nations, and smuggling networks have expanded their reach to Asia and Africa.
Nearly 2.5 million people crossed the southern border in fiscal year 2023. In December, more than 10,000 migrants were intercepted at the southern border on some days, among the most ever. Many of them are boarding Mr. Abbott’s buses, hoping to find housing and work in the cities.
The anger at Mr. Abbott — and the frustration with the issue — is shared by Mr. Biden’s top aides, who regularly lash out at the Texas governor and other Republicans. On Wednesday, after Speaker Mike Johnson and 60 House Republicans gathered at the border to rail against the president and his immigration policies, the president’s spokeswoman shot back.
Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, called the trip to the border the latest in a series of “political stunts” and accused Republicans of blocking “any efforts for the president to deal with the border. That’s what we’ve seen. That is what we’ve seen from the speaker.”
White House officials say they have been in constant contact with the Democratic mayors and governors to try to help them deal with the impact of the migrants. Mr. Perez spends close to 50 percent of his time on the issue, according to a senior administration official familiar with his efforts.
“The president is focused on securing additional resources,” Mr. Perez said, “including more Border Patrol agents, asylum officers and immigration judges; more technology to catch fentanyl; and more grant funding for communities hosting recently arrived migrants.”
The federal government has already delivered about $1 billion to the cities most affected, including about $50 million of a promised $150 million to New York City. Mr. Biden has also asked Congress for another $1.4 billion to help cities around the country deal with migrants, but that emergency funding is tied up in debates on Capitol Hill.
Mayors and governors say it wouldn’t be enough anyway.
New York has already spent $3.1 billion on housing and feeding the migrants. Massachusetts has spent $247 million on emergency housing since July, and half of the current occupants are migrants. San Diego County allocated $3 million in October for a transition day center for migrants, and another $3 million in December. Denver, Chicago, Los Angeles and other cities across the country are also spending millions.
Since August 2022, more than 600 buses have dropped migrants off in Chicago and its surrounding suburbs, and for months, migrant families have camped out in police stations or in tents on sidewalks.
In recent weeks, Mayor Brandon Johnson’s administration has largely removed migrants from police stations and moved them to the 27 shelters throughout the city. More than 14,000 migrants are currently staying in shelters; Chicago has received nearly 30,000 migrants in just over 14 months.
In a New Year’s Eve interview, Mayor Johnson assailed Mr. Abbott’s actions but also renewed pressure on the Biden administration to send billions of dollars to the cities affected.
“What we have is clearly an international and federal crisis that local governments are being asked to subsidize, and this is unsustainable,” he said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “None of our local economies are positioned to be able to carry on such a mission.”
On Capitol Hill, a solution to the problem remains elusive.
Republicans have seized the moment to insist on new, severe restrictions to asylum and other immigration policies that Democrats have resisted for years. Lawmakers in both parties say they want more funding for border security but so far have been unable to reach agreement on how much and what it would be spent on.
Caught in the middle are some of Mr. Biden’s top foreign policy priorities: military funding to help Ukraine resist Russian aggression, along with money for Israel as it conducts a war against Hamas following the terror attacks on Oct. 7. Republicans have held up both priorities as border negotiations continue.
But the pressure on Mr. Biden is clearly having an effect on the legislative negotiations. White House officials have signaled that they are open to changes that would make it harder for asylum seekers to pass an initial hurdle, known as a credible fear interview. If that happens, more of them will be returned home more quickly.
Democratic negotiators, including Alejandro N. Mayorkas, the homeland security secretary, also have appeared willing to discuss new rules that will allow more rapid deportations of migrants living illegally in the United States far from the border.
That would be a huge departure from the positions taken by most Democrats in the opening days and months of Mr. Biden’s presidency. But as the mayors and governors have made clear, the dynamics have changed.
“States like Massachusetts are in desperate need of more support from the federal government to address this historic surge in migrant arrivals,” said Gov. Maura Healey of Massachusetts, a Democrat. “We need Congress to act on President Biden’s budget that includes critical funding for border security and for cities and states like ours.”
Julie Bosman contributed reporting from Chicago.