Manhattan Institute graduate fellow Daniel Di Martino joins Brian Anderson to discuss the wave of migration to New York City, the roots of the federal border crisis, and the policies needed to fix the U.S. immigration system.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on today's show is Daniel Di Martino. He's a graduate fellow at the Manhattan Institute where he researches immigration policy, and he's a Ph.D student in economics at Columbia University. He's also the founder of the Dissident Project, which seeks to educate young Americans about the failure of socialist regimes worldwide. Daniel, thanks very much for joining us on 10 Blocks.

Daniel Di Martino: Thank you for having me, Brian.

Brian Anderson: New York City is facing, as most of our listeners probably know, a migration crisis. So, Mayor Eric Adams recently traveled to Washington, D.C. to request billions more in federal aid to help deal with 40,000 plus migrants who have come to the city since last spring. Because city law guarantees people a right to shelter, the New York City government has had to provide housing for these newcomers, many of whom don't have friends or family whom they can stay with in the city. But the available shelter capacity has been overwhelmed. It was overwhelmed quite rapidly. And the situation seems to be pretty dire. Is that your reading of it?

Daniel Di Martino: Yes, and it is true because of the numbers and the fact that most of the migrants that have been arriving to New York City are, as you say, people who have no other contacts in the United States. So, they really have no other choice than to live in a shelter at the beginning.

Brian Anderson: Now, some of these migrants have been put up in three-star hotels with the government picking up the tab. In a piece that you've written for City Journal that's forthcoming, you point out a kind of inversion of priorities. So, New York City makes it easy for illegal immigrants to live off of government largesse, but hard for them to find work or to stay safe. So, say more about this problem.

Daniel Di Martino: Yeah. Well, let me begin with how I came about this issue. I knew that there were asylum seekers arriving to New York. I have many friends who have claimed asylum in the United States because I'm originally from Venezuela. I know how the process works, I know how hard it can be. But what was concerning me was that I started seeing these videos on social media, on Venezuelan social media, of what was happening inside these shelters and the type of person that was arriving, some of whom were causing real trouble.

And then, the thing that really made me angry and made me want to write this article was that I saw some of the asylum seekers, who were being put up by the taxpayers in hotels in Midtown Manhattan, protesting because they were not receiving "permanent housing". I thought that that was outrageous. I don't think that immigration to the United States should be defined by the government paying for people to stay in hotels. I believe in legal immigration. I believe in a system that brings in people who want to work, not people who want to live off the government.

And so, I went to one of these shelters, because a friend from church connected me with a family who's there, and I wanted to see how I could help them, what were the problems they were facing, why were they in the shelter, how long they had been there. And I met this family from Columbia who had arrived late last year through the southern border. They were sent to New York City because they had no one to talk to. They didn't know anybody in the United States.

Okay, so they get here. And I start seeing all the problems that they were facing. Number one, of course, they don't have work permits, so they can't legally work, because they haven't applied for asylum. And you wonder, "Why haven't they applied for asylum?" Because that means hiring a lawyer, and that means having a lot of money. And so, it also means initiative, right? They should try to find a pro bono lawyer. But regardless of that, most of the asylum seekers, even if they work illegally, that's not going to hurt their asylum case because it will be forgiven if the asylum is granted.

So, you could say, "Why don't they just work off the books?" The reason is the father was actually a barber in Colombia and the mother in this family was a nail salon worker. To do those professions in New York, you need a state license, which requires thousands of hours of training, which requires a lot of money and fees to these associations that they just don't have. And so, the consequence is that now this family is living in a three-star hotel in Port Authority in New York City, and they're not working.

One of their daughters, she is about 15 years old and she was going to a public high school here in the city, and they told me that she stopped going. And the reason why was because other girls in her class threatened to kill her if she didn't start trafficking drugs for them. And so, I start hearing everything they're telling me, and I just start thinking, "Wow, we're just making it really easy for everybody around the world to come to the United States, get utilities, get their housing, get three meals per day, all paid for by the taxpayers, then we make it impossible to work. And then we put their kids into terrible situations where they can't even get an education." We have our priorities completely inversed.

Brian Anderson: The Biden administration has tried to implement certain reforms that would hopefully slow down the tide of migrants coming across the border, the southern border. And some of these reforms you've suggested, reforms you've praised. On the other hand, the U.S. immigration system seems like the kind of dysfunctional problem that only some sweeping legislation could fix. So, I wonder what your thoughts are about the prospects for a broader legislative deal to repair some of the holes in our immigration system.

Daniel Di Martino: Yeah. Well, first we have to understand that the present border crisis is fueled mostly by people who come from countries where we can't actually deport them to. And this is an interesting matter, and one that should be really concerning to Congress. Because no matter what reform in the asylum system happens, you need the consent of a country to deport people there, because you need consent to land and otherwise you are basically declaring war and violating their sovereignty, by landing a foreign plane.

And so, what happens is that most of the people coming to the border from Nicaragua, or from Cuba, or from Venezuela, even the Chinese, even people from all over the world who are coming, now, through Mexico . . . The United States is having a lot of trouble deporting people to all these countries because these countries are giving them little consent, or no consent, in some cases. And so, the question is, what do you do even if you determine a person is deportable, if the country doesn't want to take them back?

That's an issue that Congress has not dealt with, and that we need to start dealing with. Because that could mean that countries could simply dump anybody they want in the United States, and we wouldn't be able to do anything in the status quo. But further than that, even to the people that don't give us that issue, like from Central America or Mexico, or other allied countries, the question is . . . The current asylum system takes years to process a claim. And you cannot keep a person in an ICE facility imprisoned for years, waiting for that asylum case to be heard. That would be unfair to them. That would be costly to us. And so, what happens, of course, is that they get released in the United States.

There was a policy during the Trump administration, called Remain in Mexico, where most people would be required to remain in Mexico. Now, that's not a very reasonable position, if you think about it more. Because if you are from Mexico and you request an asylum and they're making you wait in Mexico, that it's not much asylum, right? And if you are from another country, the truth is that the U.S.-Mexico border is one of the most dangerous places in the world. So, I don't think it's a very workable solution, especially since the executive cannot keep a Remain in Mexico policy in a very effective way, since the Immigration and Nationality Act does give the right to anybody inside U.S. physical territory to claim asylum and be here.

So, the question is, how do we change our laws so that we don't have people making fake asylum claims, which is the majority of the claims that are received, and staying here? Then I think the answer is we need to make decisions faster. The whole problem of catch and release happens because the decisions take years to happen. If you could decide an asylum case in a week, then there will be no problem keeping somebody detained for a week in a nice facility in the southern border. But that's not what's happening.

And so, how do we do that? Number one, we need to hire more immigration judges. This is just a funding problem, in this sense. Number two, we need to allow USCIS, which is our immigration agency officers, to decide cases or impose a higher barrier of credible fear at the border, which doesn't grant asylum, but it allows you to filter people who are likely to qualify or not. If somebody doesn't have their story straight, if somebody can't say basic facts about where they're from and things like that, then you just immediately expel them. What's happening now is that if you basically just say, "I have fear that I will be tortured if I return," and that's it, then you are allowed in. You don't have to confirm any details or anything like that. So, those are two important solutions that I don't think should be partisan. It's just about hiring more judges and changing some of who makes the decisions.

Brian Anderson: Now, migration flows change over time. Border crossings from Mexican nationals, for example, have gone down in recent years. During the Trump years, many migrants hailed from Northern Triangle nations. Increasingly, though, people are coming from South American countries like Venezuela, where, as you noted, you were originally born. I wonder if you could describe the changing composition of immigrants coming from the Southern Hemisphere and what's drawing them to the U.S. and to cities like New York?

Daniel Di Martino: Yeah. Well, the reason that the flow is changing is because the conditions in these countries have changed, especially pre- and post-pandemic. There are 7.1 million Venezuelans outside of Venezuela right now, which is over 20 percent of the population. And as a consequence of the socialist regime that's there, that has destroyed the economy, that has persecuted people. And while most people had left to live in Colombia, to live in Peru, to live in Chile, some went to the United States, of course. And when the pandemic hit Latin America, it really obliterated the Latin American economies. And as a consequence, there's also been a lot of xenophobia against Venezuelans in Latin America. Funnily enough, people, especially on the left, like to claim that the United States is this intolerant country, when the reality is that the other Latin American countries are much more intolerant of their fellow Latin Americans than the United States is.

And so, Venezuelans have had a hard time finding work in these Latin American countries. And I think that that's part of what's pushing a lot of these people north. And they've been crossing the Central American jungles, like the Darién Gap in Panama, for the first time in history in these numbers. Now, more recently, all these people have changed the flow. So, the number of Venezuelans started dropping drastically in October last year, because the administration created a parole program. Parole in immigration policy, it's not like in criminal justice. Parole is a permit to enter the United States given by the executive. And what the Biden administration has been doing is allowing a certain number of Venezuelans to come here legally by plane if they have a U.S. sponsor, with the goal that they won't end up in New York City shelters like the people who have crossed the border are doing.

And I think that that's a good policy if it ends up leading to fewer people depending on the government coming into the country. And it seems like that's what's happening. The issue, though, is what's going to happen after the parole ends? Are these people going to be deported if they don't qualify for asylum? Or how are we going to deal with this population?

I think, ultimately, the United States needs to, one, have an asylum system that process cases fast, and really a work visa system that allows people who don't qualify for asylum to have at least a chance of coming here to work temporarily and then returning. Because otherwise, what we're going to keep having is this massive, massive influx of people trying to cross the border. And sure, you can have more border security, but no amount of border security is going to stop some of these people from attempting to cross two, three, four, five times until they make it. And when they make it, the country hasn't been really willing to deport these numbers of people. And so, that's what we need to change. We need to have a system that is quick, we need to have a system that is fair, and we need to have a system that is secure.

Brian Anderson: Finally, I wonder if you could talk a bit about your research on legal immigration. What, in your view, are the most crucial reforms that the United States could adopt, to make sure that the immigration system functions in a way that serves the national interest?

Daniel Di Martino: Yeah. Well, the number one reform is that the bureaucracy that currently runs the U.S. immigration system is a government bureaucracy. And I think that a lot of people forget that the immigration system is a government system and therefore is subject to the same issue other government agencies are subject to. I call the U.S. immigration agency "the IRS of Immigration" or "the DMV of Immigration" because they just keep creating new rules and paperwork, not out of Congressional intent, but things that just make things more difficult for legal immigrants. They make the process lengthier, they make the process more costly. And, as a consequence, today, if, say, you are a physician and say that you already went through all the license and certification programs, that's a whole other issue that's dealt with by the states too. But say that you don't have a problem practicing medicine in the United States, your problem is the immigration part. You're a physician, the top in your field. It's going to take well over two years for that person to get a green card, during which time it's going to be very difficult to work, it's going to be very costly. Maybe that person wouldn't be allowed to stay in the United States while they wait.

And so, this is a senseless system when there are countries like the United Kingdom, which take just a few business days to approve cases like this. Why can't we be more like that? Why can't we have a bureaucracy that is more efficient? It's not about whether we approve all cases or deny all cases. I'm not saying that we need to change eligibility criteria. I'm not saying that we need to increase or decrease the number of immigrants coming legally to the United States. I'm just saying that, given the system that we have, we want to make it as quick and easy, paperwork-wise, to the immigrants we admit, without compromising national security.

And so, my proposals in the two reports that I recently published with MI were that number one, we need to expand premium processing. Premium processing is this system where the immigrants can pay additional fees in exchange for having guaranteed turnaround times for decisions. Usually 30 days, which is a much shorter time than waiting for, say, 11 months, which is what one of the main applications for green cards takes. So, premium processing, reducing paperwork unnecessarily, like some work permit requests from people who don't really need it, who could just use their passports and their visas to show work eligibility.

And so, I proposed all this series of reforms that would reduce the administrative burden. And then, we have to understand that we're in an international competition for talent. Talent is distributed worldwide, and genetically, we all have certain traits that we inherit. The goal of the United States, if we want to dominate the world economy, if we want to beat China in, say, an arms race, in, say, a technology race, is to have as many smart people in the United States, who are not only smart themselves, but the children that they have will be smart.

And eventually, we're just going to guarantee our spot as the most powerful nation. And the only way to do that is by really brain-draining our enemies. It's not about being nice to China, it's not about being nice to Russia, it's about actually brain-draining them. The smartest Chinese scientist living in the United States will be not only more productive for themselves, live a better life, but we would steal this potential threat from China, turn it into an asset. So that's the goal of, I think, the high-skill migration policy that we need to have in the United States. It's bringing in the smart people from the world to elevate our position on the world stage, and to make it easier, bureaucratically, for the people we allow to stay here and not have to deal with as much paperwork.

Brian Anderson: Well, thank you very much, Dan. Don't forget to check out Daniel Di Martino's work for City Journal. You can find it on the City Journal website, We'll link to his author page in the description. You can also find City Journal on Twitter, @cityjournal, and on Instagram, @cityjournal_mi. And as always, if you like what you've heard on the podcast, give us a five-star ratings on iTunes. Dan, thanks very much for coming on.

Daniel Di Martino: Thank you, Brian.

Photo by Leonardo Munoz/VIEWpress via Getty Images

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