The Volokh Conspiracy

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New York's Migrant Crisis is Caused by a Combination of Federal Work Restrictions and Local Zoning Policy

It's the predictable result of the combination of federal regulations barring asylum seekers from working legally and local policies offering free housing, while severely restricting new housing construction.


(Wayne Stadler/

New York City's migrant crisis has been in the news lately. The basic story is that the city is having difficulty housing some 58,000 aslyum-seeking migrants that have arrived in recent months. Critics understandably focus on the role played by the city's guarantee of free shelter, which has attracted asylum-seekers to New York. That is indeed part of the problem, and NYC should reconsider it.

But two other flawed policies are even more significant, especially in the long run: one federal and one local. The federal culprit is the rule that asylum seekers are not allowed to work legally in the US until at least 6 months after arrival, and in practice the wait can be much longer. I have written about this problem in detail previously. The obvious bottom line is that the vast majority of asylum-seekers (like other migrants) could support themselves, if only the federal government would let them. That's especially true in a city like New York, which has a significant labor shortage. Immigrants can and do make major contributions to our economy, including ones that enormously benefit natives. But they can't do it if we don't let them work.

New York authorities are not to blame for this federal rule. But they have made the situation worse by perpetuating some of the nation's most severe zoning restrictions on the construction of new housing, which predictably drives up the cost and reduces the availability of apartments for migrants and natives alike. This is a major problem even aside from asylum-seekers.  NYC, like other cities, would do well to abolish exclusionary zoning and let property owners build new housing in response to demand. It would simultaneously promote economic growth, and enormously benefit working and lower-middle class people of all origins—white and minority, native and immigrant.

Earlier this year, New York Governor Kathy Hochul did in fact propose a pretty good zoning reform bill. But, sadly, it was defeated in the state legislature by a combination of NIMBY forces from both left and right.

If you restrict the construction of new housing while offering it for free, basic Economics 101 suggests you will end up with shortages. Those shortages get worse if you bar many people from working to support themselves, leaving the putatively free housing as their only viable option in the city.

In sum, the feds should let asylum seekers work legally, and state and local government should replace offers of free housing with curbs on exclusionary zoning. In that way, migrants could support themselves, the city's economy could benefit from their contributions, and immigrants and natives alike could get better and cheaper housing, thereby enabling more people of all backgrounds to move to places that offer better work and educational opportunities.

The Big Apple has been such a destination for many, throughout American history. And it can be so again, if only federal, state, and local officials would revoke some awful restrictions on migrant employment and housing construction.