“We are opening emergency shelters and respite centers daily, but we are out of space,” warned City Hall.

Photo by Katie Moum on Unsplash.

After an outcry from parents in New York City, Mayor Eric Adams backed down yesterday from a plan to house newly arrived migrants in public school gymnasiums.

Earlier this week, City Hall took a less sympathetic tone.

“As we’ve been saying for months, we are in the midst of a humanitarian crisis, having opened approximately 150 emergency sites, including eight large-scale humanitarian relief centers, to serve more than 65,000 asylum seekers,” responded city officials in a statement. “We received more than 4,200 asylum seekers last week alone and continue to receive hundreds of asylum seekers every day.”

“We are opening emergency shelters and respite centers daily, but we are out of space,” warned City Hall. “As the mayor has said, nothing is off the table as we work to fill our moral mandate, but we should all expect this crisis to affect every city service. We will continue to communicate with local elected officials as we open more emergency sites.”

Mayor Adams has also been communicating with elected officials on the federal level, including the Biden Administration, demanding that federal authorities act to stem the flow into NYC. The Mayor has been outspoken about what he perceives as a failure to control the influx of asylum seekers, migrants, and economic refugees at the U.S. southern border.

The Mayor’s critics have pointed to NYC’s status as a “sanctuary city” as one major reason for the recent surge of new arrivals.

A sanctuary city has adopted policies to limit cooperation with federal immigration enforcement authorities. As such, a sanctuary city is a natural destination for asylum or employment seekers who might face deportation elsewhere. Sanctuary cities often extend social services to the newly arrived, making them eligible for benefits they would have trouble accessing in a state like Texas.

“The law of sanctuary city was in place long before I became mayor,” Mayor Adams complained this week. “I’m following the law. As a law enforcement person, you know, we follow the law. We are now in court today, asking this judge to revisit this law to deal with this humanitarian crisis because, even when they decided to put in place that law, no one thought they would be dealing with a humanitarian crisis of this proportion.”

This high-profile kerfuffle over migrant housing in public school gymnasiums has thrown the concept of a sanctuary city into a bit of a tailspin this week.

Immigration is one of the legal areas in which federal and state laws are increasingly at odds with each other. In a sort of standoff, a state or city will declare some portion of federal law null and refuse to enforce it. Federal law mandates that people who have crossed the border illegally be deported; some states and cities ignore this standard, including New York City.

From a constitutional standpoint, federal law is supposed to have precedence — on paper.

According to the U.S. Constitution, federal law is considered the supreme law of the land, and it generally takes precedence over state law. This principle is known as federal supremacy, and it is outlined in Article VI, Clause 2 of the Constitution, often referred to as the Supremacy Clause.

It states: “This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.”

This clause establishes that federal laws, along with the Constitution itself and treaties, have superior authority over conflicting state laws. If there is a conflict between federal law and state law, federal law generally prevails and must be followed.

Theoretically, federal authorities could force states and cities to comply with federal law.

In reality, that would look like federal legal enforcement agencies and the national guard usurping state and local authorities. The optics alone would be devastating to any political party or politician. Any U.S. presidential administration engaging in such tactics would invite backlash from voters.

The federal government has other ways to enforce its laws at the state and local levels, of course. The power of the purse is a powerful tool indeed. Withholding federal funding dollars from states and cities until they enforce federal laws would have its own dangers.

One such danger would be escalation.

A cold war stalemate between federal authorities and state and local authorities over such contentious culture war topics as illegal immigration, abortion, guns, and drug laws is one thing; a hot war would be quite another.

Republican governors would defy Democratic presidential administrations; Democrat governors would defy Republican presidential administrations, ad infinitum along increasingly hardened, hyper-partisan lines. Ultimately, it’s difficult to see any winners in such a bitter political tit-for-tat.

(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)