EL PASO — More than 2,000 miles away from New York City, Mayor Eric Adams stood outside a church in Texas on Sunday surrounded by a group of migrants and told them he would fight for them to be able to work in the United States and to “experience the American dream.”
As the mayor’s words were translated into Spanish, the crowd began to clap and cheer.
But the mayor’s positive message contrasted with his difficult mission on his trip to the southern border — he is trying to increase pressure on President Biden to provide federal help to New York City, which is dealing with an influx of migrants. He is showing compassion for people whose lives have been upended while also insisting that they stop coming to his city.
The migrant crisis on the Mexican border has become one of Mr. Adams’s greatest challenges as mayor. More than 36,000 people have arrived unexpectedly in New York City over the past year, straining the city’s budget as well as its system for sheltering homeless people.
After weeks of calling for more help from the federal government, Mr. Adams decided to visit the border. His trip comes one week after Mr. Biden visited El Paso after announcing a new crackdown on border crossings.
The number of migrants apprehended while trying to illegally cross the border has hit record highs. In the 12 months leading up to October 2021, the Border Patrol encountered 1.7 million migrants trying to cross illegally, the highest number since 1960.
Mr. Adams, a Democrat entering his second year in office, kept a busy schedule on his two-day trip to El Paso and sought to keep most of it out of the public eye. He met on Saturday with Oscar Leeser, the mayor of El Paso, who took him to visit an area where migrants often cross the border and a site where people were sleeping outside in camping tents.
On Sunday, Mr. Adams met again with Mr. Leeser, a Democrat, to discuss how cities can work together to ask for federal help to address the migrant crisis, according to Fabien Levy, a spokesman for Mr. Adams who traveled with him to El Paso. Then Mr. Adams visited Sacred Heart Church, a shelter for migrants, and another group that works with arriving migrants.
“The reality of the situation is that these migrants are being promised things before they cross the border that are just not available,” Mr. Levy posted on Twitter.
Only one of the mayor’s events was open to reporters: a news conference on Sunday. It was scheduled near the Mexican border and the Rio Grande and later moved indoors in response to a large dust storm.
Mr. Adams has struggled to respond to the flood of migrants arriving on buses in New York City, constantly shifting his strategy and his rhetoric. The city has provided shelter, food, clothing and schooling to thousands of migrants and their children, and Mr. Adams has argued that migrants should be able to work legally in the city more quickly.
But the mayor has also struck a harsh tone at times, calling on Mr. Biden to slow the flow of migrants at the border and saying shortly after Christmas that there was “no more room at the inn” in New York for additional migrants. As the city faces growing budget challenges, Mr. Adams has said that the migrant crisis may prompt cuts to basic city services.
Mr. Adams said on Friday that services for migrants could cost the city as much as $2 billion — significantly higher than previous estimates.
In the spring, Republican leaders in Florida and Texas began sending a surge of people who had crossed the southern border seeking asylum to cities with Democratic elected leaders — New York, Washington and Chicago — saying they were placing the burden of the border crisis on left-leaning localities with so-called sanctuary city policies.
Mr. Adams said in an interview on “PBS NewsHour” on Friday that the Biden administration was placing a burden on cities like New York.
Saying that 36,000 people had appeared “on our doorsteps,” he said that “we did what any New Yorker would do — we provided for them not only housing, a place for them to sleep, with food, health care; we educated a substantial number of children, and we are also providing the necessary mental health support that is needed.”
“But we need help,” he added. “And that is why we’re calling on the national government to not put this burden on our cities.”
Mr. Adams traveled to El Paso with a small group of advisers that included Camille Joseph Varlack, his new chief of staff; Zachary Iscol, his commissioner for emergency management; and Manuel Castro, his commissioner of immigrant affairs. Mr. Iscol helped oversee the creation of a huge housing center for migrants on Randalls Island that has since closed; Mr. Castro has welcomed arriving migrants at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan.
At Sacred Heart Church in El Paso on Sunday, a crowd of about 40 migrants gathered outside when they heard that the mayor was visiting. One woman held a swaddled baby, and another woman fed a child rice and beans as they waited to see him. One person asked aloud if he was there to hand out papers to allow migrants to travel to New York.
Mr. Adams stopped to talk with the group and asked one man how he had learned about New York.
“Only in movies and television,” the man said in Spanish, and the mayor laughed.