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Jimmy Vielkind: You can see some big white tents on the Creedmoor campus. Creedmoor used to be a big psychiatric center here in eastern Queens. And for the last several months, the city has used this as a relief center for some of the tens of thousands of migrants who have come here.

Ted Long: Yes, this facility will be able to take care of a little bit over a thousand asylum seekers. We were at the point where we’re having to create new space because we’re out of the space we had here. When we had a (inaudible)…

Jimmy Vielkind: That’s Dr. Ted Long, an executive at New York City’s public hospital system. He was speaking last August when the Creedmoor facility opened after the city’s normal network of homeless shelters was overwhelmed. Today, there are about 64,000 migrants in the city’s care, including several thousand in three tent cities like Creedmoor. Caring for them has cost around $4 billion, and it’s become a top political issue in New York as migrants are a visible presence around the city.

Speaker 3: There’s probably two dozen people waiting for a bus. The center is across the street from the school. It was a playground. A couple people are sitting on benches. This has been a backdrop for many of the Republican political attacks about Democrats handling of the migrant crisis.

Speaker 4: No tent city.

Mazi Pilip: While the southern border may be located thousands of miles away, the border crisis reached our home. New York has become a border state.

Jimmy Vielkind: Migration across the southern border, especially surges of illegal crossings in recent years, has long been an issue that’s animated the Republican base. GOP candidates have tried to tap into that sentiment to rev up their core voters in election after election, but now we’re seeing a shift. Immigration has become a central topic across the political spectrum. A WSJ poll released in March found 20% of voters now rank immigration as their top issue, up from 13% in December and above any other topic, including the economy. Former president Donald Trump’s immigration policies were a big reason that I heard from Republicans about why he sewed up his party’s nomination so decisively. Now even Democratic candidates, all the way up to President Biden, are talking to voters about fixing the southern border.
I’m Jimmy Vielkind and this is Chasing the Base, a series from the Wall Street Journal. We hit the road several months ago to explore the dynamics shaping the road to the 2024 Republican nomination, talking to voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan, and Florida. Now that Donald Trump is headed toward a rematch against President Biden, I visited neighborhoods in eastern Queens and Long Island’s Nassau County, ahead New York’s Presidential primary on Tuesday. I wanted to dig into why and how this shift on immigration happened. The person who declared that New York was a border state, even though it’s over a thousand miles from Mexico, is Mazi Pilip, who was the Republican congressional candidate in a special election last month to replace George Santos. You may have heard of him. Moving on.
That election may be over, but the immigration debate is still raging here and the stakes are high. Despite Pilip’s loss, local Republicans feel emboldened. The party in 2022 won all four congressional districts on Long Island. Even though New York is a reliably blue state, those winds helped the GOP capture a narrow majority in the house. So, these suburbs around New York City will be an electoral battleground in November. According to Larry Levy, a former political columnist who now runs the National Center for Suburban Studies at Long Island’s Hofstra University, the way New York City has handled the migrants has put it on the top of voters’ minds.

Larry Levy: The difference now is that it was not a problem in New York City, to the extent that it was overwhelming services, that it was costing a fortune in tax dollars, that it was linked to an existing sense of chaos, economic and crime due to the pandemic.

Jimmy Vielkind: The latest wave began in 2021. More people came to the southern border after the COVID-19 pandemic ebbed, escaping economic and political unrest in Central and South America. The influx also includes migrants from Asia and Africa who came through Mexico. There were more than 2 million arrests at the border in both the 2022 and 2023 fiscal years. The first time is that figure had exceeded 1.7 million. Many were people seeking asylum who are then released by border patrol agents while they wait for those claims to be adjudicated, sometimes years in the future.
Some migrants come to northern cities, including Chicago and Washington DC in addition to New York, on buses that were charted by Republican governors of border states. Texas governor Greg Abbott led the charge, as part of a broader push for border enforcement. Democrats who run those northern cities where Abbott sent buses, are generally welcoming of immigrants. There are sanctuary city policies in place that restrict how municipal police cooperate with federal immigration authorities, but the busing changed where immigration across the southern border has become a political issue in suburbs like Long Island and areas around Denver and Chicago. Here’s Larry Levy again.

Larry Levy: Long Island is a place that for years and years has been the leading edge of suburban development in this country, and not only in housing, but in politics as well. Voters out here, even if there’s still nothing in their communities, we’re seeing it every day on television, every day in the newspapers. Those who commuted, would see the migrants on the street and it may have tugged at their heartstrings, it may have angered them, but they saw them and the Republicans understood this, seized on it for messaging.

Jimmy Vielkind: For a long time Republicans, this issue has been at the forefront for a while. Take Paul Gerner. He lives a few miles from Creedmoor in Floral Park, a village in Nassau County. He told me that he and his neighbors put motion activated lights on their houses because of concerns that migrants might break in.

Paul Gerner: Drive by down on your way back, just see all the tents. And the house break-ins in that area, gone through the roof and stuff. Yeah, it’s a big change.

Jimmy Vielkind: Paul said he’s been a Republican since he left the Air Force in the 1970s. He’s been a consistent supporter of Donald Trump, who’s been focusing on immigration since the 2015 launch of his presidential campaign. Here’s Trump at a 2018 Roundtable on Long Island.

Donald Trump: Democrats have to abandon their resistance to border security so that we can support law enforcement and save innocent lives.

Jimmy Vielkind: Other Republicans have seized on the theme and say more voters now care about it. Take Bruce Blakeman, who’s held various offices in Nassau County and was elected county executive in 2021.

Bruce Blakeman: I go in areas that are traditionally Democrat here in Nassau County, and people say to me, “Good job keeping the migrants out,” and we’re not anti-immigration. The way it’s being done, that was just bizarre. And these people aren’t vetted, we don’t know who they are. They claim asylum, but they haven’t been adjudicated to be deserving of asylum, and I just think that a country without borders is not a country.

Jimmy Vielkind: People like Paul responded to that message. I met him in Wantagh where he was riding his motorcycle in the St. Patrick’s Day parade, the largest on Long Island. Talking to people at the parade, I began to notice three categories of voters. The first were longtime Republicans like Paul, who talked about immigrants committing crimes. We checked this out. According to statistics provided by the police in Floral Park, burglaries increased in the four months after the Creedmoor Center opened compared to the prior year, but larceny and motor vehicle theft declined. And a national study from Stanford University found that immigrants, regardless of their legal status, are jailed at a lower rate than people born in the US. In the second group of people I met at the parade, were voters who talked about the current wave of migrants in terms of the financial impact on their local community. Debby Zedeck, who works in the medical field, said she sees it at her job.

Debby Zedeck: My ancestors came through Ellis Island, which was the proper way. Now they’re just coming in, not caring. And the states, I could talk for New York, that we are supporting them without them giving in. My theory is, if people need help, if it be through food stamps, Medicaid, whatever it may be, I don’t think somebody who just walks into this country should be entitled to that.

Jimmy Vielkind: Since this is New York, it was easy to find people like Debby who were very in touch with their own family’s immigration stories. For some people that was parents or grandparents. These voters represented a third group who were quite clear that they empathized with the recent migrants. They just felt that the current situation was broken and chaotic. They wanted it fixed. Rich Savino is one of those voters. His grandparents came from Italy.

Rich Savino: And they’re trying to make a living, and I don’t knock them for that at all, but I think things should be documented. The borders just shouldn’t be open, for sure. But yeah, listen, they’re here trying to make an honest living. I wish them all well.

Jimmy Vielkind: Both Rich and Debby told me they’d previously supported Democrats, but are now leaning Republican. They’re part of a group that includes immigrants themselves, who are a growing block of voters on Long Island and in other swing suburbs. We’ll hear from some of them after the break.
Pedram Bral came to the United States from Iran in 1985. He went to medical school here and practices an OB/GYN in Brooklyn. He had been a Democrat, but about 15 years ago he said he enrolled in the Republican Party. In 2015, he was elected mayor of Great Neck, a village in Northern Nassau County that has a high number of Iranian Jews like him. It’s also a place that had been a democratic bastion, but its government is now controlled by the GOP. There are a few major reasons for that shift, including the Republican Party’s stances on Israel. Bral said the Democrats’ response to the current influx of migrants has pushed people to the right.

Pedram Bral: There’s not enough being done to prevent the free flow of illegals to come. Listen, I’m an immigrant. Most of my friends are. I think it’s extremely important to be passionate and compassionate about the people who are fleeing their country, but there are ways of doing it.

Jimmy Vielkind: County executive Bruce Blakeman and Larry Levy from Hofstra, told me that the Republicans actively courted new communities of immigrants like Bral. That includes South Asian, East Asian, and other newcomers who even some Democrats have said their party has taken for granted. Here’s Levy.

Larry Levy: In the last three years, certainly on Long Island and in other swing areas, Latinos, particularly males, have begun to dribble toward the Republicans for a variety of reasons. Asian voters on Long Island, over the crime issue and over a micro local issue, education policies.

Jimmy Vielkind: I spoke with several people who were immigrants or the children of immigrants, that expressed concerns about the current situation. In some cases, they said it felt unfair because their own families had to wait or jump through hoops to get to the US. That was the case with J.V., a 42-year-old entrepreneur from Haiti who lives in Elmont, a Nassau County community just over the border from Queens. Its residents are 44% black, 23% Hispanic, 18% white and 14% Asian. J.V. voted for Biden in 2020, but he plans to support Trump this time around.

J.V.: Trump, he’s very arrogant, but he’s speaking the truth. I didn’t like him before, but it’s making sense now because we can’t even take care of our own, why are we letting more people come in?

Jimmy Vielkind: At the parade, I heard similar sentiments from Jordan Martinez, who grew up on Long Island and works in a body shop.

Jordan Martinez: My dad’s Puerto Rican, my mom’s Honduran. Sometimes you have to look at it as if it enough is enough.

Jimmy Vielkind: Of course not every immigrant sees it this way. I got a very different perspective from an Elmont community organizer named Mimi Pierre Johnson. Is that hyphenated?

Mimi Pierre Johnson: No. I only leave it in there to make sure people know I’m Haitian.

Jimmy Vielkind: We met at a party celebrating Tom Suozzi, a democrat who was just elected back to Congress in a February special election. Suozzi defeated Mazi Pilip, a Republican who we heard from at the start of this episode. Mimi told us that she appreciated Suozzi’s immigration stances, and that was a big reason for her support.

Mimi Pierre Johnson: Tom did not let us down. Throughout the whole campaign, he still was not afraid to talk about his immigration platform and how we all should work together. That’s all, that sold me.

Jimmy Vielkind: Suozzi’s immigration platform heavily emphasized border security, just like the Republicans have been pushing. I spoke with him at his office, which was decorated with pictures of his father who was born in Italy.

Tom Suozzi: People don’t like chaos, and they feel like it’s out of control, and it’s going to affect them as a result. And whether you’re a Republican who’s trying to weaponize the issue and trying to scare people, or a Democrat who’s genuinely concerned because you’re worried, because you see it on the news every day, it became a very real issue for everybody.

Jimmy Vielkind: Pilip tried to tie Suozzi to the status quo, managed by Biden. One day, the candidates held dueling press conferences near Creedmoor. Things became clearer a week before the polls closed on February 13th. A bipartisan group of US senators released a compromise Bill that would’ve funded a border wall and more agents. It also would’ve established a new asylum process at the border to deliver fast case resolutions and swift deportations for migrants who didn’t qualify. Trump denounced the proposed compromise and Republicans on Capitol Hill rejected it. Pilip said she wouldn’t support it, but Suozzi endorsed it.

Tom Suozzi: If you’re not serious about the issue and you just want to weaponize it and use it for political purposes, you’re not going to support it, which is exactly what Trump and everybody else did. They said, “It’s a problem.” I said, “Yeah, but what’s your solution?” “It’s a problem.”

Jimmy Vielkind: Jay Jacobs, who chairs the New York State Democratic Party said, “Suozzi backing the Immigration Bill was a big reason for his win, and something Democrats will want to replicate in the fall.”

Jay Jacobs: It’s not a Democratic issue, not a Republican issue. It’s just, we can’t allow the Republicans to take the lead on it, and Tom didn’t do that, and each of our candidates has to follow that pattern.

Jimmy Vielkind: That’s obviously the million-dollar question as the general election approaches. If Democrats are going to have success on this issue, they’ll need to win over people in the second and third groups of voters I described, the ones who are concerned about the costs and overwhelmed by the disorder. My big takeaway, Republicans have an advantage on the issue, and they’re forcing Democrats to rethink their approach to immigration politics. Democrats do have a chance to counter these GOP attacks, as Suozzis victory showed. But taking that roadmap nationwide would mean getting tougher than they’ve traditionally been about sealing the border, maybe even funding a wall. Just after he was sworn in, Suozzi boasted about becoming co-chair of a new group called Democrats for Border Security. Its goal is to develop a platform for the party, and give Democrats an avenue to discuss quote, “sensible border security measures”. Ultimately, how big of a role will immigration play in determining whether Trump or Biden is sitting in the Oval Office next year? I asked Suozzi. What are the political stakes?

Tom Suozzi: The future of our country, who’s going to win. It’s like, I think that everybody’s sick and tired of both sides. I think people are sick and tired of people just fighting with each other and nothing getting done. Nobody likes the sense of things are out of control.

Jimmy Vielkind: And that does it for this final installment of Chasing the Base. If you missed any of the previous episodes, you can find a link to all of them in the show notes. Chasing the Base is part of the Wall Street Journal’s What’s News. This episode was produced by Jess Jupiter and Ariana Aspuru. Sound designed by Jessica Fenton. Michael LaValle wrote our theme music. Editorial oversight from Joshua Jamerson, Philana Patterson, Ben Pershing, Scott Saloway, and Chris Zinsli. I’m Jimmy Vielkind. Thanks for joining us for this special series. What’s News and The Wall Street Journal will have more election coverage as the campaign season unfolds.

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