After months of contentious debate and near government shutdowns, Congress approved appropriations for fiscal year 2024, which President Biden quickly signed into law. The spending package contains several important immigration-related appropriations and provisions. Alarmingly, however, $150 million has been cut from the Shelter and Services Program (SSP) under the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and transferred to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). SSP funding allows states and localities to recuperate some of the costs they sustain in providing services, such as shelter and medical care, to migrants.

The cuts to SSP funding, previously distributed under the Emergency Food and Shelter Program-Humanitarian, threaten to undermine the critical infrastructures that states and localities have employed to welcome newly arrived migrants over the past two years.

In the absence of federal support, cities are now being forced to limit their aid to new arrivals.

How cities have responded

As the number of migrants seeking asylum at the southern U.S. border increased over the past two years, cities were forced into an emergency response, prioritizing shelter, and other basic needs for migrants. They responded quickly, building needed infrastructure such as migrant intake centers and shelters. The cities at the forefront of these responses led with their values and met the moment with a humanitarian response.

However, the emergency responses from cities are not, and were not planned to be, long-term solutions to the continued arrival of migrants. Housing costs are steep in major cities – meaning that costs associated with opening and operating shelters are high. The shelters for migrants were created as temporary stopgaps. Cities recognized this, calling on federal action or aid to help welcome newly arrived migrants as early as 2022.

Using their available resources, states and localities have stepped up and responded extraordinarily in addressing the needs of new arrivals—from  innovative partnerships with USCIS to utilizing state and local funds to create intake centers to support newly arrived migrants. Despite this, the lack of increased funding or support by the federal government means that states and localities have less resources to focus on long-term solutions and instead have devoted their limited funds to addressing migrants’ short-term needs.

One crucial tool states and localities have used to deal with the steep costs of housing and supporting migrants is funding from the SSP – the program that has just been cut in the new appropriations package. Through SSP, states, localities, and organizations providing services to migrants have been able to recuperate some of the costs they incurred in providing shelter, transportation, medical services, and other administrative costs.

SSP is not perfect, with complex reporting requirements for those using the funds and other bureaucratic obstacles. Nevertheless, it undoubtedly has been a crucial component of the infrastructure built to welcome new arrivals. Congress’ $150 million cut to the program reflects a lack of commitment to the needs and values of cities at the frontlines of welcoming new arrivals.

States and cities have asked for help

Mayors, governors, the business community, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have repeatedly asked the federal government to act to sustain the tremendous work they are doing on the ground, and to accept its own responsibility to address migrants’ needs.

The mayors of five major cities (Chicago, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, and New York) met with President Biden last November to discuss the help needed to welcome new arrivals. In their meeting, the mayors requested $5 billion for state and local governments to provide shelter and services to migrants along with expedited work authorization for newly arrived migrants.

Nine governors from states experiencing a large influx of migrants wrote a letter in January echoing the asks of the mayors – increased funding and support for states and cities receiving new arrivals.

Meanwhile, last fall, the American Immigration Council led over 100 businesses, trade associations, and chambers of commerce in sending a letter to Congress urging them to reduce the waiting period for asylum seekers to obtain work permits; an act that would reduce pressure on communities by allowing migrants to go to work and support themselves more quickly. The businesses that signed on to the letter represented a variety of industries and from states across the political spectrum.

Congressional leaders across the political spectrum continue to clamor for changes to current immigration policy to help with the influx of asylum seekers. However, Congress has taken little action to fulfill these statements, with politics taking precedence over any real policy change.

With numerous examples of unified, bipartisan calls for action to the Biden administration and Congress from cities, states, and business groups, the lack of any significant policy is a policy decision in and of itself. The message is clear – the federal government is choosing not to act to support states and localities in their efforts to welcome new arrivals.

Cities shifting policies

This message has significant effects on the policies employed by states and cities.

With SSP funding dwindling, states and localities are unable to sustain the costs they have incurred supporting new arrivals and are being forced to reduce their assistance. These cuts leave a worrisome gap in the needs of newly arrived migrants, which could exacerbate their humanitarian needs.

New York City, Chicago, Denver, and Massachusetts have all now instituted limits on the length of time migrants can remain in shelters. Some states, like Massachusetts, are investing in plans to find permanent housing to move migrants out of shelters.

It is not a matter of states and localities losing the desire to aid migrants, as evidenced by their commitment to longer-term solutions. Instead, due to federal inaction, state and local governments are trying to support migrants within the constraints of their own budgets. This has resulted in cities and states reducing or cutting the funding of other services to offset the costs of welcoming migrants. If the federal government won’t provide financial backing to states and localities, their investments in supporting migrants are no longer sustainable, and limiting their spending means limiting migrant support.

The reduction in SSP funding is a step in the wrong direction in addressing newly arrived migrants. With little policy movement in Congress and no broad action at the executive level, states, and localities, once again, are forced into policy decisions on immigration – even if they’re not the decisions that state and local leaders wish they could make.