New York City Mayor Calls Immigrants ‘Excellent Swimmers’

New York City Mayor Eric Adams suggested Tuesday that immigrants could help solve the city’s lifeguard shortage because they’re “excellent swimmers,” a remark that sparked outrage among immigrant advocates and confusion among lifeguards.

At a press conference on Tuesday, a reporter asked Adams for an update on the city’s lifeguard shortage in light of Memorial Day approaching. The mayor asked the reporter to imagine if the city could expedite work permits for migrants and asylum seekers so they could work jobs that need to be filled.

“How do we have a large body of people that are in our city, and country, that are excellent swimmers and at the same time we need lifeguards—and the only obstacle is that we won’t give them the right to work to become a lifeguard?” Adams said at the press conference.

A City Hall spokesperson said in a statement to TIME that Adams “has repeatedly pointed out” that there are people who are qualified for vacant city jobs in industries including food service, construction, manufacturing, and lifeguarding, but who can’t work because the federal government hasn’t issued them their work authorization.

“With more than 197,000 migrants who have come through our care since the spring of 2022, Mayor Adams has been clear that there is nothing more un-American than not allowing someone to work,” the spokesperson continued. “Anyone who is trying to make more out of the mayor continuing to make that point (Tuesday) is missing the forest for the trees.”

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Immigrant advocates criticized the mayor for his remarks. Murad Awawdeh, president and chief executive officer of the New York Immigration Coalition—an umbrella organization that represents more than 200 immigrant and refugee rights groups in the state of New York—says the mayor’s remarks imply “that because some folks had to swim or wade through water on their dangerous journey seeking safety here in the United States,” they would be good lifeguards. 

“Point blank, that comment is racist,” Awawdeh says. “The mayor should not be making fun or making light of the perilous and often life-threatening journeys people take and are forced to take to escape the violence and persecution that they’re facing. It’s demeaning and dehumanizing, and the mayor needs to stop using dangerous language like this.”

Adams has received backlash over controversial statements he’s made in the past—in September, he said that the influx of asylum seekers “will destroy New York City.” Awawdeh calls the mayor’s language “divisive and inappropriate.”

Yaritza Mendez, co-director of organizing at the immigrant advocacy group Make the Road New York, says that while she understands the mayor’s point that the federal government needs to do more to expedite work permits for migrants, she thought the mayor’s remarks show “how out of touch” he is with the immigrant community.

“Our community shouldn’t be reduced to this comment,” Mendez says.

Janet Fash, who has been lifeguarding in New York City since 1979, says it’s clear that Adams “hit a nerve” with his comments. She says she thinks the mayor was referencing the lifeguard shortage to talk about the issue of immigrants needing work permits, but she points out that “there’s a process” to becoming a New York City lifeguard.

“I think it hit a nerve,” Fash says. “I think people in general have rage. I mean, I just was puzzled.”

Fash adds that the lifeguard shortage is a “citywide issue” affecting “all New Yorkers.” 
There’s a shortage of lifeguards across the country, according to the American Lifeguard Association. Last year, about a third of the country’s 309,000 public swimming pools stayed closed or opened sporadically because of the shortage.

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