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Eric Adams Called Migrants ‘Excellent Swimmers.’ He Explains Why.

LocalEric Adams Called Migrants ‘Excellent Swimmers.’ He Explains Why.

When Mayor Eric Adams was asked about New York City’s lifeguard shortage at his weekly news conference, he seized the moment to make a point about potential migrant workers.

Imagine if the city could quickly hire migrants for jobs that urgently needed to be filled, he wondered aloud, before asking: “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?”

His remarks on Tuesday drew criticism from all sides. Immigrant rights groups called the comments “racist and divisive.” Conservative leaders viewed them as an attempt to legitimize the hiring of noncitizens.

Mr. Adams, unsurprisingly, saw things differently.

On Wednesday, the mayor explained that he had visited migrant centers in the city and asked people there if they knew how to swim. He was “blown away” by the number of those who raised their hands.

“We have these capable people who know how to swim — from West Africa, from Ecuador, from South and Central America, from Mexico — and we have a shortage of lifeguards,” Mr. Adams said in response to a question from a reporter from the news outlet The City as he walked into City Hall. “If we start planning out now, we could be prepared next year.”

As nearly 200,000 migrants have arrived in New York City over the last two years, Mr. Adams, a Democrat, has repeatedly called for them to be able to work so they can support themselves. In his remarks on Tuesday, he also suggested that migrants fill key jobs such as food service workers and nurses.

“This hasn’t been new — I’ve been saying this over and over again: Let people work,” Mr. Adams said on Wednesday.

Mr. Adams has previously mentioned hiring migrants as lifeguards, including in February when he was asked about using police drones to help people who are drowning. (A city official noted on Tuesday that New York had made progress in hiring more lifeguards and that 560 people had passed the city’s lifeguard test this year, compared with 364 last year.)

Kayla Mamelak, a spokeswoman for the mayor, said on Wednesday that Mr. Adams had repeatedly argued that migrants who are living in the city’s shelter system should be able to fill vacant jobs and that “anyone who is trying to make more out of the mayor continuing to make that point today is missing the forest for the trees.”

Still, Murad Awawdeh, president of the New York Immigration Coalition, rejected Mr. Adams’s implication that migrants would make good lifeguards “because some immigrants had to swim or wade across water on their dangerous journeys to seek safety in the United States.”

“This comment is racist, and the mayor should not be making light of the perilous and often life-threatening journeys people are forced to make to escape violence and persecution,” he said.

It was not the first time immigrant groups have criticized Mr. Adams’s rhetoric. They have argued that his comments that migrants could “destroy” New York City and were creating a wave of crime are dangerous.

Alexa Avilés, a councilwoman representing Brooklyn and the chairwoman of the Committee on Immigration, called the mayor’s comments “appalling.”

“What won’t he blame immigrants for?” she said. “First it was budget cuts and now it’s lifeguard shortages.”

Melissa Mark-Viverito, a former City Council speaker, called the mayor’s comments “insane” on social media.

He is just constantly putting out these comments that are very stereotypical, very prejudicial, very just ugly.” she said, adding: “There’s no reflection, there’s no acknowledgment that what I said actually may be hurtful to folks.”

Conservative voices have also criticized Mr. Adams’s response to the migrants, arguing that he has been too accommodating by offering them housing and services, including debit cards for food.

Senator Marsha Blackburn, a Republican from Tennessee, posted a video of the mayor’s comments on social media on Wednesday and asked whether Mr. Adams and other Democrats such as President Biden thought that breaking the law by entering the country was “qualification for employment in our country?”

Mr. Adams has been prone to making off-the-cuff remarks perceived by some as odd, inflammatory or, at times, seemingly untrue — with some examples chronicled in a video on “The Daily Show” this week. He has compared himself to the spiritual leader Gandhi, urged gentrifiers to “go back to Iowa” and joked that he understood angry New Yorkers because he sometimes gave himself the middle finger.

But Marvin Carbajal, a New York City physical education teacher and the head coach for the boys’ swimming team at Bushwick Campus, said there was a germ of truth behind the mayor’s comment. He said he knew of at least seven students on the swim team who could have become city lifeguards, were they not undocumented.

Two of those students, he said, passed the lifeguard test, only to discover that their immigration status precluded them from working.

“It did sound a little bit offensive,” Mr. Carbajal said of the mayor’s remarks, adding, “I kind of understand what he was trying to say.”

Dana Rubinstein contributed reporting.

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