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Under fire for calling migrants ‘excellent swimmers,’ Adams says comment based on in-person convos

After coming under fire for calling migrants “excellent swimmers,” Mayor Adams sought to clarify the comment Wednesday, saying it was based on in-person conversations he has had with newly arrived asylum seekers living in city shelters.

The mayor made the remark during a Tuesday press conference while talking about wanting to address the city’s shortage of lifeguards.

He said hiring migrants for lifeguard posts would make sense since they “are excellent swimmers” before lamenting that the “only obstacle is that we won’t give them the right to work.”

Some immigration advocates blasted Adams’ comment as distasteful, given that many newly arrived migrants crossed the treacherous Rio Grande on the Mexican border to make it into the U.S.

But the mayor said Wednesday afternoon that wasn’t at all what he was getting at.

Migrants cross the Rio Grande river into the United States from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, Wednesday, March 29, 2023. The image was part of a series by Associated Press photographers Ivan Valencia, Eduardo Verdugo, Felix Marquez, Marco Ugarte Fernando Llano, Eric Gay, Gregory Bull and Christian Chavez that won the 2024 Pulitzer Prize for feature photography. (AP Photo/Christian Chavez)
Migrants cross the Rio Grande river into the United States from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, March 29, 2023. (AP Photo/Christian Chavez)

“I go to the [migrant shelters], and I’m blown away by how many of the West Africans — swimmers, how many of the South Americans — swimmers. I say, ‘How many of you guys know how to swim?’ Hands go up,” he told reporters at City Hall after an unrelated press conference.

“So we have these capable people who know how to swim from West Africa, from Ecuador, from South, Central America, from Mexico, and we have a shortage of lifeguards, so if we start planning out now, we can be prepared.”

Murad Awawdeh, president of the New York Immigration Coalition, didn’t buy the mayor’s explanation and said he should apologize for his “out of line” remark.

“His comments on asylum seekers being ‘excellent swimmers’ implies that because some immigrants had to swim or wade across water on their dangerous journeys to seek safety in the United States, that they would make good lifeguards,” Awawdeh said.

“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. It’s demeaning and dehumanizing.”

Staff shortages in the city’s lifeguard ranks started hampering the city during the COVID-19 pandemic, part of a pattern seen across the U.S.

Last summer, just about 750 lifeguards were staffing the city’s 14 miles of beaches and dozens of public pools. That’s far short of the 1,400-1,500 lifeguards that the Parks Department aims to hire ahead of every summer.

In defending his comments Wednesday, Adams also noted that he has proposed hiring migrants to fill the city’s shortages of nurses and food service workers, too.

“Now why people want to just hang on to the swimming … I’ve been saying this over and over again: Let people work,” he said.


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