NY Mayor Proposes Migrants Should Be Hired as Lifeguards Because They’re “Excellent Swimmers”

By: Amanda Kusumowidagdo | Published: Jun 01, 2024

New York City is having a lifeguard shortage. So the current mayor, Eric Adams, has a new suggestion that could work out: why not hire migrants to fill the positions?

After all, the mayor says, “they’re excellent swimmers.” If only “bureaucracy” doesn’t get in the way of migrants filling in much-needed positions…

Issue With the Lifeguard Staffing

In 2023, NYC started having issues with lifeguard staffing. Only around a third of the lifeguards needed to man NYC’s public pools and open beaches were available, according to Sue Donoghue, the Department of Parks & Recreation Commissioner.

An empty lifeguard post with the American flag on top of it on a white sandy beach

Source: Eric Saunders/Unsplash

To be specific, out of the 1,400 positions needed to be filled, only 500 lifeguards were ready to work. They consisted of 280 returning lifeguards and 200 newly recruited ones. The previous summer, more lifeguards were available; around 800 to 900 of them reported for duty.

The Fix Is to Give Migrants Work Visas

So, ahead of the Memorial Day celebration, Mayor Adams came up with a suggestion for the lifeguard shortages. He indicated the problem could be fixed if migrant work visas were expedited for those jobs that needed to be filled quickly.

The American flag with a message to obtain a U.S. EB-3 visa and work in the USA

Source: Work Visa Advertisement

“How do we have a large body of people that are in our city, our 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,” the mayor said.

Wading Across the Rio Grande

At first, Adams’ comment seemed to be disconnected with reality. How are migrants especially good swimmers? But he must be referring to how many migrants wade across the Rio Grande river (or Rio Bravo, as the river is called in Mexico) to enter the U.S.-Mexico border.

Border Patrol authorities approaching a child with red shirt in the river with a boat

Source: U.S. Customs and Border Protection/Wikimedia Commons

The reality is, migrants entering the U.S. through this river have escalated into an out-of-control situation flooding NYC with immigrants needing shelter, food, health care, and other necessities.

Give Them Work

According to Adams, there are a number of jobs these migrants could fill if the red tape were cut and work permits were given to skilled migrants.

A person sitting on a lifeguard post next to a swimming pool

Source: Malaya Sadler/Unsplash

“If we had a plan that said, ‘If there was a shortage of food service workers and those who fit that criteria, we’re going to expedite you,’ if you have experience that you are a nurse and we have nursing shortage, we would expedite you,” he proposed.

Lifeguarding Jobs (Should Be) Available

“It’s the same for lifeguards. We have all these eligible people waiting to work, with the skills we need to do the jobs, but we are unable to allow them to work because bureaucracy is in the way,” Adams continued. 

The bottom of a red lifeguard post near shoreline during daytime

Source: Natalie Grainger/Unsplash

There’s no statistics (yet) to prove that migrants are strong swimmers. But at least, they would have bravery and determination, especially if they could get through regardless of the barrier of giant buoys Texas Gov. Greg Abbot placed last year to deter migrant traffic.


Convinced They Know How to Swim

How did Adams get the idea, then? The mayor said he visited migrant shelters in the city and asked people if they knew how to swim. The number of people who said yes to him made him “blown away.

A man swimming with clothes on in clear water

Source: Jean Frenna/Pexels

“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,” Adams explained.


Racist and Divisive Comment

The mayor’s comments understandably received some ire from the immigration community. Immigration advocates called the comment “racist and divisive.”

A red X taped across a dark rattan surface

Source: Oleksandr P/Pexels

President of the New York Immigration Coalition, Murad Awawdeh, told the New York Times that Adams’ comment made light of the journey the migrants took to travel to the U.S. Swimming or wading across the water in dangerous situations should not be underestimated.


Work to Earn Their Living

But Adams is adamant that these migrants should be able to support themselves. Almost 200,000 migrants arriving in New York City in recent years should work to earn their living.

A black man wearing a dark jacket standing next to man in white sweater

Source: Anthony Quintano/Wikimedia Commons

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


Federal Red Tape In the Way

What’s getting in the way of Adams’ plan to make the migrants work? A City Hall rep told The New York Post it’s the fault of bureaucratic federal red tape.

Hand of a man trying to release himself from a red tape across his chest

Source: Ron Lach/Pexels

“This is not new comment from the mayor,” the rep said, backing the mayor. “He’s repeatedly made the point that there are people who are qualified for jobs where we have vacancies, they are prepared to do the job, and yet the federal government continues to deny them the legal right to work.”


Lifeguard Recruitment Efforts Ongoing

The Adams administration continues to recruit new guards heavily in the past few years, increasing the pay to $22 per hour. Furthermore, $1,000 bonuses are available for those willing to work through the peak season.

A lifeguard wearing red shirt sitting on his post on the beach during daytime

Source: Sean P. Twomey/Pexels

Meera Joshi, deputy mayor for operations, followed up with numbers on the current shortage. She said 560 first-time lifeguards passed the “rigorous” testing for positions ahead of this year’s summer. (Meanwhile, only 364 applicants passed last year.)


Train Migrants to Be Lifeguards

Regardless of the outrage (and some confusion) that Adams’ remarks have caused about migrants being excellent swimmers, the point remains: lifeguards are needed to watch over pools and beaches.

A lifeguard in red hoodie standing on the beach carrying an orange rescue tube

Source: Efrem Efre/Pexels

Perhaps Adams’ suggestion could have merit, as long as these “strong swimmers” among migrants could be trained to meet the U.S. lifeguarding standards. After all, “there’s nothing more un-American than not allowing someone to work,” a City Hall spokesperson said.