Hundreds of people lined up predawn Monday on the sidewalk along the building at 26 Federal Plaza, braving the rain and waiting for the doors to open at 7 a.m. 

Some had started assembling as early as Sunday night, either for a check-in with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) or for immigration court. 

Leslie Descalzu arrived just before 7 from Levittown, on Long Island, after leaving her children behind and taking a two-and-a-half-hour trek. The Peruvian native was hoping to update her address, having arrived in New York a week ago from California.

She was among the dozens denied entry to the building when ICE officers told them it was at capacity. 

“There’s no valuing of your time, that you came here and all you left behind. They don’t really give you an explanation,” she said in Spanish. “‘Reach out to the email, follow the [QR] code,’ and that’s it.”

Since the number of newly arrived migrants began to surge last spring, chaotic scenes have become business as usual at 26 Federal Plaza, as more migrants seek appointments and answers from federal immigration agencies. 

Those in line say that it’s not always clear what they should be doing, with some entering the ICE check-in queue when they ought to be in the Immigration Court one, or vice-versa. 

On Friday, THE CITY witnessed an ICE officer tell a migrant to exit the line and make an appointment at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ website. A migrant from Venezuela who was accompanying a friend said that when he had visited earlier this year, he hadn’t needed an appointment for an ICE check-in. But on Monday, some visitors without appointments were also getting into the building, while some of those with appointments were still not allowed entry to the building after officers deemed the building was at capacity.  

An ICE spokesperson said their Federal Plaza office is able to serve about 600 people a day, and denies entry to all the others in line once they’re at capacity. The office provides extra attention to those who are elderly, pregnant, have medical conditions or are with young children. When the doors opened at 7 a.m., THE CITY witnessed ICE officers letting families with young kids enter first. 

Jodi Ziesemer, an attorney at the New York Legal Assistance Group, which helps people with asylum applications, said people are being denied entry for their ICE check-ups or immigration court hearings based on small issues, such as failing to bring physical copies of their notice of hearings even when they are obligated to be at the court. A failure to show up for a court hearing could result in someone being denied asylum, she said. 

“It’s a constitutional violation,” she said. “When I talk to people about this, it’s like such a fundamental issue and people almost can’t believe that it’s happening, that there’s such dire consequences for not showing up and that people can’t get physical access to the place where they need to be.” 

A spokesperson for the Justice Department’s Executive Office of Immigration Review  told THE CITY: 

“Noncitizens who have scheduled hearings before an immigration judge are not being turned away, though the lines to enter the building can get lengthy. EOIR has been working to make improvements to the entry line which include additional bilingual guards and increased signage. Our immigration judges are aware of the issue and remain cognizant of it when conducting hearings.”

Because of the influx of migrants, border patrol officers often have released migrants who’ve crossed into the United States. without processing them, directing instead to check in with ICE within 60 days. But Ziesemer said that when trying to help people make appointments for their check-in on the ICE website, they can be scheduled for as far into the future as 2030, if not later. She said that adds to the confusion and panic migrants experience while trying to navigate the asylum process. 

The ICE spokesperson said that the Enforcement and Removal Operations office in New York City now has appointments for family check-ins as early as January of 2025, with the office having previously been booked until 2033, while single adult availabilities are booked through June 2030. 

Pro-bono Lawyers Overwhelmed

New York has among the lowest rates of judges denying asylum cases compared to other cities with immigration courts, which advocates attribute to there being more access to pro-bono legal services for migrants here. For this fiscal year, judges in immigration court have denied asylum to just 16% of asylum cases, according to data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, well below the 51.4% denial rate for the whole country.

But those legal providers have been overwhelmed by the demand for help since the wave of migrants coming to the city began last year. 

Catholic Charities has managed the federally funded Immigration Court Helpdesk in the city’s three facilities for several years now, alternating among the Federal Plaza building and the immigration courts at Varick Street and 290 Broadway all in Manhattan. The help desk is staffed with lawyers and paralegals to help those struggling to navigate the immigration system. 

But aid groups have not been immune from the challenge of accessing the fortress-like 26  Federal Plaza building. Lauren Wyatt, managing attorney at Catholic Charities Community Services, said that her organization has suspended its presence there since June after her staff struggled with access to the building. Wyatt said that they’ll be back in Federal Plaza once again starting next month, and will meanwhile continue alternating between the Varick and Broadway courts. Migrants assigned to any of the three courts can still visit the desk in the meantime.

Mayor Eric Adams held a rally near Federal Plaza in Manhattan calling on the feds to expedite work permits for asylum-seeking migrants. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

But the number of people seeking help is increasing drastically, Wyatt said, outstripping the group’s capacity to provide advice. While over a year ago, they would turn away 20 or 30 people a day, now they’re turning away 50 people by 9 a.m., shortly after the help desk begins its daily operations. Families who have waited in line since 5 a.m. won’t even get aided by the help desk because others arrived earlier, she said.

“People spend the night outside with their kids on the street trying to be able to see us, and so emotions, understandably, can run high. people will get upset, they’ll say, ‘I’ve been waiting here, since 5 a.m. And what do you mean, you can’t see me today?’” Wyatt said. “And we have to say, ‘Well, this person’s been waiting since 3.’”

The turmoil at immigration courts could have implications for recently arrived migrants, who have a year from when they entered the country to file for asylum. With those who came last summer or fall either reaching that mark or having passed it already, many stand to miss out on the opportunity to qualify for asylum, their advocates say. 

Ziesemer said NYLAG has had to prioritize cases that are already past the deadline, claiming extraordinary or changed circumstances that precluded their clients from filing within a year. 

The application form is a daunting 12-page English-language document that requires specific details. She added that there’s confusion whether applications should be filed to DHS’s United States Citizenship and Immigration Services and the Department of Justice’s immigration courts, given that both adjudicate asylum applications. 

She said the majority of those lining up at Federal Plaza entered the country at the border without ICE filing their cases in immigration court, so they need to do the check-in for ICE to create their paperwork and then file the case in immigration court.

Ziesemer said that while the state and city have made efforts to help people navigate the asylum process, “I think there hasn’t been a parallel effort or attention to address any of the issues and major problems on a federal level.”