Migrants Find Work and Forge New Networks but Still Live in Hotels and Relief Centers
Asylum-seekers who have been here for many months are helping newer arrivals find jobs and their way, but a paycheck is no guarantee of escaping city shelters.
About eight months after she arrived in New York City with her two elementary school–age daughters, Beatriz, 30, has gone from a person alone and adrift in a strange land after escaping her native Venezuela to a hard-working matriarch for her extended family as other members have arrived here.
With her support, her brother, two cousins and their respective partners made it here and are rapidly finding places in New York City’s voracious off-the-books economy, like generations of immigrants have before them.
But unlike those past arrivals, Beatriz can’t offer her brother a couch to crash on while he gets on his feet. That’s because she’s still staying in a midtown Manhattan hotel transformed into rooms for asylum-seekers, with strict rules about who can enter.
When she got there last fall, and walked around for two weeks before finding her job as a cook in the kitchen of an Irish pub in Hell’s Kitchen, around 18,000 asylum-seekers were staying in 46 emergency shelters and hotels sponsored by New York City.
Within a few months, Beatriz had managed to save enough money to help her younger brother Jhon, 28, and two of their cousins make their own journey.
“Things were bad in Venezuela and in Colombia, they were even worse,” Beatriz said last month in Spanish. Her brother spent several years working as a courier in Columbia making barely enough to pay his rent, let alone support his three young kids back in Venezuela.
“I said to him, ‘Come, I’ll pay for your passage, I’ll lend you the money,” she said in Spanish.
Jhon’s journey, like his sister’s was before him, was terrifying. His girlfriend, overcome by fever and stomach pains, nearly died on the unforgiving, jungled slopes of Central America’s Darien Gap. In Durango, Mexico, the couple and one of his cousins were held captive in a warehouse for nearly two weeks with almost nothing to eat.
Beatriz came to her little brother’s aid, paying $3,000 — $1,000 per hostage — for their freedom. By May 1, the couple and his cousins had made it across the Texas border. About a week later, they arrived in New York City.
By then, 140 emergency shelters and hotels housed 37,500 asylum-seekers — twice as many people as when his sister had arrived seven months earlier.
‘Get To Work Quickly’
On a recent afternoon, the siblings boarded the E train together and headed toward Jackson Heights, in Queens, where Beatriz planned to buy Jhon black shoes and a shirt so he could report to work as a runner at another Midtown restaurant. She’d found him the gig through a connection of hers.
“I have my family, my children, a lot of debts,” Jhon told THE CITY in Spanish. “I have to get to work quickly.”
“They told us it’s up to us to figure it out.”
Beatriz is anxious to find her own apartment, for her girls and extended family, and has started the hunt in Corona, Queens, a neighborhood brimming with Spanish speakers and with rents she could afford That pressure is even more dire for Jhon, who’s staying for nearly a month in a crowded gymnasium in Manhattan converted into a “respite center” that offers cots and not much else.
Compared to when his sister arrived, “now everything is fuller, there are more Venezuelans, more migrants,” Jhon said.
Despite repeated assurances by city officials that its respite centers are nothing more than “waiting rooms” meant for extremely short stays, he’s been staying there for a month.
The staff, he said in Spanish, “told us to go out and work so we can rent something. It’s not their job to find us a hotel.”
So, he said, “they told us it’s up to us to figure it out.”
‘They Stuck People in a Hotel Room and Said Goodbye’
The latest uptick in arrivals has sent city officials lurching to set up emergency shelters in gymnasiums, vacant office buildings, schools and churches. For months, Mayor Eric Adams has been ringing alarm bells, saying New York City is out of space, with “no room at the inn.” Last month, City Hall moved in court to try and overturn the city’s longstanding and unique legal obligation to promptly provide shelter to anyone who seeks it.
But critics argue that after more than a year, it’s time for City Hall to shift away from crisis mode. City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams told THE CITY that the mayor’s response had remained “reactive.” She also balked at his pushback to a recently passed slate of Council bills intended to clear space in the overloaded shelter system by allowing eligible people to secure rent assistance vouchers without first spending at least 90 days in a shelter.
While most asylum-seekers wouldn’t be covered by those vouchers, according to the city, advocates argue their use would open space in an overloaded shelter system by making it easier for families who do qualify to move out.
Joshua Goldfein, an attorney with The Legal Aid Society — which watchguards the treatment of homeless New Yorkers in city shelters in partnership with the Coalition for the Homeless — said at least some of the crippling backlog could have been averted if the city had taken proactive steps months ago both to help asylum-seekers, and to help others in city shelters find housing and thus open up space.
Goldfein pointed to the lack of case management at most of the sites where asylum-seekers have been staying. In traditional homeless shelters, caseworkers typically help homeless New Yorkers navigate a maze of government subsidies and bureaucracies, with varying degrees of success.
Kate Smart, a spokesperson for Mayor Adams, said many asylum-seekers aren’t eligible for rent subsidies like CityFHEPS, thus negating the need for traditional caseworkers. Without work authorization or temporary protected status, most asylum-seekers don’t qualify for benefits that caseworkers might connect them with — one of the reasons, Smart said, the Adams administration has been lobbying the federal government so hard to expedite work permits and expand who is eligible for TPS.
But Goldfein argued specialized caseworkers could have helped the city determine who was eligible for temporary protected status, or work authorization, as well as helping people stay on top of their asylum cases and be ready to submit paperwork for their work authorization after the mandatory 180-day waiting period.
Instead, he said, “they just kind of stuck people in a hotel room and said, ‘Goodbye.’”
A recent survey by the immigrant advocacy group Make the Road NY found that only about 50 of 766 asylum-seekers had been able to find a lawyer to help them with their asylum claims. Only about 20 had received work authorization, though many surveyed had not yet passed the six-month waiting period, a spokesperson for Make the Road confirmed.
Smart also noted the city budgets more than $60 million to provide noncitizens here with free immigration-related legal services, including recently ramping up clinics specifically for asylum-seekers.
“New York City provides more funding for free legal services than any other municipality in the country,” she said. “We also support the federal government, which is responsible for our immigration system and this humanitarian crisis, providing legal representation to those seeking asylum and moving through the system that they oversee.”
‘The South American Mindset is Very Different’
Miguel, 44, is one of the few to find a lawyer. After hitting his six-month mark in New York City, he paid a lawyer in Jackson Heights several hundred dollars for his work-authorization paperwork.
That was about a month ago, and a week later he found a job at a city-run “respite center,” where he’s working with recently arrived migrants every day. He asked to be identified as Miguel because he wasn’t authorized to speak to reporters, and he didn’t want to jeopardize his new job. He tells new arrivals that to get to where he’s at, you have to get your head in the game.
“Here everything is a process. Everything is paperwork.”
“The South American mindset is very different,” he said. “Here, if you want to get ahead, have more than just enough to eat, and pay rent and never have any savings, you have to work, study, work, study, study as much as you can.”
Miguel fled Colombia last year after guerrilla soldiers sliced his hand with a machete. He wasn’t going to wait around to see what was in store for him if they found him a second time.
His daughter, who is now renting a room in Queens, had migrated before him, and he followed her north after the attack, arriving last fall. Her room isn’t big enough for both of them. Miguel said he bounced between dormitory shelters and the streets before winding up in a shelter for asylum-seekers in an empty commercial space in Bushwick.
Now that he’s employed, he’s just starting to save up enough money to rent something for himself.
On a recent afternoon he sat on a park bench near his designated respite center, smoking cigarettes and chatting up recently arrived Venezuelan and Colombian asylum-seekers, giving them advice on how to start applying for their New York City ID, and coaching them on the ins and outs of the city’s shelter system.
“Here everything is a process,” he said in Spanish. “Everything is paperwork.”
‘Shoved Around like Cattle’
Mayor Adams and his defenders say that while the city’s response may be imperfect, it’s far beyond what other jurisdictions are doing.
As of June 4, 47,200 asylum-seekers were staying in city shelters, compared to 4,100 in Chicago and several hundred in Denver. At a recent press briefing, New York City budget director Jacques Jiha said the city had spent $1 billion in the past year, and expects to spend nearly $3 billion in the coming fiscal year that begins in July. That’s as much as the state of California, which funds several migrant shelters, has spent over the last four years.
Adams has been imploring state and federal partners for a “decompression strategy,” but the issue has proven a political hot potato. Efforts by the city to send some migrants to hotels elsewhere in the state have been mostly blocked by local officials. With Gov. Kathy Hochul staying on the sidelines, the city on Wednesday sued 31 of those counties, arguing that they were violating state law and the U.S. Constitution by discriminating against asylum-seekers.
While Hochul and Adams repeatedly have said they are working in tandem to find state owned or managed spaces migrants could use, including some college dorms, few of those solutions have materialized.
Instead, the state has put forth an abandoned prison in Harlem with faulty plumbing, and a warehouse along a desolate strip of airfield outside JFK, encircled by highways and barbed wire, both within the confines of New York City.
For other leaders, “the policy is just, ‘step away’ and not create the same kind of political problem that the mayor is facing,” said a Democratic political strategist who’s worked with both the city and the state on immigration and other issues and who declined to be named for fear of angering state officials.
“The state has access to a vast portfolio of unoccupied real estate all over the place. This is not, ‘if there’s a will there’s a way.’ This is them trying to find the least objectionable solution,” the strategist said. “What’s lost in all of this, these are human beings that are being shoved around like cattle.”
Goldfein also suspects there’s something more sinister underpinning Mayor Adams’ tactical shift of recent months.
“They are trying to send a message back to people who have not come to New York that they should not come to New York,” he said. “One of the ways they’re doing that is by changing the reception that people get when they arrive.”
Many New Yorkers, however, share Adams’ frustration about the cost of housing the new arrivals. A Quinnipiac poll conducted in January, or about 40,000 arrivals ago, found that 70% of New Yorkers thought of the situation as “a crisis,” while just 31% thought New York City “has the ability to accommodate the migrants seeking sanctuary.”
“There’s no more excuse,” said Van Tran, an associate professor of sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center. “New Yorkers do not live in hotels for months and weeks and years. It is a mistake. They deserve housing, but no, they don’t need to be in Midtown Manhattan.”
Like other historians and economists, however, Tran said he was optimistic following decades of stagnant immigration to New York City, and an estimated 400,000-person drop in New York City’s population since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“In the long run all of this noise that you’re hearing and distraction will come to pass, and there will be a lot of tremendous opportunities lying ahead,” said Tran, noting that many New Yorkers already rely on off-the-books labor for cheaper child care, or when they dine out, because “migrants’ presence actually subsidizes the way a lot of us live.”
‘We Have to Move Them Out’
Iker Luis Olivier, 38, said he’s anxious to get out of a Midtown hotel room, where he, his wife, and their 8-year-old daughter have been staying since January.
“We’re grateful that we’re here,” Olivier said, but added, “You have to move. This is temporary.”
The family is unable to cook or have any guests over. But Olivier accrued thousands of dollars of debt while migrating to the United States, as he and his family were shaken down for every cent they had along the way. That loss, coupled with the month more he must wait before applying for his official working papers, mean that staying at the hotel is, for now, his only viable option.
“You start to pay, to do your life, not depending absolutely on the government,” he said.
Olivier was an English teacher back in Venezuela, and he said it put a target on his back. He was singled out as an opponent of President Nicolás Maduro’s regime and constantly harassed by gangs of government loyalists, blocking him from buying food or gas, and arriving at his home to pilfer his belongings.
“They make your life impossible,” he said. “You can’t live there.”
Since his arrival in January, Olivier connected with volunteers at the Port Authority where he helps greet new arrivals. He gives out his contact information, often helping explain the ins and outs of all the paperwork you have to get through as a city resident.
“Absolutely, no one here provides you information. No one says a word,” Olivier said. “So I try to help them that way, you know.”
With few open hotel rooms, adults arriving now are offered stark accommodations.
Juan Carlos, 29, spent several nights on a cot in a school gymnasium on Coney Island, before getting shuffled to an old university building in Midtown. He knows no one in New York, unlike many of his fellow cot-mates who have relatives spread out across city shelters.
“They’re working, that’s the problem,” Carlos said in Spanish. “Those people have to find a place to live, we have to move them out.”