New York — Officials in New York are assembling tent cities for those who can’t be placed in a shelter system of more than 200 hotels and other facilities that is already housing 60,000 migrants and more than 50,000 homeless residents.

In Chicago, which is housing over 7,000 migrants, police stations and parks have been converted into makeshift shelters, and plans to house asylum-seekers in vacant schools have generated fervent local backlash. In cities like Sacramento and Denver, some migrants have found themselves on the brink of homelessness. In Boston and other parts of Massachusetts, the arrival of thousands of families and pregnant women seeking asylum prompted the state’s governor to declare an emergency.

A perfect storm has brought the historic migration crisis along the U.S.-Mexico border to some of America’s largest cities. The influx has strained city and state resources, prompting local Democratic leaders to openly criticize the Biden administration and testing the values of liberal enclaves that have historically welcomed migrants seeking sanctuary.

The cities’ struggles to house tens of thousands of destitute migrants, and their growing calls for federal action, have also placed mounting pressure on the Biden administration to intervene. Local leaders have implored the administration for funds and to allow migrants to work legally so they can be self-sufficient.

Cities have spent hundreds of millions of dollars serving migrants and housing them in hotels, churches, schools, parks, police stations and even a National Guard base, according to local spokespeople.

Migrants sit in a queue outside of The Roosevelt Hotel that is being used by the city as temporary housing on Monday, July 31, 2023, in New York.
Migrants sit in a queue outside of The Roosevelt Hotel that is being used by the city as temporary housing on Monday, July 31, 2023, in New York.

John Minchillo / AP

The Biden administration has set aside $770 million for New York, Chicago, Denver, Boston and other cities, both in the interior and along the southern border, this fiscal year through Federal Emergency Management Agency programs for entities supporting migrants. The administration recently asked Congress to authorize $600 million in additional funds.

But the administration has refrained from taking other actions requested by local leaders, such as granting migrants temporary legal status so they can apply for work permits more quickly. Current and former U.S. officials, who requested anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said concerns about lawsuits and the possibility of encouraging more unauthorized arrivals along the southern border were among the reasons why the administration has been reluctant to do more.

Politically, the cities’ concerns about the number of migrants in need of shelter have placed the administration in the awkward position of fielding public criticism from Democratic allies on a divisive issue that Republicans are eager to highlight heading into an election year.

“Once this shifted from being an ideological fight about the border to a real question of the cost the cities are assuming, that changed the political calculus,” said Andrew Seele, president of the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank. “It is visible. It is costly for cities. And it is causing a reaction among city leaders, most of whom are Democrats.”

Representatives for the White House and the Department of Homeland Security noted the administration is coordinating with cities to determine how the federal government can assist them, though they said Congress needed to approve additional aid and “fix the broken immigration system.”

“The Administration is committed to working to identify ways to improve efficiencies and maximize the resources the federal government can provide to communities across the country,” White House spokesperson Angelo Fernández Hernández told CBS News. “Recently, Senior Advisor to the President Tom Perez traveled to New York to continue the close coordination with our state and city partners.”

A perfect storm

The challenges facing cities stem from a complex web of factors, including the release of 2 million migrants from U.S. border custody in two years, Texas’ effort to bus migrants to Democratic-led cities and the arrival of migrants who lack ties to others in the U.S.

The difficulties have also been exacerbated by an affordable housing shortage, restrictions on asylum-seekers’ ability to work and an immigration system that is overwhelmed at every stage.

Under President Biden, the U.S. has processed a record number of migrants. While many have been expelled, at least 2.1 million migrants were released by U.S. border officials between February 2021 and July 2023, according to a CBS News analysis of government data. They were given court notices or instructions to check in with immigration officials while their cases are reviewed, a process that typically takes years.

As part of an effort by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott to protest Mr. Biden’s border strategy, Texas has bused more than 12,000 migrants to New York City, 11,000 to Washington, D.C., 5,600 to Chicago, 2,300 to Philadelphia, 710 to Denver and 330 to Los Angeles. Tens of thousands of additional migrants have arrived in these and other cities on their own or with the help of authorities and volunteers in U.S. border towns.

Many of the migrants in city shelters escaped Venezuela’s economic collapse and don’t have relatives in the U.S. who can take them in. They’ve also arrived during an affordable housing crisis fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic that has put vast numbers of rentals out of reach for low-income families.

U.S. immigration law prevents those seeking asylum from qualifying for a work permit until 180 days after they file an asylum application. The requirement, enacted out of concerns that migrants would use the asylum system solely to work in the U.S., can only be changed by Congress, which has been gridlocked on immigration for over two decades.

In reality, the vast majority of asylum-seekers must wait far longer than 180 days to obtain work permits because of the strains faced by the U.S. immigration system. Migrants with immigration court cases are waiting an average of more than four years to have their applications processed by a system in which fewer than 700 judges are overseeing 2.5 million pending cases

Hundreds of thousands of migrants have been released without court dates in the past year, and they can wait years to get in front of a judge. These migrants can request asylum through a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services process but they often don’t know that they can, or need help from lawyers to apply.

Even after filing for asylum and waiting 180 days, migrants must wait for their work permit requests to be reviewed. A DHS spokesperson said asylum-based work permit requests are being decided within two months, on average.

Potential solutions

Democratic members of New York’s congressional delegation have pushed DHS to grant migrants in New York City and other cities parole, a short-term legal status, so they can bypass the asylum-linked waiting period for work permits.

But the proposal has been met with skepticism within the Biden administration, which believes it would be legally risky given lawsuits from Republican-led states challenging its use of parole, two U.S. officials said. In July, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told New York lawmakers that DHS considered the proposal too impractical and legally tenuous, participants of the private meeting told CBS News.

DHS has also faced calls to expand the Temporary Protected Status policy, or TPS, which allows eligible migrants from crisis-stricken countries to apply for work permits and deportation protections. Local leaders have called on the administration to allow recent arrivals from Venezuela and other countries to apply for TPS, which would give a significant portion of those in shelters a chance to obtain work permits. The TPS program for Venezuela currently benefits only those who arrived in the U.S. before March 2021.

Migrants walk behind Concertina wire in the water along the Rio Grande border with Mexico in Eagle Pass, Texas, on July 15, 2023.
Migrants walk behind concertina wire in the water along the Rio Grande border with Mexico in Eagle Pass, Texas, on July 15, 2023.


But the administration has been reluctant to expand the TPS program for Venezuela due to concerns about the move becoming a “pull factor” that encourages more Venezuelans to cross the southern border illegally, current and former U.S. officials familiar with the matter said. The administration declined to expand the TPS program for Nicaragua earlier this year due to similar concerns. 

“To address the issue of government funding for housing and food for folks who come to the United States, that could easily be resolved if we extend TPS to the Venezuelans, which are, in New York City at least, 60 plus percent of the migrants,” said Rep. Adriano Espaillat, a Manhattan Democrat.

Last year, officials also considered sending migrants from the U.S.-Mexico border to cities of their choosing across the U.S., including Buffalo, Denver, Detroit, Miami, New Orleans, Newark, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, would then process them there, according to internal agency documents obtained by CBS News and three current and former U.S. officials.

The plan was designed to relieve pressure on Border Patrol facilities and border towns that typically transport migrants to interior cities, while working with organizations in those cities to ensure migrants could be accommodated. Federal officials would have coordinated with the receiving cities before transporting migrants, unlike Texas’ busing effort.

But the proposal was blocked by the White House due to concerns about the political optics of the federal government transporting migrants across the U.S. and objections from some of the cities asked to take part in the program, according to three current and former U.S. officials. A White House official said the plan is no longer under consideration.

A former Biden administration immigration official said the interior processing plan would have distributed migrants and resources more “proportionally” across the U.S. in an orderly way. 

“Interior processing capacity would have provided access to additional resources and taken pressure off many cities. The White House rejected those plans in 2021 and 2022 due to politics and the requirement that the White House would need to own the coordination,” the former official said.

Republican lawmakers have said the crisis faced by cities could be mitigated through stricter policies along the southern border that allow fewer migrants to be released in the first place. 

“Instead of complaining about dealing with a fraction of the border crisis our small border towns deal with every day, these Democrats should call on President Biden to take immediate action to secure the border,” said Andrew Mahaleris, Abbott’s press secretary.

The Biden administration said it has acted to address the cities’ concerns by creating programs that allow certain migrants to apply for work permits immediately after entering the U.S. One lets up to 30,000 Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans with American sponsors fly to the U.S. each month. Another allows nearly 1,500 migrants in Mexico to enter the U.S. each day after securing appointments through an app.

The DHS spokesperson said work permit applications for those programs are being adjudicated, on average, in six weeks. The programs, however, don’t benefit migrants released from Border Patrol custody, including many of those living in shelters in New York City.

Biden administration officials said there’s no silver bullet for fixing the cities’ woes — without Congress reforming the immigration system — given the sheer number of migrants reaching the U.S.

“In every part of New York, the system is strained. The courts are backlogged. There are lines outside the ICE office. Shelters are full. It’s just too many people,” a current administration official told CBS News.

“We can’t push ahead”

Without work permits, many migrants in New York City have been stuck in city-funded hotels, unable to earn their way out of those rooms. Some lucky migrants have found gigs in the underground economy, in restaurants or construction sites. But that work is illegal, unstable and rampant with wage theft.

Patricia, a Venezuelan migrant, said she and her husband, Ronny, have not found stable work since they arrived in Manhattan last fall. She said she worked in a McDonalds for three months until a new manager asked all employees for employment documents.

“We can’t push ahead,” Patricia said in Spanish, requesting that her last name be withheld due to concerns about being evicted from her hotel.

Patricia, Ronny and their 11-year-old son Cesar fled Venezuela last year, joining more than 7 million Venezuelans who have fled the South American country to escape economic calamity. As part of a weeks-long trek across more than half a dozen countries, the family walked through Panama’s infamous Darién Gap, a once-impenetrable jungle that has become a major route for U.S.-bound migrants.

Patricia, Ronny and Cesar in New York on Monday, Aug. 21, 2023.
Patricia, Ronny and their 11-year-old son Cesar 

Camilo Montoya-Galvez / CBS News

They arrived in New York in September 2022, and have been living in hotel rooms for nearly a year now. Patricia said she’s thankful for the help her family has received, and that Cesar is enrolled in school and learning English. But she said the inability to find work, and the long hours spent in a cramped hotel room, has been emotionally exhausting. Cesar, she said, constantly asks her to “take him out of this room.”

“What I want the most is to work,” Patricia added.

Patricia said she and her husband have been thinking about moving to Texas, where they’ve heard housing is more affordable. But they don’t have enough money to move. They’re also in legal limbo. While federal officials allowed them to stay in the U.S., the family has not received an appointment in immigration court. Instead, they’ve been instructed to check in at the ICE office in Manhattan — in November 2024.

“Some people think we’re living the best life here in hotels,” she said. “But this, for us, is not life.”


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