“I just want to work,” Reyes said in Spanish. “I didn’t come here to be a burden on anyone.”
Reyes, 23, was among the tens of thousands of migrants who rushed to cross the U.S.-Mexico border ahead of May 11, when the Biden administration lifted the pandemic policy known as Title 42. The largest group were Venezuelans, who have been arriving to the United States in record numbers since 2021.
Unlike previous waves of Latin American immigrants who gravitated to communities where friends and family could receive them, the most recent Venezuelan newcomers tend to lack those networks in the United States. Many have headed straight to New York, whose shelter system guarantees a bed to anyone regardless of immigration status.
City officials say they are housing more than 48,000 migrants across an array of hotels, dormitories and makeshift shelters that now spans 169 emergency sites.
New York has spent $1.2 billion on the relief effort since last summer. The ballooning costs have left Mayor Eric Adams feuding with local leaders upstate over who should take responsibility for the migrants, and he has also called out President Biden, a fellow Democrat, for not sending more aid.
Other U.S. cities are struggling with the influx too. Denver, Philadelphia and Washington — all cities with Democratic mayors — have received migrants bused from Texas as part of a campaign by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott to denounce Biden administration border policies. In Chicago, migrants have slept in police stations while awaiting shelter beds.
Officials in those cities are scrambling to find bed space and clamoring for more federal assistance. But the ad hoc nature of the humanitarian effort raises questions about the ability of New York City and other jurisdictions to receive and resettle so many newcomers.
The flow of Venezuelans crossing the southern border has dropped since the Title 42 policy ended, even as many continue arriving in cities in northern Mexico in hopes of reaching the United States. The Biden administration is tightening border controls and urging Venezuelans and others to apply for legal U.S. entry using a mobile app, while expanding the number of slots available for asylum seekers to make an appointment at an official border crossing.
The number of people requesting appointments, however, far outstrips supply.
The influx of migrants in New York has pushed the city’s total shelter population to 95,000, up from 45,000 when Adams took office in January 2022.
“We have reached a point where the system is buckling,” Anne Williams-Isom, deputy mayor for health and human services, told reporters at a news conference in late May.
At roughly $380 per person daily, New York officials say the cost of caring for the migrants will reach $4.3 billion over the next 12 months. In a statement this week, Adams thanked Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) for helping to secure $104 million in federal funding for the city, while also calling for more resources.
Adams has tried to shift the burden by paying hotels in the Hudson Valley and other parts of New York State to shelter the migrants and busing people far from the city. Those efforts have riled New York’s Republicans, who blame the crisis on Democrats who promote sanctuary policies to stop deportations. The disputes have overshadowed the specific challenges posed to New York City and its long-standing right-to-shelter rules.
‘The city has been the answer’
City officials say they are legally prohibited from gathering data on the nationality or citizenship of shelter occupants, but they know from informal conversations that the majority of the migrants arriving to the emergency sites are from Venezuela.
The lack of established support networks for recently arriving Venezuelans makes them relatively more reliant on public services and support, especially in a city where the official rhetoric is friendly to immigrants but the housing market is not.
The iconic Roosevelt Hotel, which shuttered during the pandemic, now functions as a shelter and reception center where the city receives buses of migrants who need meals, access to health care, ID cards and help enrolling children in schools.
Manuel Castro, New York City’s commissioner for immigrant affairs, said Abbott’s campaign to relocate thousands of migrants to northern cities has exacerbated the crisis. It disrupted the “natural tendency” of newcomers to gravitate to places where networks of their compatriots can help them settle, Castro said.
“That’s why we find ourselves with tens of thousands of Venezuelans who didn’t have existing ties to New York,” Castro said in an interview. “And if you don’t have friends or family here, who do you rely on? The city has been the answer to that question.”
Abbott isn’t the only one sending migrants to New York. As cities like Denver and Houston have run out of shelter beds, nonprofit and faith groups have been buying plane and bus tickets to direct the newcomers to the place where they’ll be guaranteed a bed.
The city remains an imperfect immigrant gateway. Formal and informal jobs are relatively plentiful, and good public transit eliminates the need for a driver’s license or vehicle. But the lack of affordable housing — monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the city averages more than $4,000 — is a major obstacle to moving migrants out of the shelters. The city does not limit the length of time they can live at the emergency sites.
“We still need to stay at the shelter,” said Oralis Narvarte, a 34-year-old Venezuelan who has been living at a shelter on the Upper West Side since October. She has found a job at a McDonald’s fast-food restaurant in Washington Heights; her husband works construction and punches shifts at McDonald’s, too. “Everything is so expensive,” she said.
Narvarte’s phone began ringing at that moment. Her brother-in-law and his family had just been released from U.S. Border Patrol custody in El Paso after crossing into the United States. “They’re on their way here!” she said.
They, too, would need the city’s help.
Married couples and families with children are prioritized for hotel rooms through the shelter system, while single adults are generally assigned to dorms with cots or bunk beds.
After Diosvany Molina, 27, and Audrey Monsalve, 25, were turned down for a private room, the couple stood outside the Roosevelt Hotel recently considering marriage. “Otherwise, they’ll separate us,” Monsalve said.
She has two children in Venezuela who live with her mother. Molina has three kids. “Our dream is to reunite our families here,” she said.
The economic collapse and authoritarian rule in Venezuela have driven more than 7 million to flee the country during the past decade, creating what the United Nations calls the “second largest external displacement crisis in the world” after war-ravaged Syria.
Many of the Venezuelans arriving in New York have spent years living in other South American countries before making the journey north. They describe the jungle trek through the Darién Gap region between Colombia and Panama as less harrowing than Mexico, where shakedowns by authorities and the threats of criminal groups were a near-constant worry.
The fact that so many Venezuelans are coming from third countries could diminish their chances for winning U.S. asylum, a form of legal status for victims of persecution on the basis of race, religion, political beliefs or membership in a social group.
Jesús Aguais, whose group Aid for Life International runs a free legal clinic for migrants on the Lower East Side, said the Venezuelans arriving to New York have an urgent need for U.S. protection because they’re fleeing government repression, paramilitary gangs and rampant corruption.
“For them, persecution became normalized,” said Aguais, who arrived in New York from Venezuela in the 1980s and became an AIDS activist.
“Many are still afraid to apply for asylum here because they think the Venezuelan regime will find out about it,” he said.
Reyes grew up in Maracaibo, the once-prosperous capital of Venezuela’s oil belt. His parents, both born in Colombia, brought the family back to Colombia a decade ago.
By the time Reyes met a friend and found the juice bar on Broadway, the job opportunity had passed. The men headed back toward the Roosevelt Hotel, stopping at every construction site along the way to see if anyone would hire them, without luck.
Jobs and cheaper housing outside New York are among the factors Adams has been counting on to ease the crisis. He’s opted for a controversial strategy to accelerate relocations by moving migrants to hotels in other parts of New York state, while urging the federal government to fast-track the work authorization process.
The city will pay for their rooms and meals for four months, but Republican leaders of many counties have reacted with fury. They are already grappling with a housing shortage, the officials said, and bristled at being asked to help with what they describe as a problem created by policies embraced by liberal lawmakers.
More than 20 counties in New York declared states of emergency to prevent local hotels from being used to house migrants. At least three — Orange, Onondaga and Dutchess — filed lawsuits against the city and won temporary restraining orders to block future migrant arrivals. On June 7, Adams sued the counties that had instituted states of emergency, asking a judge to nullify the orders.
Last month, around 180 men were bused to two hotels near Newburgh, a city of 30,000 people in Orange County about 60 miles north of New York, just west of the Hudson River.
On a recent afternoon, the parking lot of the Crossroads Hotel was empty except for several men riding in circles on donated bicycles. Two small soccer nets sat unused. On a strip of grass across from the hotel entrance, there was a table and a few chairs where the men gathered to talk, smoke cigarettes or get some fresh air.
One of the men bused in was Carlos Jose Campos, 49. Nearly a month had passed since he arrived in the United States and his sole focus was filing asylum applications for himself and his partner of 22 years. They had spent six months traveling north from Venezuela, and Campos said he liked the quiet of Newburgh, especially compared to the commotion of the city, where he had spent two weeks in a hotel-turned-shelter in upper Manhattan.
Campos said he knew the migrants’ presence in Newburgh was a source of controversy. Inside the hotel, there was talk about how the migrants had to be careful, about how they shouldn’t go out too much because there are people “who aren’t okay with us being here.”
Local activists have brought the men clothing, shoes and supplies and hosted a picnic at the hotel on a recent weekend. They’re appalled by what they see as the intolerant response by County Executive Steven Neuhaus, who oversees Newburgh. He declared a state of emergency and sued New York to prevent it from sending any more migrants to the area.
On June 6, a federal district court judge ruled that the state of emergency was unconstitutional and granted a preliminary injunction that prevents Orange County from enforcing it.
In an interview in late May, Neuhaus defended the state of emergency, saying it was necessary “to protect ourselves.” The real problem, he said, was the lack of a plan from the federal government for handling the relocation of people, about which local authorities knew nothing besides their names.
While most New York counties rejected the notion of taking in migrants, at least two counties led by Democrats said they would welcome them. That included Westchester County, just north of New York City.
County Executive George Latimer said the decision was partly a moral obligation to help people in need, people not unlike his own immigrant ancestors from Italy and Ireland who sought an escape from poverty and oppression.
Castro, the immigrant affairs commissioner, said he hopes the Biden administration will extend a form of provisional legal residency known as temporary protected status to the Venezuelans, so they won’t end up in the overburdened U.S. asylum system. The protected status is only available to Venezuelans who arrived before March 2021, but the Department of Homeland Security has the authority to extend eligibility to newer arrivals.
“The Venezuelans who are here right now — essentially with no support — will be able to have at least a work permit and a little more clarity about where things are headed,” Castro said.
Andres Sulbarán, a 31-year-old Venezuelan staying at a city shelter in Queens, recently attended Aguais’s free clinic seeking advice on his asylum claim. Sulbarán said he left his home country for Ecuador two years ago to earn money to support his mother, but he faced xenophobia amid a backlash against Venezuelans.
Sulbarán said he crossed into the United States from Mexico on May 8 through a hole in the border fence, suffering cuts from concertina wire to his arms and leg that needed stitches. He spent 15 days sleeping on the floor in a Border Patrol station with 400 men in a cell with a posted capacity for 122.
With no family in the United States, Sulbarán rode buses to Houston then New York. He said he’s been waking up at 4 a.m. to stand outside a Home Depot near JFK airport hoping to get hired for day labor.
Another of the newly arrived Venezuelans attending the legal clinic looked familiar to Narvarte, the McDonald’s employee. She approached the woman, Maydrim Briceño, and the two quickly discovered they were from the same neighborhood near the Caracas Airport. They had never met, but soon began listing mutual friends and acquaintances.
Briceño’s oldest son had arrived last fall. He, too, was working at a McDonald’s.
Briceño, 40, feared her family could be deported to Mexico, which has agreed to take back Venezuelans from the United States. She exchanged contact information with Narvarte, who said she worried because it seemed like too many people were coming too fast.
“I understand where the mayor is coming from,” Briceño said, referring to Adams. “But I also understand why people are coming here.”
Slater reported from Newburgh, N.Y. Zoeann Murphy in Newburgh contributed to this report.