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New York strains to house asylum-seekers as migrant crisis moves north

The sidewalk outside Manhattan’s Roosevelt Hotel was teeming with traffic, much of it streaming to and from nearby Grand Central Station. But Giselle Rondon was oddly stationary.

That seems fitting since Rondon, 36, is trapped in a kind of purgatory.

For the past six weeks, Rondon, her husband and two children have been living at the Roosevelt. The 1920s brick behemoth closed during the coronavirus pandemic but was given new life last year as a processing centre for the tens of thousands of migrants streaming into New York City from all corners of the globe. 

Rondon and her family began the journey that brought them to the Roosevelt in 2018 when they fled their home in Aragua, Venezuela, as their life there deteriorated. They are now desperate to check out, and begin a new life in the US. But that is difficult without jobs, and for that they need work permits — something that may take a year or more to secure.

“We don’t want clothes, we don’t want food. We want the opportunity to work,” she said.

Her broad-shouldered partner, Isaac Ramirez, is keen to work in construction. “If we could work, we could move out and pay rent and someone else could stay here,” he said. “But without papers . . . ”

The family is one snapshot from a slow-building migration crisis that New York City officials say is now threatening to overwhelm them. Since last spring, nearly 100,000 migrants have arrived. More than 57,000 asylum-seekers, such as Rondon, are under the city’s care, straining a shelter system that was already struggling to cope with a homeless population inflated by the pandemic and a chronic shortage of affordable housing.

The crisis seized public attention last week when hundreds of destitute asylum-seekers were found sleeping shoulder to shoulder on the sidewalk outside the Roosevelt because there was no space inside.

The sidewalk was soon cleared but Mayor Eric Adams, who has pleaded for more federal help, was far from reassuring. “It’s not going to get any better,” he told citizens, as officials announced that another 2,300 or so newcomers had arrived the previous week. On Wednesday, Adams predicted the city’s bill for feeding and sheltering so many asylum-seekers could exceed $12bn by July 2025, saying: “New Yorkers’ compassion may be limitless but our resources are not.”

Pedestrians pass migrants waiting in a queue outside the Roosevelt Hotel in New York
Pedestrians pass migrants waiting outside the Roosevelt Hotel © John Minchillo/AP

The city’s latest gambit is to displace recreational soccer players and picnickers to open an emergency shelter for roughly 2,000 adults on Randall’s Island. In what was either a ploy to awaken the public — or the truth — officials have not denied reports that Central Park or Brooklyn’s Prospect Park might be put to similar use.

Many of the asylum-seekers are coming via Texas, put on Manhattan-bound buses by the state’s Republican governor, Greg Abbott, in a calculated act of border state resentment.

That is posing a particular challenge for a city with a unique legal obligation to provide shelter and a liberal self-image as a metropolis built by immigrants. Or, as Anne Williams-Isom, the deputy mayor for health and human services, recently put it: “We are the beacon and an example of what is possible.”

In what may become a Republican talking point, one Fox News commentator, Dagen McDowell, disputed that. “I have zero sympathy for people who are upset about this,” she said of liberal New Yorkers. “This is what they vote for.”

At a sidewalk level, some New Yorkers were trying to make good on the city’s promise. Josh Jordan and Josh Ferguson, two aspiring Broadway actors, passed by the Roosevelt on a recent afternoon to hand out bananas, crackers and other goods they bought at a Target store. They were moved to do so after seeing a report on TikTok about the migrants’ plight.

“I figured at least being seen by someone was important,” said Jordan, 21, who had moved to New York only two weeks earlier from Nashville. Arguably, that made him less a New Yorker than many of those he was trying to help.

Trailing in their wake came a mother and daughter from Nebraska, who took a break from their summer vacation to hand out sacks of McDonald’s chicken McNuggets. Volunteers from a church in Queens were fishing for souls. Burly security guards manned the Roosevelt’s doors. Just across the street was the Charles Tyrwhitt store, and an oversized advertisement of grinning men in bespoke dress shirts. 

Elsewhere in the city, there are signs of patience wearing thin. In Sunset Park, Brooklyn, hundreds of residents — many themselves immigrants — protested on Sunday at the administration’s plan to house dozens of asylum-seekers in their recreation centre. They carried placards that read: “Stop Stealing Our Park” and “Save Our City!”.

The strain is spreading to an array of social services. Some public schools, for example, are waiting to find out whether they will need to expand their capacity or even convert to bilingual education, according to Andrew Heinrich, founder of Project Rousseau, a charity that has helped migrant families with everything from food and children’s summer camp to legal advice.

“The purgatory feeling is very expansive,” Heinrich said. Of the migrants his group has interviewed, he estimated about half had credible claims to asylum or other forms of immigration relief.

Stu Loeser, who was a spokesperson for former mayor Michael Bloomberg and now advises technology and financial services companies, saw peril for Adams. “New York City isn’t nearly as deep blue as it looks,” he said. “He knows people need to see him fighting on this.”

Adams has met resistance from other parts of the state when trying to shift migrants. A leafleting campaign at the border intended to dissuade migrants from coming to New York City does not appear to have borne fruit.

Beneath the swirl of politics, many of the Roosevelt’s new residents sounded resolved, viewing this as another chapter set against the much larger journeys they had made. In the meantime, they seemed grateful for whatever assistance they were receiving.

“It’s a roof,” said Yineth Palencia, 24, gazing at her three-year-old daughter, when asked about the hotel’s conditions. She and her partner, Robinson Maldonado, 27, had not chosen New York City, they said. Rather, they were given a plane ticket to the city by the Sacred Heart church in El Paso, Texas, after spending five days there.

“From Mexico City on, it’s horrible,” Maldonado said, recalling a five-month journey that began in Valencia, Venezuela, wound through Central America and paused for a month-long detention in Mexico.

Their friend, Carlos Gutierrez, had come to New York by bus from Texas. He had tried to sell bottled water on the sidewalk outside the Roosevelt but authorities put a stop to it. He was loath to work illegally, he said, for fear of putting his immigration claim in jeopardy.

Even though he had no clear path forward, Gutierrez appeared perplexed when asked if he might go home. “People who make it to this country have dreams,” he said.

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