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After Traveling Thousands of Miles, Migrants Find an Uncertain Existence in NYC

Issue 283

Migrants from Mauritania and Nicaragua talk about the challenges of making a new life in New York.

Moses Jeanfrancois & Amba Guerguerian Nov 2

It’s been more than a century since waves of mostly European immigrants escaping war and hunger entered America through Ellis Island. The city’s new immigrants are also desperate; they have come fleeing state and gang violence and resource scarcity.

Since June 2022 when Texas and Arizona began busing people from refuges on the southern U.S. border to New York City, nearly 130,000 migrants have arrived here. A recent additional influx of West and North African asylum seekers that didn’t arrive as a part of the busing program have added to the numbers.

According to the City, it has opened 210 emergency shelters (some are converted hotels). Seventeen of these are “large-scale humanitarian relief centers,” a share of which are huge pop-up tents in faraway corners of the city. Asylum seekers are not mixed with homeless New Yorkers. They are often placed in “respite centers,” which provide less food and services and often don’t follow other Calahan right-to-shelter rules, like maintaining a certain amount of space between cots.

Mayor Adams has denounced a 1979 court ruling that New Yorkers have a “right to shelter” under the state constitution. The mayor is appealing to the state’s highest court to reverse this right, and has set rules that migrants can’t stay in shelters for more than 60 days.

Often being moved around the city from one temporary stay to another, New York’s new immigrants are struggling to stabilize themselves with jobs and housing. Many of them either spend their days near the shelter or out looking for work and legal assistance. While some have been able to find day-to-day, under-the-table gigs, many don’t want to work illegally for fear of being deported back to the country they oftentimes fled.

We spoke to many recently-arrived migrants for this piece, most of them declining to go on the record. The dominant concern voiced in these conversations was the desire to work. While many may qualify for asylum or Temporary Protected Status, the process to get a working permit can take months or in extreme cases, years.

“Ask the government, since we are here, why are they giving us food, shelter, but not letting us work? We could support ourselves if we just got working permits!” a Mauritanian refugee said.

Maybe you know some newcomers. But if not, you have seen them — spraying your rims at the 24-hour car wash, selling snacks on the subway, waiting for house-cleaning or construction work in groups on the sidewalk. If you might speak their language, try welcoming them. They are New Yorkers, like us, immigrants, after all.

Here are some of their stories.

Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Diaye (right) and a friend outside the shelter they are staying at on 31st St. across from Moynihan station. Moses Jeanfrancois.

DIAYE • Mauritania

I didn’t know anybody. I just had one address in New York, so I came. They gave me the address en route somewhere between Barcelona and Bogota, because I fled my country. The police were harassing me for having a delivery business without the correct permitting. I had to sell it to leave. I also had to sell my dowry, leaving everything behind.

I have two children. The girl is five and the boy is one and a half. I sent them to live with my parents in Senegal. I came to ask for asylum. We don’t have freedom in Mauritania. There’s slavery in Mauritania. There’s nothing there for us. The government is against us, the Black people; it’s very racist there. There’s not a lot of sense there.

MARGELIS CARREÑO • Venezuela

I arrived here in May. They gave me a 28-day hotel and then a permanent hotel, but because my husband got a job in Pennsylvania, our expectation was that we would also go with him. That job did not materialize; so he returned to New York City, and they put us here as a family at the Roosevelt Hotel; they told us that in three days they were going to transfer us, but a month and four days have passed.

We received the notification this morning that they were going to transfer us to a temporary hotel and that we have 28 days to leave there or come back and apply again. Nothing coming our way feels permanent; we go for 28 days and then become uncertain again; you have to move again. Many people see us and may even criticize the number of bags I carry, but I have three children, the cold is coming, and the bags contain things for school — so many things that are needed — especially here because it is quite cold.

My children go to school near Central Park, and they were just going to send us to Queens but I asked for something closer. Now they’re sending us to the Bronx, but looking it up on the GPS, I’ll have to spend an hour and 27 minutes traveling to take my children to school

It is a quite difficult situation, but until we find another solution, we have to keep trusting in God and seeking out shelters, because we are waiting for our work permits which haven’t arrived.

I am looking for a job, but with the current work-permit situation and the not-so-good reputation that Venezuelans have. It becomes quite complicated since they call us all bad, but that is not the case. We didn’t come to stay in a shelter and live off the State.

My husband was working for a week in construction, which is basically what migrant men can do sometimes to get a job. He already did the work, and they have not paid him yet, and we insist on payment, but they still do not give us a response.

EDWIN • Nicaragua

The political situation in my country, well, the government — I had a state job…I worked at the airport. I was in favor of the government, but then things changed when it began to be in power for more than four years and began to take over state jobs. [My coworkers] began circulating rumors that I was not an ally of the government.

The City sent me to a shelter in Staten Island, and then they [were forced] to send me here because it didn’t have hot water. But here [at the West 31st Street shelter] the issue is that here they only allow you to shower every other day, as in there is no bathroom to shower in. They send you to bathe at the Stewart hotel nearby.

They opened a process at the Red Cross here on 49th and 10th to do the asylum application. And later I will be able to apply for a work permit.

I don’t like being in this situation, the problem is if you go to a place to look for a place to rent, they want to scam you. They ask you for a lot of money, and they tell you ‘Okay, deposit this money in my account,’ and then you lose it. They scammed me.

I don’t want to be sent from one shelter to another, so I found a person in California that is going to offer me an apartment. The bad thing is that now all my processes are going to be delayed because I have to transfer them to California.

ANONYMOUS • Mauritania

When I went to turn myself in at the border for asylum, I spent two months in detention in Arizona. It’s just like prison, but it’s not prison. You’re not allowed to call it that.

I like New York better. It’s the city; there’s a lot going on. There it’s nothing, just a big cell and you cannot leave. It’s been four months since I crossed the border. I came here to ask for asylum from the government, but I don’t know what they’re gonna do. We don’t have the means to get lawyers. We go traveling all around the city, and sometimes you run into somebody who wants to help you. And they’ll tell you this is where the lawyers are. But we don’t have any money to pay for the lawyers. In the detention center they gave me and everybody a list of free lawyers [in each state]. So that’s mostly the resource I have currently.

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