A Migrant Wave Tests N.Y.C.’s Identity as a Sanctuary

New York wants to welcome new immigrants. Its economy and vibrancy depend on them. But an influx has strained a social safety net already on the brink.

Credit…Mostafa Bassim for The New York Times

The four buses crossed into Manhattan on Wednesday morning and turned off a bustling avenue onto a shadowed side street in Midtown. The names printed on the buses — “VLP Charter,” “Coastal Crew Change” — gave no hint of their mission. Only Texas license plates gave them away.

One by one, their riders stepped out into an unfamiliar city, some tired but smiling, others just tired: men wearing backpacks, women clutching babies and blankets, children hanging onto teddy bears. One man wore no shoes, just socks.

The city’s immigrant affairs commissioner, Manuel Castro, shook everyone’s hand. A man in a green T-shirt high-fived the children. Tables were laden with snacks, sanitizer, clothes, brightly colored book bags. People with clipboards proffered papers to fill out to earn a new identity: In addition to being undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers, the new arrivals would also join the ranks of homeless New Yorkers.

The influx of migrants to the city this spring and summer, most fleeing crime and cratering economies in Central and South America, has tested New York’s reputation as a world sanctuary. And it shows no sign of slowing, thanks in part to Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, whose decision to send busload after busload to Washington and New York to goad Democrats on border policy has helped turn the normal north-flowing river of humanity into a wave.

New York City has long been powered to a large extent by the sweat and toil of immigrants, but its ability to help them get on their feet has been increasingly strained.

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Credit…Mostafa Bassim for The New York Times

The delivery of 129 migrants to the Port Authority Bus Terminal on Wednesday was the biggest one-day total so far in Mr. Abbott’s campaign. But it was just part of the larger migration of thousands: According to the city, the shelter system now houses 4,900 asylum seekers.

They are the chief reason, the city says, that the population of the main homeless shelter system has jumped by 13 percent since May, to 51,000. There is much debate about how much of that increase is attributable to the migrants and how much to local factors like the end of an eviction moratorium and seasonal fluctuations. But whatever the reason, the situation is dire.

Shelters for families make up more than half of the city system, and in early June, their vacancy rate, which is supposed to be maintained at 3 percent, fell below 1 percent, according to the Legal Aid Society, which monitors conditions at the shelters. On Thursday, the society said, the vacancy figure was 0.18 percent, or 19 available rooms in the entire system, which holds more than 10,000 families.

The city’s early response to the influx of migrants was marked by weeks of flailing and missteps, deeply at odds with the give-me-your-huddled-masses rhetoric of Mayor Eric Adams. Some families slept at an intake office in the Bronx, in violation of the law. Some were separated by bureaucratic snafus. And advocates said the city often failed to provide basics like food, diapers and medical attention.

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Credit…Mostafa Bassim for The New York Times

Two weeks ago, immigrant aid groups said, Mr. Adams’s team injected itself into a volunteer welcome effort at the Port Authority for a photo op, grabbing food from volunteers’ hands so that the mayor could be shown distributing it himself. “People from the mayoral team were screaming at the refugees to smile at the mayor,” said Ariadna Phillips, the founder of South Bronx Mutual Aid. Her account was corroborated by another volunteer who was photographed standing near the mayor.

The mayor’s office denied that anything like that occurred and called the volunteers’ account “a false, outrageous and unsupported anecdote.”

For much of the summer, aid groups said they were stepping in to help migrants left stranded and confused by the city.

“We know their shoe sizes, we know their medical needs, we know their court cases, where their ICE check-ins are,” said Sergio Tupac Uzurin, a volunteer with NYC ICE Watch. “The city wasn’t doing any of that.”

But in recent days, the city government has been moving with more coordination.

The welcome centers that Mr. Adams’s Office of Immigrant Affairs now sets up inside the Port Authority to meet the Abbott buses have provided desperately needed assistance to people who had been arriving in New York with no idea where to go or what to do.

The city has rented 1,300 rooms in 13 hotels for migrant families. Because it expects the flow of migrants to continue, it has put out a call for 5,000 more.

While many migrants have gotten stuck in the wheels of the city bureaucracy, some who endured dangerous and exhausting journeys to reach the United States have been relieved at the relative ease of navigating the system here.

“Imagine that we came all this way walking,” said Carolina Flores, 31, who fled Venezuela with her husband and four children and has settled with them at a shelter in Brooklyn. “Everything is very good, a hotel and house for free — that is something that would never happen in our country.”

By Labor Day, the city expects to open an intake center and 600-room shelter for migrant families in Midtown that would remain in operation “for the period of the next six to 12 months,” according to a city proposal.

But another six to 12 months like the last month could push the jam-packed shelter system to the breaking point.

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Credit…Mostafa Bassim for The New York Times

Since mid-July, the population in family shelters has risen 8.5 percent — far above the typical 1 percent growth during that midsummer period, an analysis by The New York Times found. If the trend holds for a year, the family shelter population would nearly double, to almost 60,000, up from the current 31,000.

Conditions at the border are unlikely to provide much relief: The number of apprehensions of border crossers in June exceeded last year’s record-setting June by 10 percent, or 19,000 people, and migration typically accelerates in the cooler months.

The city’s desire to absorb these migrants as it has earlier waves reflects the fundamental fact that New York has always relied on immigrants in every sector of the work force, from restaurants and health care to the arts, technology and finance. When New Yorkers move away, immigrants take their places, often working essential low-wage jobs that others do not want. International migration to the city plummeted during the first year of the pandemic, leaving holes in the labor market that have only grown more dire as the city has tried to recover.

But the new migrants, many of whom are arriving broke and without the social connections that many immigrants use to quickly gain a foothold, are an unusual strain on the system. The need to immediately find places for thousands of them — New York is one of the few American cities that must, by law, offer shelter to anyone who asks — runs up against the reflexive opposition to new homeless shelters found in neighborhoods across the city.

Ms. Phillips of South Bronx Mutual Aid — which says it is part of a network that has put up hundreds of new migrants in temporary private sanctuaries, including many who fled shelters after being harassed or assaulted — said the sanctuaries were operating in secret lest they draw unwanted attention.

On Friday afternoon, on the streets of Bensonhurst, a Brooklyn neighborhood built by generations of immigrants, opinions about the new migrants were mixed.

Salvatore Pesaola, 52 and proudly Italian American, said he had noticed a general increase in immigrants in the neighborhood and that he would prefer they stopped arriving.

“America is not a better place — our country is as bad as yours,” he said. “Why do they come here?”

Nino Juliano, 71, who emigrated from Italy in 1967 and works in construction, said of the migrants, “If they want to work, they are in the right place. If they just want help without working, they are going to suffer.”

The problem goes beyond finding places for the migrants to sleep. If their numbers continue to increase at the same pace, more than 10,000 children would join the shelter population over the next year. Most would be school age, and many, if not most, would be English-language learners. On Friday, the schools chancellor, David C. Banks, announced Project Open Arms, a plan that will provide extra help to the children of asylum seekers as they enroll in schools and receive language and learning support.

The city has not put a price tag on its effort to accommodate the migrants, but it has pleaded with the federal government for help in managing what Mr. Adams has frequently called a “humanitarian crisis.”

“We’re already dealing with a shelter system that’s overburdened,” Mr. Adams said on a talk show on Caribbean Power Jam Radio on Friday. “Until that help comes, we’re going to fulfill our obligation.”

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Credit…Mostafa Bassim for The New York Times

Migrants who are apprehended by the Border Patrol are often sent back. But others are allowed to stay in the country and can apply for asylum — a process that takes years and is often unsuccessful. In the meantime, they can move freely about the country, and many are taking up the Texas governor’s offer to transport them to New York and Washington for free.

Not all migrants who reach New York enter shelters; some go to live with friends and family in the region. But a large number of the recent newcomers are Venezuelan, and, unlike previous groups of immigrants from places like Mexico, El Salvador or Ecuador, they are less likely to have already established communities to join when they arrive.

Many migrants become invisible in the vastness of the city, but there are a few places where they congregate.

In early August, about 10 of them were clustered on the steps of the Salvation Army on 14th Street in the West Village, next to a weekly pop-up soup kitchen operated by the nonprofit City Relief that also offers socks and toiletries to anyone in need.

Josiah Haken, City Relief’s chief executive officer, said that the group’s five New York locations were serving 1,300 guests a week, about 300 more per week than in the spring, and that new migrants were one of the main reasons, though he said he had also noted an increase in homelessness in general.

Several migrants on the Salvation Army steps carried to-whom-it-may-concern letters from their shelters that said, essentially, “help these people.”

The newcomers’ reviews of the shelter system have been unenthusiastic. “I don’t feel good at the shelter because I’m gay,” said Pedro Gutierrez, 30, who arrived from Venezuela on Aug. 4 and was assigned to a shelter on Wards Island. “Some people there are saying bad things about me, harassing me.”

Dixon Arambulet, who also arrived recently from Venezuela and was staying at the same shelter, said he found it hard to sleep.

“People are always smoking and drinking and fighting,” said Mr. Arambulet, 30, who worked as a barber back home. He said he slept with his head on his backpack to prevent anyone from stealing his papers.

Mainly, Mr. Arambulet said, he needed a job so he could get out of the shelter. A week later, he had not found one.

“I went out today and a boy told me he was going to talk to a man to clean a building — sweep and pick up the garbage,” he wrote on Friday in a text message. “He said he would let me know.”

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Andy Newman and Raul Vilchis