To Yefferson Rojas, the American dream was New York City. To get here, he described a harrowing journey out of Venezuela on foot, first through the jungles of Colombia and Panama. In Nicaragua, he said, men with machetes stole his tent. In Mexico, he recalled a horrifying encounter with the drug cartels that assault and harass migrants with impunity. Finally, he crossed the Rio Grande into the United States alongside dozens of others. After two months and about 3,000 miles, he arrived in New York City by bus on Sept.
To Yefferson Rojas, the American dream was New York City.
To get here, he described a harrowing journey out of Venezuela on foot, first through the jungles of Colombia and Panama. In Nicaragua, he said, men with machetes stole his tent. In Mexico, he recalled a horrifying encounter with the drug cartels that assault and harass migrants with impunity. Finally, he crossed the Rio Grande into the United States alongside dozens of others. After two months and about 3,000 miles, he arrived in New York City by bus on Sept.
He had hoped to find work. What he’s found so far is a single-ride MetroCard and a bed at a Manhattan homeless shelter. Migrants who arrive in New York are finding an American city in the throes of a housing and homelessness crisis that is ill equipped to help them. For Mr. Rojas, the relief and gratitude he felt after arriving in the safety of the United States have turned to looming questions about how to make a life in New York. “No one tells you about the hard reality of starting out here,” he said.
Mr. Rojas, 30, is one of more than 19,400 asylum seekers who have arrived in New York since April. Most were put on buses by local governments in Texas or by the state, which is overwhelmed and has been offering people trips to Northern cities rather than letting everyone remain in the state while their claims are heard.
New York, a
sanctuary city with a long, if imperfect, tradition of absorbing
refugees from around the world, should be well positioned to welcome
them. Instead, the city has been caught off guard
by the scale of this influx and has scrambled to respond. The
humanitarian response by New York City involves more than a dozen city
agencies. Mayor Eric Adams has said he anticipates that the city will
spend $1 billion caring for these new arrivals by the end of the city’s
fiscal year in June 2023.
This dire situation is a result of congressional failure to build an immigration system that meets the needs of the 21st century and the failure of cities like New York to build enough new housing for the scale and scope of complex populations in need. The federal government sets immigration policy, but states and cities are left to pick up the pieces. Instead of effectively coordinating and working together to develop farsighted solutions, some governors and local officials try to score political points. In New York the lack of housing is intensifying the pressure. “This is really coming back to bite us,” said Anne Williams-Isom, the deputy mayor who is leading the city’s response.
Many New Yorkers may not yet comprehend the scale of the influx or the need. Buses arrive almost daily from the southern border, often at the Port Authority terminal in Midtown Manhattan. New York could welcome about 100,000 migrants within the next year, city officials estimate, if the migration continues at the current rate.
Thousands of asylum seekers, the majority of them fleeing Venezuela, have entered the city’s beleaguered shelter system since April. City officials believe the actual number of people who have arrived from Venezuela is higher. Although most are single men, at least 5,000 arrivals are school-age children. The city has opened 48 emergency shelters to help meet the demand, but the system this month surpassed a daily record of 62,000 people in shelters — most of them local residents.
The city’s nonprofits, including the Coalition for the Homeless and the Legal Aid Society, have stepped in to help meet the basic needs of those arriving, but there is much more that city, state and federal officials can do beyond meeting their humanitarian obligations.
White House should increase the federal funds available to local
governments dealing with the migrant crisis. President Biden could also
consider shortening the time that asylum seekers must wait before
working legally. Without that authorization, they are vulnerable to
exploitation. Many of the newly arrived Venezuelans describe getting
offers of off-the-books work within days of reaching the city.
New York needs people to fill jobs in its service industries, but while the city’s labor market may be able to absorb thousands of new people, its housing market cannot.
The city is planning to open at least two welcome centers for migrants, which officials say would allow them to deliver services in one place, from medical treatment to caseworkers. But the most immediate priority for Mr. Adams is to get as many New Yorkers who are now in the shelter system into the small reserve of permanent housing that is available, fast. He can help make that happen by changing or eliminating the city rules that slow down that process, such as one that requires people to live in shelters for three months before they qualify for permanent housing. The city also needs to hire more workers to step up enforcement against landlords who violate the law by refusing to rent to people with government vouchers and other forms of rental assistance.
Kathy Hochul and the state government also have an important role to
play. Many communities in New York State have been revitalized by new
arrivals, and she can provide leadership by connecting this new influx
of migrants with communities outside New York City that would welcome
them. Above all, the crisis should serve as an opportunity for Mr. Adams
and Ms. Hochul to move forward with policies to build more housing
in New York City and its suburbs. “Had we been doing this for the last
number of decades, we wouldn’t be in this mess,” said Dave Giffen, the
executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless.
Until then, Mr. Rojas and thousands of other migrants remain vulnerable in the shelter system, just like other people living there. The conditions they describe, including violence and drug overdoses, are identical to those that have been recounted for years by New Yorkers.