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Asylum dreams remain elusive for tens of thousands of migrants bused to New York

Salvador Espinoza for NPR
Migrants entering a cruise ship terminal in Brooklyn which was repurposed into a housing center.

They hoped to find jobs. Instead, they have found frustration.

More than 50,000 migrants have made their way to New York over the past year, but many are no closer to having their asylum cases heard than when they arrived.

Most are in the city's care, which could cost about $1 billion by some estimates this fiscal year. Mayor Eric Adams and others have called the cost for temporary housing, medical care and other support unsustainable.

"We have been doing it alone thus far," Adams said. "And that must stop."

He has called on the federal government to help, and announced plans for an intake centerthat would help better process migrants.

Until those things happen, many migrants remain in limbo. Like Jose.

He is originally from Venezuela, arriving in the U.S. five months ago. Like the others, without official status, he can't legally work. Without work, he can't find stable housing.

Jose isn't sure what will happen next. He just knows he can't return to Venezuela.

"No. No. I cannot go back there. I'm in danger," Jose says in Spanish. He asks that we withhold his last name, because he fears for his family in Caracas. He was a truck driver there, which made him easy prey for gangs, who, he says, threatened to kill him.

He made his way north. At the U.S.-Mexico border, he told authorities he was in danger and needed asylum. "It was not easy," he says, taking a deep breath. "Not easy."

He tends to speak like this- in short sentences, with heavy, thoughtful pauses.

Jose has lived in three New York shelters so far. Up until a few weeks ago, it was The Watson Hotel, in Midtown Manhattan, with other migrants. He said he understands that the city budget is stretched thin. He wishes he could work.

"I think the government should be a little more flexible and give work permits, so that they don't have to spend on us," he says.

A work permit would enable Jose and others like him to move out of the shelter system, and to pay an immigration lawyer. Conditions at The Watson hotel, Jose says, were decent. But he wanted to get out before he was transferred again.

He was worried about landing in one of the more challenged shelters, where there've been reported outbreaks of chicken pox and food poisoning.

Housing conditions are a concern for migrants and advocates

Those problems also worry Councilmember Julie Won. Her district is in Queens and has nearly 30 shelters.

"My number one concern for the shelters are for the minors," Wan says. She feels New York has been left to figure things out on it's own, without much support at the state or federal level. But she's disturbed by reports of unacceptable conditions at the shelters in her area.

"I'm getting calls about children having rapid weight loss, children coming to school and having diarrhea, children having no access to healthcare. Families getting chicken pox outbreaks. People not being able to get the immunizations that they need."

NPR reached out to New York City officials several times regarding these health concerns, and received no response.

Advocates say these types of housing conditions are inhumane.

"It's really disappointing to see how these people are shoved into these hotels as permanent housing", says Desiree Joy Frias, an organizer with South Bronx Mutual Aid. "It's not sustainable, and it's not healthy."

On a cold, windy winter day, Frias was in Queens to deliver donations to migrant women and children. She says Latinos have always rallied to take care of their own, and this current wave of migration, is no exception. Every day New Yorkers and mutual aid groups have been stepping up to make sure recent arrivals have food, clothing, legal advice and health care.

Frias checks out a rash on a baby's leg. The baby's mother, Alba Hernandez, suspects it's from the milk they get at the shelter, which she says is sometimes spoiled.

"When did it start? Is it chicken pox?" Frias asks.

"Almost as soon as we got to the shelter." Hernandez answers.

Hernandez is from Colombia. She says her family was driven out of the Arauca region, which has recently been caught in between rival guerrilla groups who want to control drug trafficking.

Finding legal help can be difficult

She's been in the U.S. for five months. Since she can't work legally, she says she can't pay an immigration lawyer. And while New York does have a robust system of non-profits that offer legal support, many say they are overwhelmed. That's the message being delivered at the Good Shepherd Church in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, where Pastor Juan Carlos Ruiz holds a basic legal advice session for migrants every Thursday night. There are people here this evening who arrived in New York a week ago.

Ruiz is blunt with them: "We are not going to be able to do this legal process for you. There are not enough lawyers to help you. "

He and his colleagues then proceed to explain the basics: what numbers to call. Don't forget to change your address. Don't be scared to show up in court - it's worse if you don't. Be your own advocate, because the advocates have their hands full.

Camille Mackler, executive director of the Immigrant Advocates Response Collaborative (ARC), says that's not an exaggeration.

"I've been an immigration lawyer for 20 years and I've never ever experienced what I've experienced in the last six months or year," Mackler says. "Absolutely no one can take cases."

New York City recently unveiled "The Road Forward" a blueprint to address the crisis. It includes working with other cities to relocate some of the migrants, and workforce training while asylum seekers await a work permit from the federal government.

The plan has been met with skepticism.

Mackler explains that a work permit can only be requested six months after an asylum application has been submitted. But the immigration court system is so backed up right now, an asylum request can take two years to be submitted.

That's at least two years without a legal work permit.

"It's a system that is forcing people to work in the shadow economy," she says. Folks who are seeking asylum have no choice but to work in undocumented labor, often for lower wages, and with no worker protecti0ns. "Because that's the only way that they're gonna have to survive."

The American dream has become one of survival

At a recent church meeting, those attending were mostly women and children. Many say they've given up on getting work papers, and are taking matters into their own hands.

"My job right now is to find a job. Any way possible" says Desiree, a woman who arrived in New York a few weeks ago. She asked that her surname be withheld, for fear of political persecution for her husband, who remain there

She describes a harrowing journey north. Reports of sexual assaults against women and girls forced her disguise her two teenage daughters as boys in an attempt to keep them safe. Here in New York, she says she keeps her children in their hotel shelter room all morning while she walks through the city, asking for employment. She returns to give them lunch, and then heads back out.

"Everyone talks about the American dream," she says. "I don't see the American dream. But I do dream of my daughters having emotional stability."

The uncertainty of their futures can be frustrating, and exhausting. That's the way 21-year-old Luis says he feels.

Standing outside The Watson Hotel, Luis says he thinks the government is trying to tire him out, to get him to give up so he'll go back to Venezuela. He's been transferred to multiple shelters since he arrived four months ago. He's scared of being sent back home, and like the others, doesn't want his full name used because he fears for his family's safety.

After months of looking, Luis finally got a night job at a fast food restaurant in the Bronx. His plan: stay at the shelter, send money back home, pay an immigration lawyer.

But then, he learned he would be relocated again, this time to Red Hook, a harbor area in Brooklyn. To a large auditorium filled with cots. Protests erupted. For Luis, this would have meant a four hour commute every day.

He says he realized then that he was on his own. "I like the US. But you have to be psychologically prepared for it."

With the money he'd saved for a lawyer, he rented a small room near the Bronx, which he shares with 4 other recently arrived Venezuelans.

Like Luis, Jose has spent a lot of time walking the streets of New York. He looks for work. He walks to pass the time. He walks to learn about the city he hopes will be his next permanent home. He walks to alleviate the anxiety he feels about the unknown.

Unlike Luis, Jose accepted the relocation to the new shelter at the harbor. He says he feels isolated. He is a large man, and his body hurts from the small cot he sleeps on. For now, he's stuck here. Sometimes he says he sits in the park, and watches the people busily rush by. He says it feels odd, being frozen in place in one of the busiest cities in the world.

He stays connected to his family on WhatsApp. He admits he doesn't tell them how bad he feels. Instead, he just tells them New York is "what you imagined, since you were a kid. Just like on TV." It's like a dream.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.