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‘I Don’t Get Lost Anymore’: Migrants in New York Struggle, and Settle In

The wave of migrants who began arriving in New York from the southern border last year was unusual in many respects. Unlike most immigrants who make their way to the city, people were arriving in buses en masse, many with few local ties and little more than the clothes on their backs. More than 36,000 have come to the city since the spring, Mayor Eric Adams said Friday, and roughly 24,000 have remained.

As the Biden administration looks for ways to contain the southern border, those who arrived last year are beginning to build new lives. Some are struggling. Others are making strides.

New York has been a first stop for centuries of immigrants and the city offers some unique protections. It is one of the few places to guarantee a right to shelter for those in need, and it has strong legal and social safety-net protections in place for immigrants. New arrivals have also benefited from the help provided by an extensive network of relatively well-funded nonprofit organizations.

There are still obstacles, though. The busing began partly as a political gambit by the Republican governors of Texas and Arizona to draw attention to the border crisis, in contrast to usual migration patterns in which people link up with family or friends. Many of the recent migrants have been largely dependent on formal aid, and nonprofits, volunteer groups and the city all say they were overwhelmed by the sudden surge. While most migrants hope to make asylum petitions, immigration court backlogs mean the process could take years.

Much of the border debate in recent weeks has revolved around the use of Title 42, a public health provision that was used during the coronavirus pandemic to deny people from some countries the right to seek asylum at the border. Just after Christmas, the Supreme Court left the provision in effect — for now.

President Biden said on Thursday that Cubans, Nicaraguans and Haitians would now also be kept out using Title 42, a policy extended to Venezuelans this fall. Mr. Adams praised the move on Friday, calling it “one of the steps that we need,” but warned that the city still required much more help to cover the cost of caring for asylum seekers.

In the meantime, migrants not subject to Title 42, or those who arrived before its expansion, are still making their way to New York. Mr. Adams said this month that the governor of Colorado would be sending migrants to the city. A local volunteer said three buses from that state arrived late last week.

Finding work so they can be independent is key for these new New Yorkers — in interviews, dozens have said their main priority was to support themselves and send money home. While they are not authorized to work because of federal rules, many are still finding gigs in sectors like construction, restaurants and the service industry.

‘I don’t get lost anymore.’

About eight years after leaving his native Venezuela and moving to Colombia, then Mexico, Ismael Guevara, 48, feels like he’s finally in the place where he’s going to stay. And he’s only been in the city a little over two months.

“I’m used to New York already,” he said in Spanish outside a cafe in Jackson Heights, Queens, while on his lunch break from the nearby salon where he was working at the time. “I don’t get lost anymore, I’m good. I get where I need to go.”

More on Migrants in New York

New York City has always welcomed and depended on immigrants. But a new wave of people crossing the U.S. border is testing the city’s reputation as a world sanctuary.

  • Homelessness on the Rise: The arrival of these new migrants has pushed the population of the city’s homeless shelter system to record levels.
  • Right to Shelter: One reason New York is under strain is because the city is required by law to give shelter to anyone who asks.
  • Housing: Advocates for the homeless have urged the city to open up hotels to deal with the surge of immigrants. Mayor Eric Adams has also entertained other options, including cruise ships and a tent city.
  • An Uphill Battle: Migrants who have made it to the city face many obstacles as they seek housing, jobs and a chance to stay in the United States legally.

“Every day more and more, I feel like I’m going to stay here to live in New York,” Mr. Guevara said. “I feel calm, I don’t have to go searching for another country.”

He left Caracas, the Venezuelan capital, because of instability and threats to his safety. When he eventually arrived in New York, he was sent to the winterized tent shelter on Randalls Island that the city erected in October.

After that closed — following just a few weeks of operation — he was transferred to a hotel in Midtown Manhattan, which has temporarily closed to tourists and is instead operating as a city shelter for single men.

Just over a month ago, Mr. Guevara landed a job at a hair salon. He had once been an award-winning stylist for high-end salons, and was eager to get back to pursuing his passion.

Mr. Guevara found work at a hair salon, but hopes to some day open his own.Credit…Rengim Mutevellioglu for The New York Times

Every day he left early for work and headed to Columbus Circle, taking the No. 1 train to Times Square and then transferring to the 7 to head out to Queens. He worked seven days a week, and had a full roster of clients. He could make a few hundred dollars in a day. Occasionally he stopped into a Manhattan bar with live music for a Corona after work, or popped into a fast-food joint for fried chicken.

Last week, Ismael quit his job at the salon to strike off on his own. He is working hard to improve his English, and hopes to rent his own apartment soon.

“The next step is to open my own salon in the future,” he said. “My salon, with my name. When I have my documents, and my papers, and everything.”

‘Some days we don’t eat anything.’

Things have not gone as well for Akon Patrick Dieudonne, 41, a Haitian who had been living in Brazil for the past decade. He said he was a filmmaker and activist fighting for Black and Indigenous rights.

He left Haiti because of threats against an uncle who was a politician and pastor in Gonaïves, his hometown, he said. He moved again, he said, because of threats from supporters of President Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.

Like thousands of others, he crossed through the Darién Gap, a dangerous and undeveloped stretch of land connecting Colombia and Panama that has emerged as a main migrant route. Along the way, he met a Salvadoran woman. The two continued on together, entering the United States in San Diego and then flying to New York with help from an aid group. She is now pregnant with their baby. He is living with her and her 13-year-old daughter at the Row NYC, a hotel in Midtown.

Akon Patrick Dieudonne sometimes walks from the shelter where he is staying in Manhattan all the way to Brooklyn, where there is an established Haitian community.Credit…Rengim Mutevellioglu for The New York Times

Mr. Dieudonne was one of several recent arrivals who spoke out last month at a church in Washington Heights about what they said was mistreatment at city shelters. He said that the food, including moldy sandwich bread, had made many people sick, and that they were often hungry. His partner is anemic, and he worries for her health.

A spokeswoman for City Hall said in a statement that officials had no evidence of rotting foods at the shelters, and that they offered fresh food throughout the day. Breakfast and lunch is prepared overnight and delivered each morning, and dinner is prepared during the day, with snacks available at all hours, the statement said.

When Mr. Dieudonne arrived in the city in October, he thought he would land work quickly. He hoped to get a job in film or TV production, and wants to have his own company someday. But for now, he’s hoping for odd jobs and occasionally walking all the way to the Flatbush neighborhood in Brooklyn, where there is a thriving Haitian community. He sometimes sees Haitian friends, or an American friend he met in Brazil. He is trying to remain positive.

“I see there is a future outside,” he said. “But it’s very hard — some days we don’t eat anything.”

‘We’re more stable.’

Loiseth Colmenares, 31, a migrant from San Francisco de Tiznados, Venezuela, arrived in New York four months ago with her husband and two sons. The family has spent three of those months living at a SpringHill Suites in Queens that was converted into a shelter last year to house newly arrived families.

Loiseth Colmenares and her son Omar have settled into New York City since arriving four months ago. Omar is especially pleased to have received a donated scooter as a gift.Credit…Rengim Mutevellioglu for The New York Times

At first, Ms. Colmenares’s two sons, Omar, 10, and Sebastian, 2, were not eating enough, because the packaged, reheated meals served at the hotel were so different from what they were used to back home. The shelter was staffed with people who didn’t speak Spanish, so the family had trouble finding resources. They worried about Ms. Colmenares’s mother, sister and nephew, who made it to the border but were turned away after Title 42 was extended to Venezuelan migrants in October.

Now, things seem to be looking up.

“We’re more stable,” Ms. Colmenares said.

The food is “the same, but we’re adapting,” she explained. Life at the hotel has improved: A new director has implemented lots of helpful changes, Ms. Colmenares said.

“Every family has a social worker. They made a game room for the kids. They made a computer room,” she said. Donations from volunteers and nonprofits have also helped them settle in. “There are so many organizations. They’ve given us clothes, Christmas presents,” she said. “They gave my husband some tools.”

They even gave her son Omar a scooter, which he’s been riding proudly on the sidewalk despite the winter chill.

Ms. Colmenares’s husband, Jose Romero, 36, also found work at a construction site in Jamaica, Queens, where he works five days a week making $20 an hour. Most of the money goes to support relatives who are out of the country, but when Omar turned 10 at the beginning of December, Ms. Colmenares and her husband bought him his favorite treat: chocolate cake.

Ms. Colmenares still hopes some of those family members may join them in New York City. Her mother, who has a disability, has stayed in Mexico along with Ms. Colmenares’s sister and nephew. An organization connected to a church there has added their names to a list to expedite their entry into the United States, Ms. Colmenares said.

“I’ve been speaking to doctors, with the pastor who is in charge of the organization, and they’re going to do everything possible to get them to cross as soon as possible,” she said. “Because it’s really cold, and my mom is getting sick in her lungs.”

When they arrive, Ms. Colmenares hopes they might be housed in a room at the shelter in the hotel, too, if there’s space.

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