Why New York City’s Best Won’t Be Enough to Solve the Migrant Crisis

Since the governors of Texas and Florida began sending migrants northward in acts of political theater last spring, the city of New York has received close to 44,000 asylum seekers, a number greater than the populations of SoHo and TriBeCa combined. According to City Hall, there have been 12,000 new arrivals during the past month alone. While New York has welcomed great numbers of immigrants into its ecosystem each year for centuries — there are more than three million foreign-born people living in the city now, responsible for close to a quarter of the city’s gross domestic product — it has not confronted a situation where so many people have come in such rapid sequence without the traditional pathways to integration.

Typically, someone moving to the city from the Dominican Republic or West Africa might land with connections to a church group, or to friends and family already established here; there is likely a network that can connect you to a job and a room in a crowded basement apartment in Queens or the Bronx. But so many have arrived here by perverse happenstance in recent months. Whether they have ended up in New York against their will or because of departures made in desperation and haste — they are without the sort of plans accompanying a more deliberate resettlement.

This is unprecedented territory. The fact of more than 40,000 immigrants coming to the city over a short stretch of time is not the problem, as one city official put it to me, it is that so many are entering the already burdened shelter system at once.

The depth and severity of the crisis, unfolding in the midst of the city’s housing emergencies, cannot be overstated — it is as if two natural disasters were occurring simultaneously. When Eric Adams took office as mayor in January last year, before the influx of migrants from the border began, there were roughly 45,000 people in the shelter system; that figure has since grown by 71 percent to 77,000. Beyond its sheer scope, the migrant crisis is remarkable for its relative obscurity to so many New Yorkers, who encounter homelessness in their daily lives with uncomfortable regularity, but who have not had as much direct experience with the latest wave of immigrants.

The issue registered more obviously in recent days, as the city has come under fire for a decision to move several hundred people from a Midtown hotel, where it has been housing asylum seekers, to the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal, a 180,000-square-foot building on the Red Hook waterfront. The idea was to prioritize hotel space for families with children by moving single men into a congregate setting, a practice the city observes with its shelter system more broadly. The terminal was sitting vacant and would not have returned to its official use until cruise ship season began again in the spring.

Activists quickly objected, citing similarities to a “detention center”; the city blamed them for riling up occupants of the hotel slated for relocation, some of whom slept outside in protest rather than move to the new relief center until the police swept the encampment on Wednesday night. The terminal had 1,000 cots available, one next to the other, an efficient use of space that afforded no privacy. Dividers, the city comptroller, Brad Lander imagined, would be hard to incorporate, simply because the cots are placed so close together that it would be impossible to move around the bed within such an enclosure.

Several hundred cots are lined up for the migrants in the Red Hook space. Although there’s not much privacy, the terminal is warm, officials said. Credit…Angela Weiss/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

But the ongoing housing catastrophes have put the city in a constant mode of triage and improvisation. Relying on hotels is neither ideal nor economically logical, but actual shelter space is almost impossibly constrained. In September the city reported that the length of stay for a family with children in shelters had increased to an average of 534 days during the 2022 fiscal year, up from 520 days the previous year and 414 days in 2017. In a different scenario, there would be a great outward flow from the system leaving it free to accommodate new entrants. The city has already opened 82 emergency shelters since asylum seekers began to arrive and enabled the conversion of four large hotels into relief centers. To build a new shelter takes an average of two years.

While the city has not allowed members of the press to enter the Red Hook facility, on Wednesday afternoon it began offering tours to various political officials in an effort to quiet the noise. Among the first visitors were Brooklyn’s borough president, Antonio Reynoso, and several members of the City Council who spoke to a tiny group of reporters when they made their way out. They noted that, contrary to early claims, the building was in fact warm, though the men staying there had to walk outside to take showers in mobile units, because propane heating units could not be installed in the terminal itself.

Councilwoman Shahana Hanif was the first to express a concern about the lack of privacy, and she and her colleagues wished that the administration had done more to allay the anxieties of men who were not sure what the Red Hook move would mean. After so many of them had experienced so much trauma in their long treks, often by foot to the border, they harbored a reasonable fear that they were being taken to a place from which they would eventually be deported. But the facility was safe, Mr. Reynoso said. There had been no reports of the kinds of crime that plague men’s shelters and often serve as a deterrent to sleeping in them.

On the same day, Gov. Kathy Hochul allotted $1 billion in the state budget for the migrant crisis. Mr. Lander pointed out that while that was an undeniable positive, the federal immigration system needed to speed up work authorizations, the processing of which has been significantly backlogged. “These are largely a group of folks who want to work,” he told me. They cannot do that without the proper paperwork.

But even immediate access to jobs will not necessarily segue into housing solutions. “New York City has already done more than nearly any other city in the nation to support this influx of asylum seekers, but our resources are limited, and we need support,” Fabien Levy, a spokesman for the mayor’s office, wrote in an email. “If corrective measures are not taken soon, we may very well be forced to cut or curtail programs New Yorkers rely on. These are not choices we want to make, but they may become necessary, and we must be honest with New Yorkers about what we’re facing.”

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