Amid Autumn Upheaval, New York City Migrants Wonder Where They’ll Go Next

City policies have proven so volatile, even aid workers urged asylum seekers to get out of New York if they can.

Sophie Hurwitz and Sam Mellins   ·   October 3, 2023
Various figures hang up tarps in the rain at Bushwick City Farm.
Migrants and volunteers hang tents to protect themselves from the rain at Bushwick City Farm on September 24. | Marco Postigo Storel

Late one evening in mid-September, a handful of mutual aid workers gathered a few dozen migrant men from a nearby shelter at Bushwick City Farm. As the sun set, the string lights that encircle the farm switched on. The volunteers began to suggest to the men that it might be prudent to get out of New York.

“Save your money. Prepare to leave,” Diane Enobabor, founder of the Black-Arab Migrant Solidarity Alliance, said at the end of a volunteer-run know-your-rights training session. “We are here to warn everyone. Do not get comfortable. Because the mayor is saying one thing and then another thing. And what we’re seeing is chaos.”

They warned of marked hostility in a city whose policies for asylum seekers are changing rapidly. In the span of a week last month, city officials announced plans to distribute a similar message at the southern border, the state deployed 150 more members of the National Guard to work asylum cases, and the federal government unveiled plans to expand work eligibility for some migrants. In TV news spots to kick off October, the mayor’s chief advisor called for the federal government to “close the borders,” and the governor pushed for “a limit on who can come across.”

Throughout this scramble, the city has shuffled migrants from shelter to shelter — often abruptly and through the driving rain. New York Focus spoke with four migrants at the Stockton Street Respite Center, across the street from Bushwick City Farm, about 86 of whom were uprooted and transferred to Randall’s Island, near the Bronx, with less than a day’s notice.

Ahmed, a 27-year-old from the West African nation of Mauritania, said that after two months of wading through bureaucracy, he’d found a sense of relative stability at the Stockton center. But at 11 PM on September 8, he saw a flier with a clip-art picture of a bus on his cousin’s bed. “TRANSFERRING TO RANDALL’S ISLAND TOMORROW MORNING, SEPT 9 @ 8:30AM,” it read. They had nine hours to pack their things and move to the new tent shelters, where they would be housed alongside hundreds of others in the largest migrant relief center in the city.

In the month since, Randall’s Island has become fully operational. But it offers little in the way of security for the people who live there, especially as hurricane season deepens, with winter soon to follow. As the city flooded on Friday, migrant men covered their belongings in plastic tarps as water rained up from the tent roof and seeped up from the floor. A spokesperson for Mayor Eric Adams called the water damage “minimal.”

Ahmed, whose first name has been changed to avoid jeopardizing his asylum case, said he couldn’t let his cousin be relocated alone. They fled Mauritania together after Ahmed experienced torture at the hands of the police. They traveled through half a dozen countries, from Mauritania to Turkey, through the Americas, to the border, to New York. Now, they have to figure out how to build a life in the United States — no easy task when the rules governing their lives change at every turn.

“I am always with him, to help him. He doesn’t speak French, or Arabic,” Ahmed said. His cousin speaks only Pulaar, which Ahmed knew would make it impossible to navigate the system by himself. “They gave him the paper, and I went with him to help him. I can’t just leave him alone.”

The two men gathered their belongings, got on the bus, and left.

Port-a-potty w/ graffiti and person walking past it, blurred
A port-a-potty serving as a public restroom across from the Stockton Street Respite Center on September 24 in Bushwick. | Marco Postigo Storel

This unwarned cycling was just one phase in an ongoing upheaval. The Adams administration has set various deadlines for migrants to reapply for housing or leave town. Those in the city’s formal humanitarian program shelters, like the hotel housing families, women, and children down the street, have slightly greater protections and longer timelines. But for those at Stockton and Randall’s, time is running out.

On September 22, Adams announced that all new arrivals will have their stays in city shelters limited to just 30 days, and those who have hit their limit will be required to reapply for shelter — and be capped at 30 days on their new placements, if approved.

“Shortening an already brief 60-day limit to 30 days is just cruel,” state Senator Kristen Gonzalez told New York Focus. “Forcing families into congregate shelters is dangerous. Allowing migrants to be forced out of their shelter into flooding streets during a state of emergency is spiteful.”

Sign posted at Randall's Island.

The Adams administration has claimed that without additional assistance from the state and federal governments, resource constraints require it to impose such limits. Gonzalez and other left-wing legislators have argued the city should free up shelter space by expanding pathways to permanent affordable housing, and that the state should utilize its emergency reserves to provide aid to migrants: There is currently more than $13 billion in the state’s “economic uncertainties fund,” which can be used at any time to deal with unanticipated crises.

Asked for comment, a spokesperson for Governor Kathy Hochul pointed New York Focus to a recent Q&A, in which Hochul said: “There’s just a lot of unforeseen circumstances. … We have to be ready for all scenarios and that’s our job.”

The same week, Ahmed noticed signs posted at Randall’s Island, titled “Notification so that you make other plans,” in Spanish. “After the date ____, you will not be able to remain at this site.” The “date” and “address” lines were left blank.

“When we tell everyone to leave New York if you can … this is why,” Enobabor said, adding that those who could were leaving for DC, Philadelphia, or even Texas.

“If you are in a respite center, you don’t have protection,” she told the men at Bushwick City Farm. “You all saw your brothers taken to Randall’s Island.”

On a stormy Sunday, a few men stood outside the Randall’s Island Migrant Shelter hawking cigarettes and coffee to other migrants. They huddled under a tarp in the downpour. The mud seeped through the whole tent site and up through their flip-flops. One 26-year-old from Senegal said that he moved to this country for work, but can’t find a job that will take him because he doesn’t have a work permit.“The conditions here are acceptable … if you need help with your papers, with your personal affairs, you can ask, and they will do what they can to help. It’s the work — work’s what we need,” he said.

Sidi, from Mauritania, speaks some English. (His name has also been changed.) He described day-to-day life at Randall’s Island: “I come, I sleep, I eat, I go out. No work, I don’t have no work — I go to look for work, but no work. All people have this problem, no work. Just that. That’s the problem.”

The easiest way to get to Randall’s from Manhattan involves a 25-minute walk from the 96th Street subway station, up a flight of stairs, across an old footbridge onto the island. Guards stand silently at the entrances to the housing modules, checking IDs, and say they aren’t authorized to talk to the press, or anyone at all.

two men walk on the road rolling a suitcase with a bridge in the distance
Migrants leaving the Randall’s Island migrant shelter area on September 24. | Marco Postigo Storel

According to Ahmed, life is easier at Randall’s. The migrants at Stockton lack access to caseworkers, they are offered what one man called “prison food,” and volunteers say they face threats of violence from the contracted guards, though without an official grievance system this is hard to verify. At Randall’s, they have food, views of nature, soccer fields, and people who can help them with paperwork.

The Stockton Respite Center wasn’t ever meant to be a long-term shelter. Located in a half-constructed Blink Fitness gym, it was intended as a stopover between more livable shelter locations. But in this city’s overcrowded shelter system, hundreds of men have spent months there. For Ahmed and his cousin, it was the first chance in a long time to settle somewhere.

“I love you all, because you are my families here,” Ahmed texted a group chat full of migrants and mutual aid workers before he left. “I will never forget everything you have done for all of us.”

The men at the center come from, among other places, Venezuela, Mauritania, and Chad. They speak French, Spanish, Arabic, and Wolof, often switching between languages fluidly or speaking a mixture of two or three. Many have under-the-table gigs, though they lack federal work authorization. Some have families back home who sent them money to buy e-bikes to get to work. According to Enobabor, transportation causes a whole new set of problems: Without city ID, the men can’t get driver’s licenses and will be detained if they violate traffic laws. In late August, the NYPD raided the farm and took their mopeds, as they’ve done at other city migrant shelters.

Last week, city officials announced plans to distribute another round of fliers at the southern US border warning migrants not to come to New York, a strategy they also attempted back in July. “New York City’s resources have been exhausted,” they read. “NYC is one of the most expensive cities in the world. You are better off going to a more affordable city.”

“Most of the people who recently arrived in New York who are seeking asylum did not choose to come here in the first place,” state Senator Julia Salazar pointed out. “They were sent here against their will.”

There are currently over 96,000 pending asylum cases in New York immigration courts, according to data collected by Syracuse University, and many of those seeking asylum likely won’t make it all the way through the process. According to organizer Corine Ombongo Golden, many of the people in the city’s shelters don’t fully grasp their risk of deportation.

“They think they’re safe because they’re here,” Ombongo Golden said. “But they don’t understand that being here, living here without papers, doesn’t mean they’re safe.”

The Biden Administration announced last month it would grant nearly half a million Venezuelan migrants Temporary Protected Status, allowing them to live and work for 18 months without the fear of deportation. At least 22,000 migrants in New York City are eligible for the program, according to City Hall, and that number is likely to grow. The federal government has argued that the number is actually significantly higher, at 39,000. For the Venezuelan men at Stockton, this could mean a fast track to federal work authorization.

In theory, the program can speed up the process of getting legal work because migrants can apply for a work permit at the same time as they apply for TPS. But processing a TPS application can still take months, and in some cases, it might not be any faster than going through the traditional asylum process.

On Monday, Hochul unveiled a new program to help TPS-qualifying asylum seekers find jobs.

Neither her plan nor Biden’s will help the tens of thousands of migrants who aren’t from Venezuela, like Ahmed, who wants to stay here despite it all.

As Ahmed waits to get a lawyer and begin moving his asylum case through the backlogged system, he needs to find a job — and conditions on Randall’s Island make that difficult, too. The island shelter, made up of FEMA tents and housing modules, is isolated from the five boroughs by water. Those who don’t live there, including the press, are forbidden to enter.

Ahmed said he’d heard somewhere that they’d all be kicked off the island in two weeks, but he wasn’t sure. Access to anything beyond rumors on Randall’s Island is hard to come by.

Ito Choho and Alia El-Kattan contributed translation and reporting.

Sophie Hurwitz is a freelance journalist and researcher based in Brooklyn. They were previously the education and criminal-legal system reporter for the St. Louis American. 
Sam Mellins is senior reporter at New York Focus, which he has been a part of since launch day. His reporting has also appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, The Intercept, THE CITY, and The Nation. 
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