New York

Where the Migrants Who Came to New York Are Living Now

The new arrivals came to New York from all over the globe. They were scattered to every corner of this city — to over 200 shelters in repurposed hotels, former jails and schools, or enormous tented dormitories with cots so close together that they touch.

New York’s migrant shelters have created a new kind of immigrant neighborhood: overnight villages where the town square is a parking lot or a hotel lobby.

The enclaves have emerged on the city’s industrial fringes, inside office buildings in the densest commercial districts of Manhattan, and in empty schools in quasi-suburban residential neighborhoods.

These may be strange places to start a new life. But life cannot help happening. It sprouts from cracks in the asphalt. As the city scrambles endlessly to find more sites to put the migrants, here are some of the places where the newest New Yorkers are finding their footing.

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Where the Migrants Who Came to New York Are Living Now

From every corner of the world to every corner of New York City, newcomers are carving out communities in unexpected — and sometimes hostile — places.

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By Todd Heisler, Andy Newman, Raúl Vilchis and Olivia Bensimon

Photographs by Todd Heisler

The journalists visited more than a dozen shelters around the city, where they interviewed people in Spanish, French and English.

Sept. 28, 2023Updated 8:20 a.m. ET

New York City has long been a magnet for new Americans. More than a third of its residents — over three million people — are immigrants. Before the pandemic interrupted migration patterns, the census tallied about 60,000 foreign-born people annually in the city who had been living abroad a year earlier.

What’s different about the 116,000 migrants who started arriving last year is how many came at once, and how many went straight into the city’s homeless shelter system, already near capacity.

Migrants reach out to people handing out clothing donations outside of the Roosevelt Hotel in August.

In normal times, immigrants gravitate to neighborhoods where countrymen have set up social networks, and they are gradually absorbed into the city. The new group came in a rush, after the pandemic worsened violence and poverty in struggling countries. Many came with no communities to join. In the shelters, they are creating them from scratch.

Friday evening in Times Square: Two boys sat on the sidewalk. A ceaseless sea of legs flowed past — theatergoers and tourists, shouting street vendors, office workers. The boys, Ángel Martinez and Anthony Osuna, 8-year-old cousins, were oblivious. They had not seen each other in eight months.

Two cousins reunite in Times Square.

Their families cried when they reunited near a grand 100-year-old hotel-turned-shelter. The boys got right down to business: drawing in a coloring book, like they would back in Puerto la Cruz, Venezuela. In their new home, the Row NYC, old friends and family renew their ties and strangers from different countries become neighbors.

Long Island City, QUEENS

Communities in Temporary Places

The Holiday Inn LaGuardia West in Long Island City, Queens, is a 15-story gray box in a mostly industrial neighborhood. Its 381 rooms constitute a small town of over 1,000 people. Some families have been there for months, though the city is considering a 60-day limit on stays at any one family shelter.

Gabriel Martínez, 24, came from a Venezuelan city plagued by frequent blackouts. “I went into a bathroom and after a minute the light went out, and I thought, ‘This is the first time the power went out in New York, just like in my country.’ But no, here it goes out if you don’t move around enough. Then it goes back on.”

Outside the Holiday Inn, on a donated chess board, Edixon Rondón, from Venezuela, and Alfonso Sarmiento of Guerrero, Mexico, faced off. Both had learned to play only recently — after a few moves, each had lost a knight. But the game had just begun.

Across from the hotel, an open-air moped repair shop had sprung up to serve those who found work delivering food. Mechanics crouched over bikes, until Francisco Suárez walked through lifting his 11-month-old daughter, Yoseimar, in the air. Work stopped.

The hotel’s parking lot doubles as a beauty salon, playground and picnic area.

For all their numbers, the migrants, in most of the city, are invisible. The ones who sleep in shelters make up less than 1 percent of the city’s population. On the street, you may not recognize them as anything other than New Yorkers going about their lives.

Sergio Guzmán, 19, and Sara Farfán, 17, grew up a few hours away from each other in Colombia. They met at the Park West, a hotel near Central Park.

Sergio Guzmán and Sara Farfán are both from Colombia, but they met in Manhattan.

After Ms. Farfán was transferred to a shelter in Brooklyn, the couple bought a moped with money that Ms. Farfán’s mother, who lives with her, had made doing odd jobs around the city. Ms. Farfán said they wanted to “explore the city beyond the shelter,” adding, “You get tired of being locked up there.”


A Summer in Crisis

New York’s migrant crisis is a slice of the global one, worsened by a combination of national immigration politics and local policies. The city was already seeing more newcomers last summer.

Then, Republican governors began sending buses of migrants who had crossed the southern border to Democrat-led cities to pressure the White House on immigration.

Mayor Eric Adams promised that New York would do its best to help them.

In New York City, the homeless shelter system must provide a bed to everyone who asks. A feedback loop ensued: Word spread of guaranteed shelter here, and more people came.

In July, Mr. Adams said there was no more room. Migrants were left to sleep on the sidewalk outside a Midtown intake center.

Later, it was reported that the city had hundreds of beds available in the city’s main shelter system, which has been kept separate from the shelter system created for the migrants.

Families can choose to move into shelters, or get a ticket elsewhere at the Roosevelt Hotel in Manhattan.

Almost every plan by the city to open a major new shelter has been greeted with protests — in Staten Island, in Brooklyn, at the mayor’s Manhattan residence, Gracie Mansion.


Tents and Tensions Rise

A tent complex for 1,000 men in the parking lot of Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Floral Park, Queens, drew opposition from residents who did not want the men staying near a school and a Y.M.C.A. Harjeet Singh Sandhu, a mural artist who has lived near Creedmoor for more than 25 years, led a protest of about 500 people

“We don’t want a tent city here,” said Mr. Singh, who himself emigrated from India in the 1980s. “All those people will come; we don’t know if they are criminals.”

Demonstrators at Creedmoor sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” and blocked the street. After people moved into the tents, protesters chanted, “Go home!”

Manuel Castro, commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, said the protesters should be angry at the federal government. The city has been asking for more aid: “This cannot fall on the shoulders of just New York City and New York State alone,” he said.

The city is constantly opening shelters. It has also closed them. Last fall it built a tent city on Randall’s Island, an expanse of playing fields and institutional buildings off Manhattan, only to take it down during a lull in border crossings. In August, new tents went up and 2,000 migrant men moved in.

The city has built tents as shelters, then taken them down, then put them up again.

Several recent protests focused on Floyd Bennett Field, a sprawling former airport in Brooklyn that is now part of the national park system. This month, a bipartisan group of lawmakers sued to block a migrant shelter there.

williamsbridge, the Bronx

A Business Card From the Border

About three-quarters of the migrants in the city’s care are from South America, but another growing group is from West Africa. Some Africans skip the city system and go first to community safe houses.

One makeshift shelter in the Bronx is run by an imam from Senegal, Omar Niass. Migrants find him through word of mouth. One arrived with a picture of the imam’s business card on his phone.

At least 50 men sleep inside and outside the house, which doubles as a mosque with a worship room in the basement.

Every day, the imam said, a dozen or so new arrivals find their way there. His phone rings constantly. Often it is the Border Patrol. “They call me: ‘Do you know this guy has your address?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ What are you going to say, ‘No’?”

Imam Omar is often exhausted, but he never stops helping. It has been like this since 2020. “Anything people need, you don’t say you’re tired. Go ahead. Even if you’re sick, if a human being needs you, get up. Get up to go do what they need.”

Oumar Absatou Niass, a 24-year-old from Senegal and a distant relative of the imam, camped for more than two months outside his house. “We have no fear,” he said. “We’ve come a long way to get here. People died on the way.”

“We want to change our lives,” said Oumar Absatou Niass, who camped outside the imam’s house.

Elsewhere around the city, other New Yorkers have opened their homes to migrants and hosted a few at a time. Kimberly Acosta, 32, is one of several Venezuelans staying at the Harlem apartment of Hannah Wolfe, a psychologist who offered her home as a place to stay after reading about difficult conditions at some shelters.

Preparing arepas in a borrowed kitchen in Harlem.

Ms. Acosta tended pots of beef and chicken for arepas that she and her roommates sell in Corona, Queens, where they set up an impromptu food stall each night around midnight.


Light in Sunset Park

The Sunset Park neighborhood in Brooklyn was already a haven for immigrants, mostly from China and Mexico. As darkness fell one recent evening, Elnazir Sidding, a new migrant from Sudan, sat on a bench in the park that gives the neighborhood its name.

He was studying English and drilling irregular verbs: “Awake, awoke, awoken. Be, was, been. Become, became, become.”

Masbia, a relief group that runs a network of pantries and soup kitchens, set up a tent outside a Sunset Park rec center, which had housed migrants, where it distributed food, clothes, toiletries and other essentials.

On the steps of a recreation center inside the park that was used as a shelter, Ahmed Haiballa, from Mauritania, brought out his prayer rug to say Maghrib, the evening prayer.

A delivery of halal meals came, and the rug turned into a table where Mr. Haiballa ate a chicken dinner. (The shelter in the heavily used rec center has since closed.)

As summer turns to fall, migrants continue to stream into the city. If anything, the pace has quickened in recent weeks, as more people, including more families with children, have crossed the border. New York’s mayor and governor are pressing to put limits on the city’s court-ordered shelter guarantee.

“Never was it envisioned that this would be an unlimited, universal right or obligation on the city to have to house literally the entire world,” Gov. Kathy Hochul said this month.

ellis island

Seeking Asylum

Many political leaders and advocates have called the migrants asylum seekers. But that official designation can be hard to come by. Project Rousseau, a nonprofit that offers legal assistance to migrants, helps them complete the often daunting asylum application.

The organization recently took one group, including Arezo Mohammadi and her son, Mohammad, migrants from Afghanistan, to Ellis Island.

Ms. Mohammadi teared up as the ferry passed the Statue of Liberty. “She’s very big, you can see her, she’s incredible,” Ms. Mohammadi told her sister back home in Kabul.

The asylum seekers filled out their applications carefully, going over each line three, four, five times. Project Rousseau’s lawyers said any irregularities could count against them.

The city is putting increasing pressure on migrants, and providing more help for them to find housing, so that they can move out of shelters and make room for new arrivals. Almost half of the 116,000 who have entered the city’s care have left.

Aqdas Shahnoory, 17, and her family fled the Taliban in Afghanistan. On Ellis Island, she gave a speech in Dari, an Afghan variant of Persian: “We must remember that immigrants are not just numbers or statistics, but people with dreams.”

One group of migrants hopes their path to asylum has begun.

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