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New York City works to make space for rapidly rising number of asylum-seekers

The University Heights Bridge in the Bronx, N.Y., links the Bronx with Harlem over the Hudson River.
Nisian Hughes
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Getty Images
The University Heights Bridge in the Bronx, N.Y., links the Bronx with Harlem over the Hudson River.

NEW YORK — New York City has a long history of welcoming immigrants "with open arms." During the past few weeks, its arms have been under increasing strain.

On Monday, New York Mayor Eric Adams announced a round of emergency contracts with local agencies and organizations to allow the city to respond to an increasing number of asylum-seekers entering the city's homeless shelter system.

"New York is a city of immigrants, and we will always welcome newcomers with open arms," Adams stated. "We can no longer wait — and this declaration will allow the city to procure sorely needed additional resources as quickly as possible."

The trends mirror a rise in the number of people entering the United States to seek asylum, and advocates at the local and national levels are calling for more legal, financial, and logistical support to help them.

New York City has reported approximately 4,000 asylum-seekers during the past three months, according to a letter sent by the commissioner of the city's Department of Social Services, Gary Jenkins. That's an increase of approximately 10%, with more than 100 additional individuals seeking some form of housing per day. Jenkins notes this a "conservative estimate" based on interviews of people entering the city's shelter system. He also said it's not possible to determine the overall number of people seeking non-housing support because the federal government doesn't estimate how many people are assigned to New York City for their asylum hearings.

To protect people from being targeted by federal immigration authorities, the city says it does not track the number of people in the shelter system by their immigration status. However, the city's Department of Homeless Services reported the daily total at just over 50,000 on July 31, up from about 46,500 in early January of this year.

Jenkins called on local agencies to provide increased support in the form of temporary housing and referral centers, as well as advocacy for their asylum cases and connections to government agencies and local organizations to help them access health care, educational resources, and other services.

The issue has been coming to the city's attention during the past several weeks. On July 19, Adams called on the federal government to provide more resources for the city's shelter system. In some cases, he said, the immigrants had been sent by the federal government, and in other cases the governors of Texas and Arizona were sending more asylum-seekers to New York City.

He didn't cite specific evidence for his claim, and his comments sparked a back-and-forth locally and nationally. The Legal Aid Society and the Coalition for the Homeless, New York City-based advocacy groups, released a joint statement criticizing the mayor for singling out asylum-seekers when they said the city's housing crisis was much broader. The governors of Arizona and Texas also released statements denying that they were sending migrants to New York, instead saying they had sent people to Washington, D.C., in opposition of President Biden's border policies.

New York Mayor Eric Adams at a news conference in Manhattan on April 21, 2022.
/ Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
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Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
New York Mayor Eric Adams at a news conference in Manhattan on April 21, 2022.

Advocates for asylum-seekers say housing insecurity is nothing new

Josh Goldfein and Kathryn Kliff, attorneys for the Legal Aid Society, a New York City-based advocacy organization, said the majority of people they've worked with are arriving from Venezuela and Colombia, though they've also heard of people arriving from Ecuador, Afghanistan and countries in West Africa.

"It's New York City," he said. "There's people coming from all over the world."

They said the main priority is making sure people have access to stable housing as they navigate their asylum cases.

However, they said the conditions are affecting more than just the recent arrivals, and are wrapped up in the city's housing shortage in general.

"This crisis of the city not having enough beds is really affecting everybody," Kliff said. "The whole system is kind of being impacted by [the city's] failure to have enough capacity to meet the need."

Angela and Alex, a couple who came from Honduras to the United States with their infant daughter last winter, said they've received many different forms of support from the New York City government after they arrived at a city-run shelter for families with children. They asked to be identified by their middle names only because of threats Alex said he received from organized crime groups in his home country while advocating for rights of the Garifuna people, an Afro-Caribbean racial minority.

But at times, they said, the process of finding permanent housing has been opaque and difficult to navigate, with few people to guide them. Angela said frequent turnover among city employees, redundancy in the city's screening processes, and long delays from agencies have made the process more difficult.

"It wasn't what we were expecting, all of a sudden, to be in the shelter for so long, you know?" Angela said in Spanish. "I've heard of people who have been up to five, six, seven months without being eligible [for permanent housing] ... even people who have been here up to two, three, four years.

"We feel welcome," she said. "Really, it's great support from the city. But what is missing is helping people become more independent."

Anne Pilsbury, executive director of Central American Legal Assistance, which also helps advocate for asylum cases in the city, said the organization has seen the number of refugees seeking housing in the city rise over the past few weeks.

"In the past, people came because they had family here. Now we're seeing people come who don't have any connection to New York. And that is new," she said

Pilsbury said it's part of an overall trend of increasing migration over the past 2-3 years.

"We've always been getting an enormous number of phone calls from people looking for help, but it's gotten a little worse over the past few weeks," she said.

She estimated that around 15% of their current active asylum cases are living in city shelters.

"I would think it would be straining the shelter system, but I have yet to have a client saying, 'I went to the shelter and they turned me away,' " Pilsbury said.

"It's just very hard," she said. "Our phone rings constantly with people looking for legal help."

But the need for legal aid is straining the system, she said.

Ameya Biradavolu, director of programs at We Are Not Alone Community Resource Center, which bills itself as the city's only shelter intended specifically for asylum-seekers, said she had heard of a rise in requests, as well as fewer lawyers available to take on cases. But, she said, housing insecurity among asylum seekers is nothing new.

"To say that a bunch of people who are asylum seekers are homeless, it's kind of like, we've known that for years," she said.

She said specific numbers were hard to measure, because federal policy shifts and seasonal changes to migration patterns affect who comes to the city and to the United States in general.

National trends show rising immigration, but specifics are difficult to determine

Outside of New York City, recent national data indicates rising numbers of people arriving, although those numbers are difficult to track at the local level, said Daniel Bloch, technical adviser for asylum and protection at the International Rescue Committee, which assists asylum seekers and refugees throughout the world.

"It's tricky for me to be able to talk about the local [situation]," he said. "It's all enmeshed in the national context as well."

He said while it wouldn't be surprising if more people were coming to New York City's shelters, parsing those numbers from national-level data is difficult because counting the total tally of people coming into the United States is difficult in the first place.

Families with children live in the Movimiento Juventud 2000 shelter with refugee migrants from Central and South America, including Honduras and Haiti. The families are  seeking asylum in the United States as Title 42 and Remain In Mexico border restrictions continue, in Tijuana, Baja California state, Mexico on April 9, 2022.
/ PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images
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PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images
Families with children live in the Movimiento Juventud 2000 shelter with refugee migrants from Central and South America, including Honduras and Haiti. The families are seeking asylum in the United States as Title 42 and Remain In Mexico border restrictions continue, in Tijuana, Baja California state, Mexico on April 9, 2022.

Bloch pointed to U.S. Border Patrol "encounters," which track the number of people stopped by border enforcement officials. U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported approximately 207,500 encounters along the Southwest Border in June 2022, up from about 189,000 in June 2021. But, Bloch explained, that data doesn't always correlate to changes in numbers of people actually entering the country due to changing enforcement patterns and pandemic-related restrictions.

The Syracuse University-based Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a nonpartisan research tool that tracks immigration case data, is another way to determine the data, Bloch said. It tallied a backlog of approximately 1.8 million immigration court cases at the end of June, up by about 25% from the beginning of this year. However, not all are asylum-related, he noted.

On the ground, the International Rescue Committee reports a sharp increase in people crossing the border and seeking assistance upon arrival. Bloch said the organization operates a center in Phoenix that assists people who have recently arrived in the country, some of whom include asylum-seekers. As of June 30, it had reported 30,708 arrivals since Jan. 1, 2022, compared with a total of 38,258 for all of 2021 and 1,344 in 2020. In 2019, before most Covid-19 pandemic restrictions began, it reported 5,890 arrivals at its main center and several temporary locations.

Of those arrivals, 4,034 people have reported they were headed to New York state since June 30, compared with 2,969 in 2021, 71 in 2020 and 297 in 2019. The IRC does not release numbers of people going to New York City specifically.

As arrivals increase, Bloch said an important use of federal resources would be to expand case management — support for organizations to help asylum-seekers navigate the complexities of the immigration system and to access government services such as housing, education, and healthcare upon their arrival.

"[It] is really there, ideally, to help people, both with the initial logistics and practical pieces [of] finding initial stability, but then also in the longer term, over the following months," he said.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Austin Cope