New York City is in a state of emergency as thousands of migrants from Latin America are arriving in busloads, overwhelming the city’s homeless shelter system, Mayor Eric Adams announced Friday.
The emergency declaration comes as more than 18,600 asylum seekers have arrived in the five boroughs since the spring, many of whom are being sent by Republican governors to liberal northern cities in protest of President Joe Biden’s immigration policies.
As of Sunday, roughly 12,700 of the migrants were living in city shelters, which were already operating near capacity before their arrival in the spring, according to city officials.
Adams on Friday warned that at the current pace, the city’s homeless shelter population could climb above 100,000 and it could cost the city $1 billion to provide housing and other services to newly arrived asylum seekers in the current fiscal year.
“This is a humanitarian crisis that started with violence and instability in South America and is being accelerated by American political dynamics,” Adams said in a speech on Friday. “Thousands of asylum seekers have been bused into New York City and simply dropped off, without notice, coordination, or care — and more are arriving every day.”
In response, the city is opening "Humanitarian Emergency Response and Relief Centers" to temporarily house people before they are placed in a homeless shelter or find other housing.
With more news coming every day and more and more busloads of asylum seekers arriving at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. To understand the current “crisis” facing the city, let’s look at how we got here:
Where are migrants coming from?
Neither the city’s Department of Homeless Services nor the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs are tracking migrants’ countries of origin when they arrive at the Port Authority Bus Terminal or at intake centers, according to spokespeople for the agencies. So, it’s difficult to say what countries asylum seekers are coming from and what may have caused them to flee.
But we do have a general idea.
Adams and the head of MOIA, Manuel Castro, say “many” of the recent arrivals to New York City are from Venezuela, a country that has been mired in economic and political crisis for years.
Their assertion is backed up by Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York, which has been on the ground at the Port Authority Bus Terminal greeting newcomers and assisting asylum seekers in finding services — such as food, housing, jobs, and health care.
“The overwhelming majority of these individuals are from Venezuela, with a smaller number from Colombia,” said Ian Martin, a spokesman for the nonprofit. “There have also been a small number of clients arriving from Honduras, Peru, and Haiti.”
Catholic Charities says it has assisted about 3,500 migrants so far. Other nonprofit organizations, like the New York Immigration Coalition, also say that many of the recent arrivals hail from Venezuela.
Why are so many Venezuelans fleeing their homes?
The political turmoil and economic meltdown began years ago but was ratcheted up with the death of former President Hugo Chávez in 2013. As his health was failing, Chávez urged the people of Venezuela to back his vice president, Nicolás Maduro.
Maduro, a member of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela founded by Chávez, narrowly won the presidential election by roughly 235,000 votes amid demands for a recount.
Venezuela is home to the largest shares of oil reserves in the world. Facing low oil prices and production in 2015, the country was struggling to buy and important goods — like food and medicine — and was in the midst of a recession and sky-high inflation rates, rendering its currency effectively worthless.
The political turmoil and economic meltdown led to widespread protests that resulted in people getting beaten and injured by state police forces.
“The conditions in Venezuela have been pretty abhorrent since 2015,” said Rachel Schmidtke of Refugees International. “There has been this massive decline in the economy. The health system collapsed. Essentially, the country has been in sort of an economic free fall for years.”
The situation has forced millions of Venezuelans to leave their country — the largest displacement of people after Ukraine and Syria, according to Schmidtke. Many have fled to neighboring countries and other places in South America.
An estimated 9.3 million Venezuelans were severely food insecure in 2019 and more than half of pregnant women were malnourished, according to the International Rescue Committee, a humanitarian aid organization.
Karina Gerlach, a senior program adviser at NYU's Center on International Cooperation, said when she visited her family in Venezuela four years ago she brought along two suitcases of supplies.
“You could not get bars of soap. You could not get toothpaste. It's really been an economic and social meltdown of the country,” she said. “The tragedy of all of this, and as a Venezuelan it hurts more than anything else, is that it was such an unbelievably rich country but they have squandered it all.”
In 2019, six out of 10 families spent their savings to buy food, according to the World Food Programme. One-third of households agreed to work in exchange for food.
The Biden administration is reportedly working on a humanitarian program for Venezuelans that would allow family members or a “sponsor” in the U.S. to apply to enter the country to discourage people from illegally crossing the border. The proposal is similar to one already in place for Ukrainians, which has bipartisan support.
Complicating matters further…
The relationship between Venezuela and the U.S. is fraught.
President Donald Trump supported Venezuela’s opposition leader Juan Guaidó, saying he was the country’s “true and legitimate” leader following an effort to overthrow Maduro’s dictatorship. Trump ordered sanctions on Venezuela following accusations of human rights violations by Maduro’s administration, as well as Maduro’s efforts to undermine the interim president.
With diplomatic relationships soured, Venezuelans in the U.S. have little recourse to getting new passports or other documents since consulate offices, including the one in New York City, have shuttered. That means copies of up-to-date records required to open a bank account, like a current passport or birth certificate, are increasingly hard to come by.
New York City is pretty far from the U.S.-Mexico border. How did these migrants end up here?
To understand how thousands of asylum seekers ended up in New York City, it’s important to know that coming to the U.S. and asking for asylum is legal. To apply for asylum, you either need to physically be present in the country or request asylum at a “port of entry” — like a border crossing or airport.
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Trump administration launched an order to turn away migrants at the U.S-Mexico border due to public health concerns. Known as Title 42, the order also turned away asylum seekers at the border. Biden tried to do away with Title 42, but a federal judge blocked the move, keeping it in place. But Biden has been able to chip away at some Trump-era immigration policies, including one that required people seeking asylum at the southern border to wait in Mexico while their cases were processed.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who is up for re-election this year, has made immigration and border security a core part of his campaign. In protest of Biden’s immigration policies, Abbott and other Republican officials — like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey — have been busing or flying migrants to liberal northern cities with “sanctuary” policies that welcome migrants, such as New York City, Washington D.C., Chicago, and Martha’s Vineyard.
The arrival of asylum seekers blindsided Adams and other mayors and governors since there was no advance warning or coordination that busloads of people were arriving.
On Friday, the mayor implored the federal government to lend assistance, saying “we need legislation that will allow these asylum seekers to legally work now, not in six months. We need a realistic decompression strategy at the border that will slow the outflow of asylum seekers. We need a coordinated effort to move asylum seekers to other cities in this country to ensure everyone is doing their part.”
During an appearance in the Bronx on Tuesday, the mayor said his administration has been “communicating with our federal and state partners,” but there have been no specifics yet.
Where are migrants going to live?
For months, New York City officials have been scrambling to find housing for new arrivals, opening emergency shelters in about 40 hotels and considering temporarily housing migrants on a cruise ship.
In response to the influx of asylum seekers, late last month Adams announced his administration would be opening a sprawling 1,000-person tent facility in the Bronx to temporarily house asylum seekers before they’re placed into homeless shelters or find permanent housing.
Amid criticism over the location and flooding, the Orchard Beach facility was scrapped. Instead, the Adams administration scaled back its initial “Humanitarian Emergency Response and Relief Center” to a 500-person facility on Randall’s Island that’s slated to open in the coming weeks.
On Wednesday, Adams announced that the Row NYC, a Midtown hotel, will also serve as a relief center for some 200 families with children, with the ability to add more families in the coming weeks.
On Tuesday, Adams warned that “everyone is going to see asylum seekers” in their neighborhoods following reports of migrants going door-to-door on Staten Island seeking help, and chastised elected officials for not offering locations in their districts to house people.
“All the calls that I'm getting from elected officials, all the calls that I'm hearing from people, saying, ‘please, not here.’ That just can't happen. This is a citywide crisis and all of us are going to be impacted,” Adams told reporters.
While Adams declined to say who he was getting the calls from, he added, “the loudest have been the least benevolent.”
“You can't have it both ways. Either we're in this together or we're not. And I'm not listening to that. No one gets a pass during an emergency. Everyone must do their share,” Adams added.