By Alex Maroño Porto
Last year, the first asylum-seekers made their appearances on the Upper West Side at the Park West Hotel on Central Park West and West 106th Street. They were welcomed warmly by the city and community. But nearly a year later, as the number of migrants being sheltered by New York City has soared to almost 55,000, attitudes and policies are changing — and asylum-seekers are worried.
On the evening of Thursday, July 20, with temperatures hovering over 80 degrees, I spent several hours outside the Park West Hotel seeking to speak with asylum-seekers living there now. I also kept an eye out for the migrants I had interviewed at the hotel last fall, but none appeared, suggesting they may have moved on.
Of the many people I approached, all in my native Spanish, only four agreed to talk with me before the hotel management ordered me to cross Central Park West if I wanted to conduct interviews. I protested that it was a public street, but to no avail. I did get an email address for the management and later wrote to ask for information about such things as the number of asylum-seekers currently housed at the hotel and the average length of stay. But so far, no response.
One of the residents I spoke with was Luisa. (Only first names are being used because those interviewed fear fully identifying themselves might jeopardize their asylum cases.) Luisa is a 23-year old mother of a three-year-old girl named Molly, from Carabobo, Venezuela, traveling with her husband. Immigrating to the United States was a beacon of hope for Luisa, she said, so strong that it kept her going through the treacherous Darién Gap at the Panama-Venezuela border. On April 18, upon crossing into the United States from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, her family was apprehended at the American border.
They were taken to a church close to El Paso’s airport, where they could change their clothes and shower. Along with other migrants, they waited for six days at the airport until Luisa’s husband was able to find affordable tickets to New York. “[Ticket for the same day] were $500 each,” she said. “It is super expensive.”
Once the family arrived here, they went directly to the Prevention Assistance and Temporary Housing intake center, commonly known as PATH, the Bronx-based Department of Homeless Services facility where homeless families are assigned to different city shelters. They were sent to the Park West and given a room with a private bathroom, bed, refrigerator, and microwave. “Everything went super well, the support and everything was fine,” she said. Luisa’s gratitude echoed what I had heard last fall when I visited Park West. Another refrain was also familiar. “The food is very bad,” she said. “It’s all frozen and she [her daughter] doesn’t eat it.”
Jose, 36, a migrant from Lima, Peru, shared both Luisa’s gratitude and her criticism of the meals. He has been living in the Park West Hotel with his wife and child for nearly a year, also arriving in the city from Texas. A relative who has given the family economic support paid for their plane fares. Though grateful for the shelter, like Luisa, Jose wishes the family had access to better food. “My child needs fresh food,” he said.
If something has changed compared to last year, it is the asylum-seekers’ perception that New York’s support for them is growing shaky. Last month, Mayor Eric Adams announced that single adult migrants in the shelter system would be given 60-day notices that they must transition to alternative housing. Decrying the lack of support from the state and federal government, Adams said the city’s shelter system is full, and this policy “makes critical needed space for families and children.” If they can’t find other housing, the mayor said, single migrants would have to reapply for a new shelter placement at the city’s intake center. “The city must make difficult choices,” he added.
Critics of the mayor’s initiative say it violates the city’s court-mandated right to shelter, which has been in place since 1981. In a joint statement, the Legal Aid Society and the Coalition for the Homeless, two New York-based nonprofits, said that “rather than limiting shelter stays, the City should implement policies to address the need for [greater] shelter capacity.”
Jose said the mayor’s comments “worry him.” That, and the high cost of living here, have pushed him to consider moving elsewhere with his family. Virginia or Pennsylvania are possibilities, he said. “As much as my wife and I work, it is not possible, things are very expensive,” he said in Spanish. Jose does temporary construction and painting jobs, and his wife works in cleaning service to try to make ends meet. “We are looking at the possibilities of immigrating [sic] to another state where we can have a better quality of life,” he said.
Although the mayor’s new policy does not affect migrant families now, Luisa said it brings a new uncertainty. She is fearful that the policy will end up impacting all asylum-seekers, including families. “We are really worried because we don’t know what is going to happen,” she said. “One day they can tell us one thing and the next day the other.”
With the help of a social worker, Luisa and her husband are trying to access more permanent housing and find legal support to help with their asylum claim. “There are several social workers and the one I work with is very helpful,” she said.
Like Luisa and Jose, Paula, a 24-year-old mother of a two-year-old girl from Bucaramanga, Colombia, is concerned about a shift in public opinion regarding migrants and asylum-seekers. After Paula and her husband and child crossed the southern border to El Paso last year, she was taken to a local church, where she heard about a church in Kansas that was “hosting migrants.” Figuring “they had nothing to lose,” they took a 17-hour bus trip to the Sunflower State, where they were greeted by churchgoers who gave the family clothes — and helped them get airline tickets to New York. On December 6, the PATH office finally assigned them to a room in the Park West Hotel. “We are very grateful because they have given us housing,” she said.
But like the others, Paula worries that New York’s welcoming attitude might be coming to an end. “I have heard a lot of bad things [said] about Latinos,” including: “’they come to steal’ and ‘they only come to be on the streets.’ It worries me,” Paula said. She is afraid “that laws will change [and] resources will decrease.”
That is why, once she and her husband are granted asylum, Paula is ready to start over somewhere else in the country. “I love New York, but it is a very expensive city,” she said. “If there is an opportunity in another city, we would go.” But, for now, Paula said, it is important for asylum-seekers to make a positive impact here, and to voice their gratitude to the city. “If they are helping us, let’s do good for the city,” she said.