It’s midday in midsummer and dozens of men and women are crouching, splayed out on cardboard, or standing in midtown Manhattan, beaten down by the heat. After a journey that’s taken many of them across an ocean or through a dangerous jungle — past multiple border enforcement agents demanding payment to allow them to keep moving forward — they’re hoping their journey is finally coming to an end. 

But in the United States, they’ve come to a standstill a block away from Grand Central Station. The scene at the Roosevelt Hotel, the first stop most migrants make in the city, where they’re assigned a place to sleep in the city’s over-filled shelter system, appears untenable — crowds snake down the block, barely contained by young intake workers, and slots for the city’s shelter system only open up every few hours. TV crews take tracking shots of the migrants, many of them men traveling alone from Africa. The scene seems almost designed to prove a point that New York City’s first-term mayor Eric Adams has been making for weeks to anyone that will listen: “We need help,” Adams said when asked about the situation at the Roosevelt on Monday. “And it’s not going to get any better. From this moment on, it’s downhill.”

For the past year, Adams has struck the same gloomy, dour note about the arrival of migrants to New York City, a city built by generations of immigrants. It was a year ago this week buses filled with migrants sent by reactionary governors from the South began arriving in New York City, daring it to live up to its billing as a welcoming city for immigrants looking for a new home. Since last year, more than 95,000 migrants have entered the city’s shelter system — with 56,200 still in the city’s care. More than 18,000 migrant children have been enrolled in city schools. At the same time, Adams has repeatedly called on the federal government to both support the city financially, and do something to stop other localities from washing their hands of global migration and instead just busing migrants to New York City.

But over the past year, immigrant advocates say, migrants have been alternately used as a political cudgel and an excuse by Adams for cutting city services — and it could have played out very, very differently. 

In interviews with Rolling Stone, legal service providers, non-profit leaders, and migrants themselves talked about how City Hall has cut off experts that have experience working with migrants — effectively locking them out of the process entirely. While City Hall has begged Washington D.C. for resources, local aid workers believe that the Adams administration has been ignoring those readily at its disposal — organizations that have helped welcome migrants into the city for decades. This has left these aid workers scrambling to help, while many migrants are stuck in a bewildering holding pattern inside the city’s shelter system. Aid groups say they have knocked on shelter doors only to be turned away, sent emails and made phone calls to City Hall just to be met with silence, and dismissed by Adams, repeatedly, as outside agitators. Instead, they’ve had to do their work without the city’s help, relying on social media and migrant social networks to get in touch with asylum-seekers, and offer to help them find legal help and more permanent housing. (City Hall did not respond to a request for comment.)

“If you were in any other industry and you continued to operate under the ways in which the city has, [you] would be fired,” says Murad Awawdeh, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition (NYIC), a non-profit that assists migrants in New York City. “That’s what it comes down to.”

In August 2022, New York City officials began to report that migrants were arriving at New York City’s Port Authority bus terminal, on the far West Side of Manhattan, after being re-routed from other states. Many of those migrants had been sent to Washington, D.C., by Texas Governor Greg Abbott, a political human trafficking ploy that gave migrants who had crossed the border to legally request asylum a one-way ticket to cities he considered to be “sanctuaries.” After ribbing from Mayor Eric Adams, Abbott took it one step further — he began directly shipping asylum seekers to the city. 

This was bad timing for Adams, as the city’s housing courts had only recently reopened, and thousands of New Yorkers were themselves entering the city’s shelter system, evicted from their homes amidst skyrocketing rents and inflation. The city, which guarantees a “Right to Shelter” for anyone unhoused, was about to have a major test of its already overburdened system. 

“We are all in this together to deal with this influx of innocent people who are seeking asylum or fleeing wars, who are fleeing crises in their own country,” Adams said during a press conference as the buses began arriving. “New York is one of the few states where you have right to shelter. One of the few. We’re not like those who are sending people away during their time and needs. We are representative of what this country stands for, and we will always continue.”

At the time, only 3,000 asylum-seekers had arrived in New York City. 

IN EARLY AUGUST 2022, the first buses from Texas arrived at the Port Authority. I spoke with migrants who had been placed on the bus without knowing where they were going, who say they had not been able to access water during the two-day trip. 

“We had to provide medical attention to at least eight [asylum seekers], they were all exhausted from the trip. Many said they didn’t have enough to eat or drink. They were very hungry and thirsty,” Manuel Castro, the commissioner of the City’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, told me at the time. 

Mutual Aid groups distributed water, food, and helped provide translation help to migrants looking to get into the city’s shelter system. But City Hall had other ideas — quickly it began to bar them from the Port Authority entirely, accusing them of encouraging migrants to come to the city. The aid groups had pushed the administration to get both New Yorkers and new migrants out of the city’s shelter system faster through the use of housing vouchers. Those vouchers, the Adams administration said, would cost too much money. 

“When we started seeing the narrative that this administration was selling, which was straight up divisive…a scarcity mentality and trying to pit communities against each other,” says NYIC’s Awawdeh. “We’ve been providing the city with solutions. They just choose not to take them.”

A bus carrying migrants from Texas arrives at Port Authority Bus Terminal on August 10, 2022 in New York.

Yuki Iwamura/AFP/Getty Images

Instead, the city began to create a network of private contractors to help handle the flow of migrants to the city, which was quickly reaching 2,000 every week. Million-dollar contracts were handed out to contractors with little oversight — urgent care companies with no experience running shelters were put in charge of hastily converted vacant schools and offices, some without showers or working air conditioning. At these “respite centers” as the city called them, migrants told me about hot, cramped conditions, where overwhelmed young workers struggle to handle the needs of hundreds of people who might not speak their language and are confused about the bureaucratic hurdles ahead of them getting a work permit.  

One of the migrants to arrive in New York during the summer of 2022 was Jonathan, from Venezuela. (We’re not using his real name because of fears of retribution against his family back in Venezuela). Jonathan came to the city after fleeing political and societal instability. He says that with the lack of medicine in the area, the hospitals had become morgues. His family took a dangerous and popular route to the United States, through the deadly jungle of the Darien Gap between Colombia and Panama (Jonathan refers to it as “Hell on Earth”) and then on foot through Mexico and the final few miles through the barren desert that stretches the U.S.-Mexico border. Eventually, Jonathan, his wife, and three children arrived in Texas last July and, like so many other migrants, found themselves on a bus to New York City. (In Jonathan’s case, it wasn’t Abbott who sent him, but rather a non-profit charity group, as many organizations have now begun to mirror Abbott and just send migrants onward to New York.)

Jonathan and his family were sent to the city’s intake center and quickly placed at a family shelter in Brooklyn. A year later, they’re still there. 

And that’s the problem that Adams and the city is facing: new migrants, many of them from countries without established communities in the county, are getting stuck in the shelter system, unable to legally work in the United States until at least six months after they start the legal process to declare asylum. And that’s only if they begin the paperwork, which needs to be filled out in English and done with the help of someone who understands the process. Many migrants I’ve spoken to outside of crowded shelters haven’t begun the process because they have no access to the Internet and no information about where to go to find legal help. 

Jonathan found assistance at Mixteca, a non-profit organization based in Sunset Park, who helped him get started on his asylum application and find resources for his family.  

He tells me that he had important documents taken from him by border agents in Central America on his way to the United States, like his passport, further slowing down the process. He’s still waiting on a work permit, which is what he says stands between him and moving out of the shelter, maybe even to another city — wherever there might be work for him. 

“You could resolve almost all of the problems if you started giving out work permits, people could go to different cities, different towns, and it would help all these other problems too, you start being able to rent,” Jonathan tells me in Spanish. 

In organizations across the city, aid workers have wondered why the city isn’t relying more on the constellation of community-based nonprofits that have decades of experience helping migrants navigate the asylum process and find housing. Activists have told me that regular meetings between nonprofits and the city’s Office of Immigrant Affairs no longer happen, and that calls and messages sent to City Hall go unanswered. And now that the demographics of migrants are changing, the job has become that much harder. 

FORTY-TWO-YEAR-OLD MOUSSA (who declined to give his last name) fled Mauritania because of discrimination against dark-skinned Africans in his country. Before he left, the father of nine was an electrician, but he says racism made it extremely hard for him to make a living for his family. He flew from Mauritania to Turkey, and then to Nicaragua, and then on foot and in a car to Mexico, and eventually crossed the border in Arizona. His family paid for a flight to Cincinnati, but he wasn’t able to find any work or housing. On WhatsApp, word spread that New York City would give migrants a place to sleep and food to eat. In June, he came to the city, and has been staying at a shelter in Harlem — a former jail that’s been converted to house asylum-seekers. 

At a nearby church he’s taking English lessons, and the same church has helped him start his asylum application. But no one from the city has contacted him about helping his immigration case or finding more permanent housing. 

Through a French interpreter, he tells me that he didn’t know when he’d leave the shelter. 

I was introduced to Moussa by Sophie Kouyate at the offices of African Communities Together, a non-profit group in Harlem that has a decade of experience helping African migrants in the city. Her organization has tried repeatedly to get permission from the city to help asylum-seekers in the shelters, but have been met with silence. Kouyate is formerly undocumented herself. 

“We want to go there and do a ‘Know Your Rights’ presentation, we need to work together, and we send emails and they never answer us,” Kouyate tells me. “The problem we have with the city is that they say they’re open to migrants coming, and now they’re saying they have no shelter? The problem is that all of the decisions they make are without the input of migrants like myself.”

Some African migrants were bused to New York by the government, while others, like Moussa, heard about the fact that the city was welcoming migrants, through its “Right to Shelter” policy. 

Now, the Adams administration is trying to effectively end that policy, by kicking single men out of shelters once they’ve spent sixty days there, well before most of them would be allowed to legally work. 

Since last summer, Adams has cast blame directly on the federal government and President Biden for failing to help New York City pay for its shelter expenses or speeding up the process by which migrants can get work permits. On top of that, Adams has used the arrival of migrants as an excuse to blow holes in the city’s own budget and argue for an austerity agenda. He’s dropped migrants in the gymnasiums of city schools without warning, and threatened to take over parts of Central Park to build tent shelters. All the while, millions of square feet of office space sit empty throughout the city. From the outside, it appears that City Hall very much wants to paint the arrival of migrants as a contest of resources for New Yorkers. It’s unclear to what end. 

Many New Yorkers aren’t having it. They’ve opened their doors, classrooms, and pocket books to the next generation of a city built by and for immigrants. Jonathan’s three kids attended New York City public schools this year and he was thrilled by the attention they received. In a bustling city of nine million, the impact of 90,000 migrants on the cityscape has been negligible. New Yorkers, as always, just keep it moving. 


Musician Marco Trigoso, an asylum-seeker from Peru, who’s still waiting on his work authorization after arriving in New York City this past March, still thinks of New York City as a place of dreams for people who are no longer welcome in their homes. 

“There are good people here, it’s not perfect, there are so many cultures, a lot of disorder, but every day you see little things that show off people’s humanity. You just say ‘wow,’ how beautiful,” he tells me in Spanish. “For those moments, it’s all worth it.”