After escaping political persecution in Zulia, Venezuela, José Rivera arrived in a hotel-turned-shelter in Long Island City, Queens, last August. Once there, it took him three months to learn he and his family, as asylum seekers in NYC, were eligible for health insurance and another three months to file his asylum claim.
Although Rivera, who requested we use a pseudonym to protect his immigration proceedings, is grateful for staying at the hotel-turned-shelter, he says the City government did not inform him of some of the crucial information and services for asylum seekers to become financially independent and stable.
Instead, a volunteer pulled Rivera over in front of the hotel and informed him and other asylum seekers in NYC about the insurance. Another volunteer told him how to file his asylum claim. To get his identification card from the City, a fellow asylum seeker instructed him on where and how to get it.
The City supposedly offers essential information and services to asylum seekers in all of its shelters — including how to access healthcare services and referrals, legal immigration orientations, and enrollment in health insurance, IDNYC and schools — but Rivera says he only received food and help to enroll his children in school while at the hotel. Since his arrival at the hotel-turned-shelter nearly seven months ago, he said he has still not heard anything about getting assistance for transitioning to more stable housing.
“One arrives in the City without knowing the laws and facing the language barrier, without knowing what to do,” Rivera told Documented in an interview in Spanish. “The little information one gets is mouth-to-mouth from other migrants and volunteers.”
Documented interviewed half a dozen recently arrived asylum seekers in NYC from Peru, Dominican Republic, Colombia and Venezuela, who are now living in hotels-turned-shelters. They all pointed to the same lack of basic information within the hotels, even though the City is supposed to provide these essential services and services for asylum seekers.
Niurka Meléndez, cofounder of the Venezuelans and Immigrants Aid nonprofit, said it’s “astonishing” how “deeply misinformed” some migrants are. “They think they are already asylum seekers without having started the process,” she said.
Meléndez, an asylum seeker herself, filed her asylum claim in 2018 and, as of yet, has not received a resolution. It’s not out of the ordinary, however, as some immigration courts, such as in Newark, New Jersey, take 5.4 years on average to resolve a case. Nationally, asylum cases take 4.3 years on average to be resolved.
According to Meléndez, whose organization assisted over 6,000 immigrants in 2021 (the last year information was available), nine out of 10 recently arrived individuals have no idea how to start their asylum claim process, which those like Rivera only have a year to file. It’s a critical milestone to complete as the federal government will only issue a work permit six months after an asylum claim has been filed.
However, Meléndez said many asylum seekers mistakenly believe their claim is already ongoing because they were accepted in a shelter or placed in a hotel, and with nobody caring to inform asylum seekers in the shelter system otherwise, thousands have been left in a legal limbo that can last for months.
Asylum seekers becoming permanent hotel guests
Although New York City anticipates spending over $4 billion during fiscal years 2023 and 2024 to address what Mayor Eric Adams has dubbed “a state of emergency,” many advocates and city officials say asylum seekers have been poorly served.
On March 7, City Comptroller Brad Lander issued a report stating asylum seekers are not receiving legal services, work permits or a pathway to obtain permanent housing. The report states the City does not even have “a uniform system for identifying whether migrants have filed their application for asylum” or work authorization permits.
To help migrants apply for asylum within the one-year deadline and receive work authorization six months later, the City should scale up immigration and employment services through pro bono legal representation and assistance from volunteers, the report said. In a press release published the same day, Lander said the City must also pivot its attention to transitioning “long-time New Yorkers and new arrivals, out of shelter and into permanent housing.”
Yet, City spending on these support services is “miniscule,” according to the report, amounting to $8.85 million or about 0.2% of the total the City plans to spend to address the “emergency.”
So far, City spending has been disproportionately allotted to newly contracted hotels, according to Lander’s report, which stated that the average cost for family shelter per day in the newly contracted emergency hotels, including rent, is approximately $339, compared to the average cost per family shelter reported in the January Mayor’s Management Report of $186.
The use of hotels as shelters has been criticized before. Two different comptrollers and a group of Democratic state senators saw the use of hotels as an ineffective solution both for asylum seekers and homeless individuals.
In 2016, then-City-comptroller, Scott Stringer, stated that then-Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration lacked “a comprehensive, transparent roadmap to solve homelessness.” According to the report issued by Stringer’s office, the administration chose instead to rely on hotel rooms, paying “costs [that] are absolutely alarming”: 800 bookings cost $400 per night or more in 2016, including 60 for $629 per night.
Hotels, the report stated, lack the essential medical, legal, and social services to help individuals “get back on their feet.”
In spite of the warnings, hotels are still used as shelters with few essential services provided.
This January, Mayor Eric Adams’ administration made an “emergency purchase,” securing 5,000 rooms through a contract worth $237 million with the Hotel Association of New York (HANYC), which, along with its associated officials, have contributed $162,125 to State and City political campaigns in the last 25 years. Since 2019, they have donated $34,650, mostly to State and City Democrats’ campaigns.
The contract “could be anywhere up to six months or longer,” Vijay Dandapani, HANYC’s president and CEO, explained in an email to Documented. According to Documented estimates, each room could rack up to almost $8,000 per month. The costs do not include meals, legal or medical services, or assistance to transition to more stable housing.
Department of Social Services spokespersons did not reply to Documented’s requests for comments.
Long-term, humane and cheaper solutions
Even before the so-called “migrant crisis,” the average stay in the City’s shelter system stretched to over 500 days. However, in the last few years, more people have been entering the shelter system and staying longer, said Brendan Cheney, director of policy and communications of the New York Housing Conference, a nonprofit focusing on affordable housing policy and advocacy.
The lack of affordable housing has also made it harder, and much more expensive, for advocates and nonprofits to house immigrants who have no relatives or friends in the United States outside of the City’s shelter system, said Katy Sastre, interim executive director of First Friends of NJ & NY, a nonprofit that serves immigrants and asylum seekers by offering visitations in detention centers and post-release assistance.
However, rather than address the affordable housing crisis, the City has turned to renting hotel rooms, despite their costs and shortcomings, and even though at least two additional cost-effective proposals for reducing shelter capacity through housing investments have been presented to the City since 2014.
To address the affordable housing crisis, comptroller Lander recommended expanding rental assistance options and eligibility, including reforms to one such program known as CityFHEPS.
And along with advocates, nonprofits and allied legislators in the State, Lander has also endorsed the Housing Access Voucher Program bill, currently in the Senate, which would dedicate $250 million a year — a fraction of the $4 billion the Adams administration plans to spend on asylum seekers — to begin solving the homelessness crisis. Unlike current voucher programs, this initiative would also benefit undocumented immigrants.
Even if expanded to support every houseless person and at-risk household across the State, the HAVP program would cost about $1 billion, according to the bill’s sponsor, Senator Brian Kavanagh. But Governor Kathy Hochul, who received $5,000 in political contributions from HANYC in 2022, killed the bill in the last budget’s negotiations, reportedly saying that it would become too expensive.
In spite of these alternatives, Mayor Adams and local officials, echoed by the mainstream media, have complained that the “migrant crisis” is also too expensive.
So, to fund the asylum seekers’ response, “we may very well be forced to cut or curtail programs New Yorkers rely on,” Fabien Levy, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office, wrote in an email to the New York Times. But advocates reject this narrative.
Ilze Thielmann, director of Team TLC NYC, a grassroots organization providing basic needs and support to asylum seekers and migrants, said the City has neglected to address the affordable housing issue for decades.
“Now the Mayor has said that he has to cut certain services to accommodate the asylum seekers, scapegoating all the problems of the City onto the asylum seekers,” she said. “This is dangerous rhetoric: it gives people an excuse to resent immigrants all the more.”