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New York City Migrants Worry as Deadlines Approach to Leave Shelters

7 minute read

At a former New York City high school converted into a shelter for migrants, washed jeans hang to dry on a fence and hateful messages blare from protesters wielding a loudspeaker: “Wake up, wake up, wake up: get your illegal-alien a--es up and out of bed right now, you are not welcome here,” anti-migrant protesters yelled on September 3, according to a video shot by Ferhana Jalal, an Afghan migrant who currently lives at the facility.

The school building in Staten Island has been home for Jalal for about a month. (Jalal is a pseudonym; she asked for her name to be withheld because she is scared it could jeopardize her asylum application and placement in the shelter.) But it likely won’t be where she stays for much longer because of a 60-day notice that the city gave to thousands of migrants in all its shelters. Those who received these notices will need to leave and reapply for shelter. If they secure a place to stay, they will have an additional 30 days, supported by “intensified casework services” to find alternative accommodation, according to a new order by the city. If that fails, it’s unclear how bad the situation could get.

“What worries me most is that it could end up with people sleeping on the streets,” says Dave Giffen, executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless. “We don't want to see anybody relegated to sleeping on the streets of the city ever, but especially now that the weather is starting to turn.” The situation is not that dire yet. As it stands, New York City is legally obligated to provide shelter to anyone who needs it—regardless of the 30- and 60-day deadlines, says Kathryn Kliff, a staff attorney with the Legal Aid Society. Uncertainty persists, though. “Clients and advocates alike are confused by what it means and how it's going to operate in practice because the city has not provided a lot of detail,” she says. The 60-day deadline first started kicking in for migrants last weekend and those numbers will only grow in the coming weeks.

New York City has a right-to-shelter law, which means it cannot legally turn away anyone seeking shelter. It’s the only major U.S. city with these rules. They came about as a result of a 1981 consent decree after the Coalition for the Homeless sued state and city officials on behalf of homeless men. But the city is now fighting in court to throw out that standard—arguing that it cannot bear such an extreme burden in the face of a national immigration crisis. “New York is and always will be a city of immigrants and we will always do our part to contribute to this national crisis. But one city cannot support tens of thousands of asylum seekers without additional state and federal partners with no end in sight,” said Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Anne Williams-Isom at a Wednesday press conference.

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As of Sept. 24, New York City has more than 115,000 people in its care, of which almost 62,000 are asylum seekers. The city says it has opened 210 sites to house them, including 17 humanitarian relief centers. Last week alone, more than 3,000 new migrants arrived. So far, 13,500 migrants have received a 60-day notice and about 690 people have received a 30-day notice, the city said Wednesday.

The city has said these deadlines are primarily needed to help create space for migrant families with children. "We’re past our breaking point and we need to make difficult decisions," says Kayla Mamelak Altus, a spokesperson for New York City Mayor Eric Adams. The 30-day rule, instead of the 60-day rule, will now also apply to adult migrants entering New York City’s system for the first time.

Jalal is an Afghan woman who fled with her husband from Iran and trekked from Brazil across the Southern border to San Diego before arriving in New York City five months ago. She says she left Iran because of discrimination towards Afghans in the country. She could not secure a driver’s license, let alone a decently paying job, she says.

The former high school in Staten Island where she’s been staying has its issues. Jalal says she often has to shower with cold water and has gotten lice. But with the city’s limits on shelter stays, the future feels even more fraught. “I am worried because I don’t know what will happen for us,” Jalal says. The couple tried to find more permanent accommodation but couldn’t because they didn’t have credit or proof of income, she says. She plans to go to the arrival center at the Roosevelt Hotel in Manhattan to try to reapply for shelter.

The difficulty for most migrants to secure work authorization further complicates matters. Asylum seekers need to wait 180 days after filing for asylum before qualifying for a work permit. The federal government made it easier for many Venezuelans to skip this waiting period by granting them temporary legal status last week; the city says about 40% of the migrants who arrived since last year are from Venezuela. New York City Mayor Eric Adams and New York state Governor Kathy Hochul have repeatedly pressed the federal government to speed up work authorization.

For Jalal—and thousands of others—there is still no hope of securing a job quickly through legal means, making it harder to leave the shelter system. “If we had a work permit, we would never stay here,” Jalal says, adding that she studied civil engineering in college. Even a low-level job could suffice until the couple learns more English and takes training courses, she says. 

Local groups helping migrants say many are panicked and fearful about what will happen after the shelter deadlines pass. Pastor Mike Lopez, who helps convert spaces in churches and other religious buildings into shelters, says migrants have been coming to him daily worried about getting kicked out. “It’s very much a concern for them,” he says. Many have misunderstandings around the 60-day deadline and don’t realize that they can reapply at the Roosevelt hotel. 

The 60-day notices are often sent out in English or Spanish, which may not capture the variety of languages that asylum seekers speak, says Sasha Allenby, co-founder of EV Loves NYC, a nonprofit focused on food insecurity in New York City. The spokesperson with the mayor's office maintains that the notices are available in many different languages and they are not aware of specific grievances of migrants not understanding the new rules.

While Lopez believes the reapplication process is “one of the necessary evils” for the city to reassess the migrant population, Allenby feels the city is intentionally making it more difficult for asylum seekers to dissuade them from coming. “The tiny, tiny, tiny bit of security that they've been given, it's being pulled out from under their feet…with the hope that that many of them will leave,” Allenby says. “There can be no other motive other than to create difficulty for them and to create a system in which they feel that they're not able to stay.”

The city has essentially said as much. “We want people to know it’s expensive to live here, it’s hard to live here,” Williams-Isom said at the Wednesday press conference, not referring specifically to the notices. “We definitely do want to discourage people from coming here so we can pretty much deal with the 113,000 people in the system right now.”

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Write to Sanya Mansoor at sanya.mansoor@time.com