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Sanctuary strain

New York ministries struggle to help migrants released into the country with little hope of staying


A man walks to a laundromat the day before his planned departure from the historic Candler Building in Times Square, which was being used temporarily to shelter migrants in Manhattan. Sara Hylton / The New York Times / Redux

Sanctuary strain
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In a red brick food pantry in downtown Manhattan, Avril Roberts sat facing a prospective client. The woman had recently arrived from Ecuador and had come to the free legal aid clinic run by Open Hands Legal Services. She was already working night shifts to make ends meet and looked utterly exhausted.

As Roberts listened, the woman explained why she had come to the United States. Back in Ecuador, a cartel had taken over her town and gang ­members started killing people to shore up their reign of terror. One day, the woman opened her front door to find a dead body lying almost on her doorstep.

After that, she took her child and fled. Together, they traveled almost 3,000 miles to New York City—joining the more than 160,000 migrants who have flooded the city since 2022.

Many of the new arrivals hail from countries like Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador, and most come across the southern border. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has bused over 35,000 to New York City and sent more than 60,000 to other Democrat-run areas.

New York City spent over $1.4 billion sheltering and supporting migrants in the fiscal year that ended in June 2023, and about 68,000 people still rely on the city for food and shelter.

Migrants in the city who are seeking asylum usually have temporary authorization to remain in the country. Some arrived having secured one of the less than 1,500 daily asylum appointments available at border checkpoints through a new app called CBP One. Others crossed illegally and were apprehended or presented themselves to border patrol agents to request asylum. That leads to a Notice to Appear in immigration court, and migrants must fill out an asylum application within one year of arrival.

But most migrants have no clear path to permanent legal status. Asylum is a tough legal standard, one that many migrants probably can’t meet. Cases take years to resolve, delaying the inevitable deportation and encouraging more ­people to come as the city buckles under the strain and federal politicians battle over the border. Nonprofits across the city are pitching in to help, but say there’s only so much they can do under current immigration policies.

The woman sitting across from Avril Roberts began ­telling her story of cartel violence in a matter-of-fact tone. “Like she’s saying, ‘I went to the park,’” Roberts recalled. But when the woman noticed the look of shock on Roberts’ face, her expression changed. “It’s almost like the horror of what she’s saying to me hit her when she sees my reaction,” Roberts said.

As she listened, Roberts felt torn. The woman’s plight broke her heart, and she wanted to help. But Roberts also knew she had to separate those feelings from the legal ­question at hand: Does this woman qualify for asylum? Roberts knew that all too likely, she didn’t.

Asylum has a very particular legal definition. In order to qualify, applicants must prove they face targeted persecution in their home countries based on protected traits such as race, religion, or political opinion.

Roberts said lots of migrants she encounters don’t seem to meet this standard. But they want to take their cases to court anyway and won’t get a final decision for at least three to five years.

Most come to the legal clinic with the same question: “How do I get a work permit?” She has to explain they’re only eligible for a work permit if they have another immi­gration application pending.

And if they work illegally, Roberts said, migrants jeopardize their chances of legalizing later on. But they also need to survive. And that leaves migrants vulnerable to exploitation by fraudsters promising green cards or employers paying below minimum wage—all based on the fact that “they’re not legally present.”

Whether fleeing violence or poverty, migrants who enter the United States illegally set themselves up for a different set of problems—legal status, identification, housing, and work eligibility among them. That’s one reason many crowd into the asylum system, hoping to find a legal way to stay. Current border policies extend migrants’ legal limbo by allowing them to remain in the country without immediately evaluating whether they have a valid asylum claim.

Migrants who cross the border illegally can ask for asylum once they reach American soil and turn themselves over to immigration officials. After their asylum applications have been pending for 150 days, migrants can apply for a work permit. That gives them a chance to make a living, but most probably won’t be allowed to stay.

Since 2021, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has released over 2.3 million migrants into the United States.

Migrants browse through free clothes at a church in the Bronx.

Migrants browse through free clothes at a church in the Bronx. Adam Gray/AFP via Getty Images

A FEW MILES NORTH, a small man in a brown robe swept into a lobby adjoining the Church of St. Francis of Assisi, where a crowd of migrants already waited. Julian Jagudilla is a Franciscan friar and has directed the church’s migrant center for the past decade.

After the migrant surge started in 2022, Jagudilla opened a drop-in center to help migrants get winter clothes. But after eight months, he realized that wasn’t the migrants’ most pressing need: “What we saw that they need more is legal assistance.”

Jagudilla started training volunteers to help immigrants with their asylum applications. When the Biden administration granted Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to Venezuelan migrants, Jagudilla’s team started helping with those registrations as well. Now, he manages a team of about 55 volunteers who work in daily shifts of 10 to 15.

On Dec. 18, he started doing group sessions to try to keep up with the demand. Now, he hosts two intakes a day with about 20 people in each. Later in the afternoons, the teams also offer scheduled appointments.

Jagudilla said the migrants they work with come from all over. In addition to South America, many come from the Caribbean or from West African nations like Senegal and Mauritania. Most of them speak Spanish, French, or Arabic. That creates a challenging language barrier, and Jagudilla is always looking for more translators: “We need a lot of hand-holding here.”

But the hardest part of the job is the uncertainty. Jagudilla said it’s disheartening not knowing what happens to the people he helps. And he knows many of their asylum claims likely won’t succeed.

Meanwhile, migrants face a 30-day shelter limit for singles and a 60-day limit for families. When the clock runs out, they have to pack up and wait for a new spot to open, which often takes weeks. Sometimes, they end up sleeping on the streets.

Migrants out in the cold wait to go into a shuttered Catholic school now functioning as a shelter in the East Village.

Migrants out in the cold wait to go into a shuttered Catholic school now functioning as a shelter in the East Village. Kevin C. Downs/Redux

ON DEC. 27, Mayor Eric Adams imposed new restrictions on charter buses carrying migrants from the southern border. Drivers who fail to give the city 32 hours’ notice or unload passengers outside designated drop-off zones now face a misdemeanor charge. On Jan. 4, the city filed a $700 million lawsuit against 17 different bus companies.

During a media briefing, Adams decried Gov. Greg Abbott’s busing campaign as “inhumane” and accused the Texas governor of using migrants as “political pawns.” He joined two other Democratic mayors in calling for more ­federal aid. Abbott fired back, saying it’s time for the rest of the country to share the burden of caring for the millions of people streaming over the border into Texas. The migrants brought to New York came voluntarily.

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, a bipartisan group of lawmakers is trying to hammer out a deal on a bill to enact new border security measures—action Congress has failed to take for decades.

Amid the political wrangling, Jagudilla continues to help migrants apply for legal status within the existing framework.

“We provide a welcome here in our church, following Jesus’ command that whatever we do to the least of His ­sisters or brothers, we do it to Him,” Jagudilla said.

That’s Avril Roberts’ hope as well. In mid-December, Roberts was working on 43 open cases, and she can’t ­represent everyone who comes to her. But she does her best to make sure each one has a chance to be heard. “Sometimes ­clients just want to tell you their story,” she said.

Meanwhile, more and more migrants keep coming to ask about asylum and work permits. With each new client, Roberts tries to untangle the facts.

When people don’t have a legal way to work, she tells them directly. “It’s not something they like to hear, but it’s something you have to be clear about.”

Roberts said she’s shed a lot of tears over her work, but she also draws encouragement from her clients. She said many of them come from religious backgrounds, and even when she’s giving them bad news—“No, you don’t qualify. No, you can’t get this”—clients will look her in the eyes and tell her, “God has carried me this far. I will pray for this.”


Grace Snell

Grace is a staff writer at WORLD and a graduate of the World Journalism Institute.

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