New York struggles as tens of thousands of migrants arrive

Manhattan hotels that used to serve international tourists have become shelters for asylum seekers

The Statue of Liberty and the skyline of Manhattan is seen from the water in New York. Reuters
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Long famed as a global melting pot, New York prides itself on its inclusivity and diversity. But in recent weeks, the Big Apple has been grappling with the arrival of thousands of migrants after pandemic-era restrictions expired at the US-Mexico border.

“We have reached a point where the system is buckling,” Anne Williams-Isom, New York's deputy mayor for health and human services, said on Wednesday.

With a recent influx of 72,000 asylum seekers, Mayor Eric Adams has been under mounting pressure to provide shelter. In response, he has been using vacant hotels as temporary accommodation for migrants.

Unlike other large US cities, New York has an obligation to provide shelter to anyone in need, thanks to a legal mandate that has been in effect for more than four decades.

The use of hotels to accommodate migrants has ignited a debate about the potential repercussions for New York's reputation as a top tourist destination.

One example is the landmark Roosevelt Hotel in midtown Manhattan, which recently reopened as a shelter for asylum seekers. It is being used as a welcome centre providing legal and medical information, as well as other resources, and has 850 rooms for families with children.

The hotel had closed its doors in 2020 due to financial losses associated with the Covid-19 pandemic.

Standing outside the Roosevelt waiting for the arrival of a group of migrants is Monica Tavares, who has been living in New York since 1995 and works for the Port Authority.

She told The National that asylum seekers “come here thinking that they're going to be in a better situation … they come to New York City, where there is no plan for them”.

“I'm worried for them … but I'm also worried for us as New Yorkers. What is going to happen to us? Like there already are no jobs, the rent is going up, we can barely survive in the city,” she said.

“How are local businesses going to survive if they start opening big hotels and give it to them [migrants]?”

A family of asylum seekers arrive at the Roosevelt Hotel. Reuters

Ms Williams-Isom called for more federal co-ordination and financial resources to deal with the crisis.

“We’re doing it because we want to make sure that there’s no one sleeping on the street, that people get what they need. We’ve been primarily doing it by ourselves. We think that that’s unfair,” she said.

Nadine Karat, a long-time resident of the West Village neighbourhood, told The National that she lives across the street from a migrant-occupied hotel and “it's not a pretty picture”.

“Weren't we immigrants at one point dreaming of a better life?” asked Ms Karat, emphasising the historical context of migration in New York.

Mick DiStasio, a real estate broker, told The National that the cramped hotel rooms force occupants out to loiter in the streets, making the area unappealing to other residents.

“I'm not sure what the solution is but there has to be a better one,” he said.

Amid concerns over cancel culture, an anonymous New Yorker shared his views over the exodus of scores of New York businesses and taxpaying residents to Florida, the Carolinas and other states because of the worsening standard of living.

“Indefinitely forcing exhausted taxpayers to pay additional millions of dollars to provide food and shelter to the migrants is exacerbating the problem,” he stated.

Across the city, other hotels are being converted into emergency shelters, many of which are conveniently located within walking distance from popular tourist sites such as Times Square, the World Trade Centre memorial site and the Empire State Building.

The migrant hotel arrangements come as the hotel industry’s occupancy rates in New York are still struggling to bounce back to pre-pandemic levels.

Vijay Dandapani, chief executive of the Hotel Association of New York City, which represents 300 hotels in the city and was awarded $237 million by the mayor to secure accommodation for migrants, does not think the use of hotels has hurt the tourism industry.

“This is just a small segment at this point, but we realise there is a crisis,” Mr Dandapani told The National.

Andrew Rigie, executive director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance, estimated that the cost of providing for migrants' basic needs, including shelter, education and food, would amount to billions of dollars.

He urged federal offices to expedite the six-month waiting period required for the processing of asylum seekers' work authorisation papers, underscoring the economic benefits and moral imperative of providing them with support.

“These are adults. These are children. They need to be sheltered. They need to be in school. They need to be fed. They need to be taken care of. And thousands of them want to work,” he said.

Yet there is an enormous backlog in processing the papers that would grant them permission to do so.

“Our city has countless restaurants operating short-staffed due to the inability to find enough employees,” Mr Rigie told The National.

He also expressed concerns about current visitor levels, stating that the city has not yet returned to its pre-pandemic numbers, acknowledging that this would require a concerted effort and continued investment in promoting the city as a global destination.

“I believe it will take time and an continuing commitment from New York City to position itself as an attractive destination for people from around the world,” Mr Rigie explained.

With space in the city dwindling, Mr Adams, the mayor, asked a judge last week to halt “right to shelter”, claiming the city faces challenges accommodating the growing number of migrants.

An 'I love New York' shirt on display at a souvenir shop in Times Square. AFP
Updated: June 01, 2023, 2:50 PM