Migrants Are Turning Down Free Rides to Leave New York

Sebastian Garcia, 30, came to the United States after a long trip that included crossing the treacherous Darien Gap on the Panama-Colombia border. A native of Caracas, Venezuela, he arrived in New York City in May 2022.

And, as soon as he was assigned to a shelter in Queens, in May 2022, the staff offered him a ticket to move to another city of his choice.

He didn’t take it.

“I don’t want to be moving around from place to place because I will never get stability,” Garcia said in Spanish. “I arrived in New York and I will stay here. I have nothing to do anywhere else.”

Garcia has applied for asylum but hasn’t been able to apply for work authorization. He already waited more than 150 days after filing for asylum, but a system error is not allowing him to submit and obtain his work permit.

As he waits and tries to solve the error, he has already found a job selling low-cost tablets, making between $700 and $1,000 a week. His goal is to save enough money to move out of the shelter provided by the city and rent his own place. He also wants to study and become a police officer, the same profession he had in Venezuela.

Columbia News Service spoke to a dozen migrants like Garcia who said they were offered, or heard from friends about, bus or plane tickets by the city if they wanted to relocate — but decided to stay. They say they already found jobs and are making plans to rent their own places in the city. They also feel protected by New York City’s sanctuary policies.

Between April 2022 and April 2023, New York City spent about $50,000 on travel costs to resettle 114 migrant households elsewhere, according to a public information request made by Politico.

By late August, City Hall confirmed the establishment of a new “reticketing center” in Manhattan. The aim is to relocate asylum seekers to other locations outside of New York City and ease the pressure on the shelter system and constrained budget.

City Hall didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment for this article.

Since the spring of 2022, New York has received more than 130,000 migrants, and more than 61,000 were under its care by October 2023. Mayor Eric Adams has said that housing and caring for the newcomers could cost the city $12 billion over three years.

Asylum seekers mainly come to the U.S. because they are fleeing economic hardship or violence, or a lack of food and medicine in their home countries. Many choose the treacherous Darien Gap as a route to enter the country.

Since January 2022, over 440,000 Venezuelans have crossed the Darién Gap, according to data from Human Rights Watch released in November 2023. They make up the largest group of people migrating, followed by Ecuadorians, Haitians, and people from Africa and Asia.

New York has seen a sharp increase in migrants and asylum seekers, as Governors of Texas, Arizona and Florida sent buses and planes filled with refugees to New York, Chicago, and Washington D.C.

Sanctuary city

Roxana Martinez, 24, a migrant from Margarita, Venezuela, also received an offer to leave. She said that in early August, at the Roosevelt Hotel where she’s staying with her family, social workers asked her if she had extended friends or family in another city.

“They said that if I wanted to move to another city, they would give me tickets for me and my entire family. And I said that I wasn’t really interested,” she explained.

Martinez arrived in the city in May 2023 with her three children, ages 1, 4, and 6, and with her husband, Eudin Alvarado, 28. They started working selling cookware for Royal Prestige, but after a couple of months, Alvarado is now working as a food delivery driver and Martinez is unemployed. Though they don’t have a stable income, they want to stay in New York City.

“I go to meetings with an organization and some attorneys provide us with guidance,” she explained. “They said New York is one of the best places to apply for asylum because there are more chances to win the court case. Also, they said New York has a policy of sanctuary city.”

Adapting to the city and making a living hasn’t been easy. “There are many nights where we come back to the shelter, at 11 p.m. or at midnight, and we haven’t sold anything,” Alvarado said. “We work tirelessly.”

But he is enthusiastic about the possibility of getting better work. “We are looking for a job with a salary, where we can stick to a specific schedule,” he said. In Venezuela, he worked as a police officer and security guard, and also in restaurants and supermarkets.

Like Martinez and Alvarado, many migrants in shelters in the city know that if they want to leave, they could get a free ride.

“Here at the hotel, if you want to go to another city, they give it to you,” said Saier Castro, 48, a migrant from Anzoategui, Venezuela, who has been staying at the Roosevelt Hotel since May.

“Thank God here in New York I am a bricklayer and there are excellent job opportunities,” he said. Castro says that he is making between $600 and $1,000 a week and that he is saving every penny so he can rent his own place. He hopes that once he applies for Temporary Protected Status (TPS) it will be easier to find an apartment. “I’m not here out of pleasure, but out of necessity because I can’t find a place to rent,” Castro said.

Venezuelans who entered the country before July 31 are able to apply for TPS, which provides provisional relief from deportation and a quick route to obtaining a work permit. On the contrary, asylum applicants must wait 150 days once they file their asylum application before they can request work authorization.

The United States regularly grants TPS to people who can’t safely return to their countries of origin due to ongoing armed conflict or natural disasters. Venezuela had already received an 18-month TPS designation in 2021, and it was later extended until September 2022. This protection is provisional and does not lead to a green card or citizenship.

Junior Montilla, 29, has a different reason for wanting to stay in New York City. He has a 7-year-old boy with disabilities who has been receiving therapy, and medical exams with specialists.

Montilla, who arrived in May, works as an Uber Eats driver making between $800 and $1,000 a week. He pays $120 a week to borrow the Uber Eats account from someone else, as he can’t create one until he has legal status and a work permit. He’s hoping to rent an apartment where he can live with his partner, his son, and his 3-year-old daughter.

In the meantime, he says, he has food and a room provided by the city. “A social worker told me we could stay for as long as we needed, we just had to follow the shelter rules and be well-behaved,” Montilla said.

About the author(s)

Gabriela Henriquez is a Venezuelan journalist studying at Columbia Journalism School. She is a fellow at the Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.