Julio Zambrano heading back from Brooklyn on June 5, where...

Julio Zambrano heading back from Brooklyn on June 5, where he had an appointment about his ankle monitor. Credit: Ed Quinn

Julio Zambrano arrived in Manhattan before dawn on Jan. 4 with his two young sons after a monthslong trek from Ecuador, three of more than 200,000 migrants who have come to New York City in the past two years.

By early this month, Zambrano's future was still as much in limbo as when he arrived. He was awaiting an immigration court hearing to show why he "should not be removed from the United States.” He had moved to Philadelphia, where he was homeless for several days before finding a floor to sleep on. He wanted to return to New York, but he needed the money from the job he had found in Pennsylvania.

Zambrano's priority on June 5 was to get immigration authorities to remove the ankle bracelet that has been weighing on him physically and as a barrier to finding a better job. A man he knew only as Wilson “said I was accepted to take off the ankle bracelet,” Zambrano said in Spanish. He had an appointment that day at a Brooklyn office that turned out to be a WeWork space.

Zambrano arrived in midtown Manhattan on an early morning bus from Philadelphia, the boxy ankle monitor protruding through his left black pant leg, tired but hopeful.

Newsday has been following Zambrano, 35, since he and his sons were processed through a midtown migrant intake center on Jan. 4, to help better understand an influx of migrants transforming New York, provoking sharp debates on how governments should respond, and whether it should be viewed as a humanitarian, fiscal or border crisis — or all three.

Every migrant story is unique. But a tangle of federal immigration rules and laws, changes in New York City regulations and a vow by former President Donald Trump to use the National Guard to deport millions of immigrants if he returns to the White House mean there’s one thing most recent migrants share: uncertainty. 

President Joe Biden on June 4 toughened asylum restrictions, but “Julio came in before these recent changes, so it doesn’t affect him,” said Stephen Yale-Loehr, a professor of immigration law practice at Cornell Law School in Ithaca and co-author of the 22-volume “Immigration Law and Procedure." Many recent migrants, including Zambrano, said they requested asylum at the border, though uncertainty for him remains.

Zambrano and sons César, 6, and Julio, 10, spent their first three months in city-funded hotel rooms in Manhattan and the Bronx before he met a Philadelphia woman online. Their relationship began after the woman, who also is Ecuadorian, saw Zambrano’s Facebook post of an article that included him, and she commented on it, Zambrano said. She said she wanted to help him and his children. He, his sons and a daughter who had been living with his ex-wife in Manhattan moved in with the woman on April 4.

New York City, eager to reduce its migrant population amid billions of dollars in expenses to house, feed and otherwise care for them, paid for their bus tickets, he said. The city paid for nearly 36,000 bus, train and airline tickets out of the city from spring 2022 to March, said Kayla Mamelak, a spokeswoman for Mayor Eric Adams.

The migrant influx has put a strain on New York City's budget and has cost the city $4.88 billion since the spring of 2022, Mamelak said. Many of the migrants crossing the Mexican border into Texas were bused to Democratic-run "sanctuary cities" like New York, Chicago and Denver under orders from Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.

Five days after Zambrano and his kids arrived in Philadelphia, he said, his ex-wife showed up unexpectedly and took the sons and daughter back to New York to live with her and another daughter from their marriage, something that still pains him. She did not respond to requests for comment.

By mid-May, Zambrano said, his relationship with his new girlfriend had soured, and she told him to leave. He then lived in an abandoned house for four days. By that time, he had found work at a fruit-packing plant outside Philadelphia, and a friend of a coworker there let him sleep on the floor of the home where she and her husband live. 

“It’s better than sleeping on the street,” he said.

Zambrano, in an interview from Philadelphia, said he eventually wants to return to New York.

"More than anything, I want to be closer to my kids," he said.

Zambrano is in “removal proceedings,” the official term for the deportation process, his immigration documents show. He was detained in Texas at the border in December but, like many other migrants, can stay in the United States until his case is resolved.

At the border, he said, an immigration agent strapped a large black box with GPS tracking to the bottom of his left leg. Ankle bracelets are used to help ensure migrants attend court hearings and other proceedings, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said in a statement.

Zambrano said while he was still living in Manhattan, a social worker connected him with Wilson, who Zambrano believed could authorize the removal of the ankle monitor. He talked with Wilson in March. In early May, Wilson sent Zambrano a WhatsApp message scheduling the June 5 appointment in Brooklyn.

He wasn’t sure whether Wilson was from ICE or a private organization. He was just relieved he was going to get the ankle bracelet off.

He got on a 6 a.m. bus near the Delaware River in Philadelphia to travel to the Port Authority Bus Terminal and then took the subway to Brooklyn, arriving outside a plain 12-story brick and glass office building that abuts the Manhattan Bridge.

Zambrano still had not decided what he’d do after his ankle bracelet was removed.

Would he return to Philadelphia and his job, to save more money, or would he stay in New York, which is his ultimate goal?

“I need to think,” he said.

He had brought to New York what he could fit in a backpack. Most important were his immigration documents. The only clothes he had with him were what he was wearing.

Zambrano entered the building to the noise of a subway train rumbling by on the bridge. After he called the number in the WhatsApp message, a woman came down to the lobby and escorted him and two women who had been waiting near him to the seventh floor.

The floor housed a WeWork coworking space. He sat at a table in a quiet kitchen area as Wilson took the two women past glass walls into a warren of small offices.

It was a stark contrast to the chaotic scene in late January outside the Manhattan high-rise that houses an ICE field office, where Zambrano went for a short check-in appointment and waited inside lines of metal fences with hundreds of others, some of whom spent hours in the cold before they were allowed in.

After the two women left, Wilson — who would not give his last name — asked Zambrano to accompany him. Asked where he worked, Wilson told Newsday, “Alternatives to Detention, ICE,” which is a program that includes the ankle monitors.

Thirty-five minutes later, Zambrano emerged with a dejected face.

“They wouldn’t take the ankle bracelet off because they saw you both,” he said quietly, referring to a Newsday reporter and photographer. He said Wilson did not explain why, except that Newsday was writing about Zambrano. He said Wilson told him that although some migrants had arrived with an attorney, no one had ever come with a reporter.

Zambrano walked toward the elevator in a daze.

“I’m going to return to Philadelphia,” he said. “I need to work and make money.”

He got on the A train to go back to the same bus terminal where he had arrived two hours earlier.

“For me, this is wasted time,” he said. “And it’s a day without working.”

After buying his $18 Peter Pan Bus Lines ticket at the Port Authority terminal, he walked across the street to a McDonald’s to order a steak, egg and cheese McMuffin and a decaf coffee. He called Wilson.

“How much more time will it be?” he asked him, reminding him, “I’ve been wearing this for five months.”

Zambrano said Wilson wouldn't tell him when the ankle monitor may come off, nor if he’ll have another appointment with ICE before his November immigration court hearing.

ICE, asked about Zambrano's account of what occurred between him and Wilson, said in a statement that it “fully respects the First Amendment right to free speech of all individuals.”

The statement said, “Under the Alternatives to Detention program, release conditions and technology assignments are determined on a case-by-case basis” and “are typically based upon a change in a participant’s circumstances and program compliance.”

ICE declined to respond to questions about Zambrano’s case, and declined to confirm whether Wilson is an ICE employee or contractor.

Immigration agents let Zambrano stay in the country until at least his November court date, but as with many other migrants, his long-term legal status is precarious.

Although he said he requested asylum at the Texas-Mexico border, documents he showed Newsday do not indicate he has made a formal asylum application.

Like most migrants, Zambrano doesn’t have an attorney to give him legal advice and argue his case.

Lawyers are critical in asylum and other immigration hearings, Yale-Loehr said.

“If he has an attorney, his chances of winning are going to be much higher than if he tries to do it on his own,” he said.

Navigating the complex immigration system is difficult, and usually “the documents are only in English," said Natalia Aristizabal, deputy director of the advocacy group Make the Road New York.

“The process is hard, period, and if English is not your main language, I would say it’s almost impossible,” she said.

Nonprofits like Catholic Charities provide lawyers, but there is far more demand than there are attorneys, said Kelly Agnew-Barajas, co-director of immigrant and refugee services for Catholic Charities Community Services of the Archdiocese of New York.

Only 6% of 586 migrants living in New York surveyed in February by Make the Road New York said they had a lawyer to represent them in court.

Which judge Zambrano ends up getting can make a huge difference, Yale-Loehr said.

“Some judges in New York are pretty lenient on asylum cases, and others are very tough,” he said. “As one person called it, it’s refugee roulette.”

Zambrano isn't sure where he'd live if he returns to New York. It’s unclear if he could obtain city-funded housing.

New York City previously had housed migrants indefinitely, with some gaps, but a legal settlement that went into effect May 22 allows the city to impose a 30-day limit on adult migrants without children, barring "extenuating circumstances." Families with children are still guaranteed housing — but Zambrano no longer lives with his children.

The new rule has led to fewer migrants able to find shelter, said Dave Giffen, executive director of the Manhattan-based Coalition for the Homeless, which, along with the Legal Aid Society, reached the settlement with the city. “Where they’re sleeping every night is the question."

Some migrants have been sleeping in encampments, such as under the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, or, like Zambrano, on the floors of people they’ve met, Giffen said.

“Wherever it is, it's not helping them to find stability and get what they need in order to get the services that they should be getting,” he said.

Adams’ chief of staff, Camille Joseph Varlack, said in a statement that the new shelter policy will “reduce the significant strain on our shelter system and enable us to continue providing essential services to all New Yorkers.”

Unlike most other immigrants who have arrived in New York in recent decades, many of those in the current wave didn't have family or friends to support them once they arrived, which is why their lives often are so unsettled and they struggle to find jobs and housing, Agnew-Barajas said.

"They didn't have an established community necessarily here already for them to join into,” she said.

Zambrano left the McDonald's across from the Port Authority terminal an hour before his bus was scheduled to depart. As he stood on the corner of Eighth Avenue and 42nd Street, the ankle bracelet still fastened tightly to his left leg, he asked to be left alone.

He then walked down 42nd Street toward Times Square and disappeared into a crowd of tourists and office workers, his future as unclear as when he first arrived in New York several blocks away in the early morning winter darkness.

Julio Zambrano arrived in Manhattan before dawn on Jan. 4 with his two young sons after a monthslong trek from Ecuador, three of more than 200,000 migrants who have come to New York City in the past two years.

By early this month, Zambrano's future was still as much in limbo as when he arrived. He was awaiting an immigration court hearing to show why he "should not be removed from the United States.” He had moved to Philadelphia, where he was homeless for several days before finding a floor to sleep on. He wanted to return to New York, but he needed the money from the job he had found in Pennsylvania.

Zambrano's priority on June 5 was to get immigration authorities to remove the ankle bracelet that has been weighing on him physically and as a barrier to finding a better job. A man he knew only as Wilson “said I was accepted to take off the ankle bracelet,” Zambrano said in Spanish. He had an appointment that day at a Brooklyn office that turned out to be a WeWork space.

The ankle monitor that migrant Julio Zambrano has been wearing...

The ankle monitor that migrant Julio Zambrano has been wearing since he entered the United States. Credit: Ed Quinn

Zambrano arrived in midtown Manhattan on an early morning bus from Philadelphia, the boxy ankle monitor protruding through his left black pant leg, tired but hopeful.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Many of the more than 200,000 migrants who have arrived in New York City over the past two years live precarious lives, often with unstable housing and uncertainty over their long-term legal status.
  • The city had indefinitely housed migrants, with some gaps, and provided them food, but that guarantee recently ended for those without children. Some migrants sleep on the street or on floors of people they met.
  • Many migrants have requested asylum, but most do not have attorneys, and that makes it much less likely that they will be granted asylum or other legal status, experts said.

Newsday has been following Zambrano, 35, since he and his sons were processed through a midtown migrant intake center on Jan. 4, to help better understand an influx of migrants transforming New York, provoking sharp debates on how governments should respond, and whether it should be viewed as a humanitarian, fiscal or border crisis — or all three.

Every migrant story is unique. But a tangle of federal immigration rules and laws, changes in New York City regulations and a vow by former President Donald Trump to use the National Guard to deport millions of immigrants if he returns to the White House mean there’s one thing most recent migrants share: uncertainty. 

President Joe Biden on June 4 toughened asylum restrictions, but “Julio came in before these recent changes, so it doesn’t affect him,” said Stephen Yale-Loehr, a professor of immigration law practice at Cornell Law School in Ithaca and co-author of the 22-volume “Immigration Law and Procedure." Many recent migrants, including Zambrano, said they requested asylum at the border, though uncertainty for him remains.

Zambrano and sons César, 6, and Julio, 10, spent their first three months in city-funded hotel rooms in Manhattan and the Bronx before he met a Philadelphia woman online. Their relationship began after the woman, who also is Ecuadorian, saw Zambrano’s Facebook post of an article that included him, and she commented on it, Zambrano said. She said she wanted to help him and his children. He, his sons and a daughter who had been living with his ex-wife in Manhattan moved in with the woman on April 4.

New York City, eager to reduce its migrant population amid billions of dollars in expenses to house, feed and otherwise care for them, paid for their bus tickets, he said. The city paid for nearly 36,000 bus, train and airline tickets out of the city from spring 2022 to March, said Kayla Mamelak, a spokeswoman for Mayor Eric Adams.

Julio Zambrano, with his two sons César, 6, and Julio,...

Julio Zambrano, with his two sons César, 6, and Julio, then 9, looking for their hotel on Jan. 4. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

The migrant influx has put a strain on New York City's budget and has cost the city $4.88 billion since the spring of 2022, Mamelak said. Many of the migrants crossing the Mexican border into Texas were bused to Democratic-run "sanctuary cities" like New York, Chicago and Denver under orders from Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.

Five days after Zambrano and his kids arrived in Philadelphia, he said, his ex-wife showed up unexpectedly and took the sons and daughter back to New York to live with her and another daughter from their marriage, something that still pains him. She did not respond to requests for comment.

By mid-May, Zambrano said, his relationship with his new girlfriend had soured, and she told him to leave. He then lived in an abandoned house for four days. By that time, he had found work at a fruit-packing plant outside Philadelphia, and a friend of a coworker there let him sleep on the floor of the home where she and her husband live. 

“It’s better than sleeping on the street,” he said.

Zambrano, in an interview from Philadelphia, said he eventually wants to return to New York.

"More than anything, I want to be closer to my kids," he said.

Julio Zambrano, with his sons on the morning of Jan. 31, says he has no regrets. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

From chaotic high-rise to WeWork kitchen

Zambrano is in “removal proceedings,” the official term for the deportation process, his immigration documents show. He was detained in Texas at the border in December but, like many other migrants, can stay in the United States until his case is resolved.

At the border, he said, an immigration agent strapped a large black box with GPS tracking to the bottom of his left leg. Ankle bracelets are used to help ensure migrants attend court hearings and other proceedings, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said in a statement.

Zambrano said while he was still living in Manhattan, a social worker connected him with Wilson, who Zambrano believed could authorize the removal of the ankle monitor. He talked with Wilson in March. In early May, Wilson sent Zambrano a WhatsApp message scheduling the June 5 appointment in Brooklyn.

He wasn’t sure whether Wilson was from ICE or a private organization. He was just relieved he was going to get the ankle bracelet off.

He got on a 6 a.m. bus near the Delaware River in Philadelphia to travel to the Port Authority Bus Terminal and then took the subway to Brooklyn, arriving outside a plain 12-story brick and glass office building that abuts the Manhattan Bridge.

Zambrano still had not decided what he’d do after his ankle bracelet was removed.

Would he return to Philadelphia and his job, to save more money, or would he stay in New York, which is his ultimate goal?

“I need to think,” he said.

He had brought to New York what he could fit in a backpack. Most important were his immigration documents. The only clothes he had with him were what he was wearing.

Zambrano entered the building to the noise of a subway train rumbling by on the bridge. After he called the number in the WhatsApp message, a woman came down to the lobby and escorted him and two women who had been waiting near him to the seventh floor.

The floor housed a WeWork coworking space. He sat at a table in a quiet kitchen area as Wilson took the two women past glass walls into a warren of small offices.

It was a stark contrast to the chaotic scene in late January outside the Manhattan high-rise that houses an ICE field office, where Zambrano went for a short check-in appointment and waited inside lines of metal fences with hundreds of others, some of whom spent hours in the cold before they were allowed in.

After the two women left, Wilson — who would not give his last name — asked Zambrano to accompany him. Asked where he worked, Wilson told Newsday, “Alternatives to Detention, ICE,” which is a program that includes the ankle monitors.

Dejection

Thirty-five minutes later, Zambrano emerged with a dejected face.

“They wouldn’t take the ankle bracelet off because they saw you both,” he said quietly, referring to a Newsday reporter and photographer. He said Wilson did not explain why, except that Newsday was writing about Zambrano. He said Wilson told him that although some migrants had arrived with an attorney, no one had ever come with a reporter.

Zambrano walked toward the elevator in a daze.

“I’m going to return to Philadelphia,” he said. “I need to work and make money.”

He got on the A train to go back to the same bus terminal where he had arrived two hours earlier.

“For me, this is wasted time,” he said. “And it’s a day without working.”

After buying his $18 Peter Pan Bus Lines ticket at the Port Authority terminal, he walked across the street to a McDonald’s to order a steak, egg and cheese McMuffin and a decaf coffee. He called Wilson.

“How much more time will it be?” he asked him, reminding him, “I’ve been wearing this for five months.”

Julio Zambrano in the lobby of the Brooklyn building where...

Julio Zambrano in the lobby of the Brooklyn building where he had an appointment. Credit: Ed Quinn

Zambrano said Wilson wouldn't tell him when the ankle monitor may come off, nor if he’ll have another appointment with ICE before his November immigration court hearing.

ICE, asked about Zambrano's account of what occurred between him and Wilson, said in a statement that it “fully respects the First Amendment right to free speech of all individuals.”

The statement said, “Under the Alternatives to Detention program, release conditions and technology assignments are determined on a case-by-case basis” and “are typically based upon a change in a participant’s circumstances and program compliance.”

ICE declined to respond to questions about Zambrano’s case, and declined to confirm whether Wilson is an ICE employee or contractor.

Experts assess Zambrano's future

Immigration agents let Zambrano stay in the country until at least his November court date, but as with many other migrants, his long-term legal status is precarious.

Although he said he requested asylum at the Texas-Mexico border, documents he showed Newsday do not indicate he has made a formal asylum application.

Like most migrants, Zambrano doesn’t have an attorney to give him legal advice and argue his case.

Lawyers are critical in asylum and other immigration hearings, Yale-Loehr said.

“If he has an attorney, his chances of winning are going to be much higher than if he tries to do it on his own,” he said.

Natalia Aristizabal, deputy director of Make the Road New York,...

Natalia Aristizabal, deputy director of Make the Road New York, which found only 6% of migrants had a lawyer to represent them. Credit: Glo Choi

Navigating the complex immigration system is difficult, and usually “the documents are only in English," said Natalia Aristizabal, deputy director of the advocacy group Make the Road New York.

“The process is hard, period, and if English is not your main language, I would say it’s almost impossible,” she said.

Nonprofits like Catholic Charities provide lawyers, but there is far more demand than there are attorneys, said Kelly Agnew-Barajas, co-director of immigrant and refugee services for Catholic Charities Community Services of the Archdiocese of New York.

Only 6% of 586 migrants living in New York surveyed in February by Make the Road New York said they had a lawyer to represent them in court.

Which judge Zambrano ends up getting can make a huge difference, Yale-Loehr said.

“Some judges in New York are pretty lenient on asylum cases, and others are very tough,” he said. “As one person called it, it’s refugee roulette.”

Zambrano isn't sure where he'd live if he returns to New York. It’s unclear if he could obtain city-funded housing.

New York City previously had housed migrants indefinitely, with some gaps, but a legal settlement that went into effect May 22 allows the city to impose a 30-day limit on adult migrants without children, barring "extenuating circumstances." Families with children are still guaranteed housing — but Zambrano no longer lives with his children.

The new rule has led to fewer migrants able to find shelter, said Dave Giffen, executive director of the Manhattan-based Coalition for the Homeless, which, along with the Legal Aid Society, reached the settlement with the city. “Where they’re sleeping every night is the question."

Coalition for the Homeless executive director Dave Giffen looks over...

Coalition for the Homeless executive director Dave Giffen looks over data involving migrants on June 12. Credit: Olivia Falcigno

Some migrants have been sleeping in encampments, such as under the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, or, like Zambrano, on the floors of people they’ve met, Giffen said.

“Wherever it is, it's not helping them to find stability and get what they need in order to get the services that they should be getting,” he said.

Adams’ chief of staff, Camille Joseph Varlack, said in a statement that the new shelter policy will “reduce the significant strain on our shelter system and enable us to continue providing essential services to all New Yorkers.”

Unlike most other immigrants who have arrived in New York in recent decades, many of those in the current wave didn't have family or friends to support them once they arrived, which is why their lives often are so unsettled and they struggle to find jobs and housing, Agnew-Barajas said.

"They didn't have an established community necessarily here already for them to join into,” she said.

Zambrano left the McDonald's across from the Port Authority terminal an hour before his bus was scheduled to depart. As he stood on the corner of Eighth Avenue and 42nd Street, the ankle bracelet still fastened tightly to his left leg, he asked to be left alone.

He then walked down 42nd Street toward Times Square and disappeared into a crowd of tourists and office workers, his future as unclear as when he first arrived in New York several blocks away in the early morning winter darkness.

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