Migrants arrive at the Roosevelt Hotel in Manhattan earlier this...

Migrants arrive at the Roosevelt Hotel in Manhattan earlier this month. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

On one U.S. government application, the Venezuelan immigrant said she's fleeing persecution and has no choice but to stay in the United States.

But on a separate form, she indicated she had resettled in Brazil before arriving in the U.S. — which would make her subject to deportation.

The woman had gotten help with her forms from a nonprofit and later noticed the inconsistency, said Paul Fleck, whose group, Immigration Law & Justice New York, assisted the woman last month in harmonizing the forms to maximize her chances of being able to stay in the country. 

“If she had not caught it herself, that could have jeopardized her asylum application,” Fleck said, adding: “She asked us if it's a problem, and we said, 'Yeah, it's a problem.' ”

Her experience illustrates the confusion and chaos in every node of a system coping with more than 170,000 foreign migrants who have been processed by New York City since spring 2022.

Nonprofits are overwhelmed by the influx. Lawyers are too expensive or too busy to help. Schools in New York City have been inundated. That has left migrants to navigate multiple bureaucracies, often without help and sometimes risking failure. And municipal coffers are being stretched, with Mayor Eric Adams cutting into the city’s budget, citing the migrant crisis, and warning of an uncertain future. The city, which has opened over 200 sites to house migrants, is running out of room to shelter them, Adams said.

After treacherous journeys lasting months or longer that can involve smugglers, bandits and dangerous terrain spanning continents, migrants face bureaucratic hurdles, including a sea of U.S. government forms, some coming with even more fees, and each key to trying to stay, live and work legally in the country.

There’s the I-589 asylum form, which must be completed within a year of crossing the border or a migrant forfeits the right to claim asylum. Migrants need to obtain a form called the I-94 to show a record of arrival to the U.S. And seeking to be able to work via the I-765 can’t be done until at least 150 days after the I-589.

For migrants such as those from Venezuela who are eligible for Temporary Protected Status under an expansion in September by the Biden administration, there is yet another form: the I-821. There’s currently a 14-month processing time.

The president extended the status under a 1990 humanitarian program established by Congress for migrants whose selected homelands are considered to be unsafe. The expansion exempts qualifying Venezuelans who crossed by July 31, 2023, from deportation and unlocks a legal right to work. According to statistics released by the city at the time, Venezuelans are by far the biggest nationality coming in the crisis — representing 41% of the total. The next-biggest nationality are Ecuadorians, at 18%.

The immigration forms are available online, but are complicated and in English, and can require proof a migrant may not have handy.

While application fees can be waived, a waiver needs to be sought, requiring still another form: the I-912, and then the whole application cannot be done online but only on paper.

Fleck, whose organization is affiliated with the United Methodist Church and has an office in Hicksville, said hiring a private immigration attorney is beyond the reach of almost all the migrants, and demand is sky-high.

“It’s almost impossible to find an attorney who can take their case, certainly at a low-bono or a pro-bono basis,” Fleck said. And, Fleck added: “The legal services practitioners are simply tapped out in terms of their ability to take on more cases.”

Hiring a lawyer can cost $10,000 or $15,000, with no guarantee of success. A “low-bono” attorney could charge $5,000 or $7,000.

Even if a migrant does manage to find help, the advice given isn’t always legally sound.

“Some of these lay-driven services sometimes do a disservice to the client,” Fleck said. “Everyone’s heart’s in the right place, everyone wants to do a good job and do right by these migrants, but that doesn’t equate to always doing it with the level of expertise that’s necessary.”

The influx of migrants has not let up. They are coming not just by charter bus — sent under a program spearheaded by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to transport migrants to so-called “sanctuary” cities — but by air and even from other U.S. states, according to the Adams administration. When New York City began restricting when and how buses could drop off migrants, the bus companies began stopping in New Jersey, with their passengers taking trains into the city.

Adams repeatedly has chided the Biden administration for failing to send more money to cover the cost of the crisis, and has sought more from the state as well. The White House reportedly has blamed the city's decades-old — and only-in-the-nation — right to shelter, which the city is seeking to restrict. 

Earlier this month, the city also sued 17 of the charter bus companies, seeking to recoup $708 million in costs incurred from sheltering and feeding the migrants. 

New York City last year established the Asylum Seeker Application Help Center program to advise migrants. That help is given to those who are currently in city-provided shelters and hotels. As of Tuesday, there were about 68,000 migrants being housed by the city.

But, when asked several times over the past few weeks, spokespeople for the Adams administration would not provide the phone number, address or website where a migrant can seek help. The details are not readily publicized. 

“Asylum seekers who have come through our care and then left are typically stabilized. Meaning, they got the help they needed and are self sufficient,” Adams spokeswoman Kayla Mamelak wrote in an email. She said that the city has helped submit 23,537 applications as of last month — 7,969 asylum applications, 9,448 work authorizations and 6,120 Temporary Protected Status applications.

And once a migrant leaves — and a policy implemented last year pushes migrants out of shelters and hotels after one or two months — accessing help becomes even more difficult.

Newsday reported last year that most migrants are unlikely to formally seek asylum, and due to the high bar long set in law for achieving asylum, those who do apply are nevertheless unlikely to be granted it. Being poor and wanting a better life isn’t a basis for asylum. An unknown number will stay in the country illegally anyway.

Andrew Arthur, a fellow with the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for stricter immigration enforcement, said so many migrants have come during the current crisis that private, nonprofit and government systems are being pushed beyond capacity.

“When you’re talking about that scale, everything breaks down,” he said.

Across the state, nonprofits seeking to help migrants face a nonstop torrent. The groups have finite resources, said Renold Julien, executive director of the organization Konbit Neg Lakay, which is in Rockland County and predominantly focuses on helping Haitian immigrants get social services and learn English.

“There is no money at all,” Julien said, especially outside of New York City.

Mary-Ann Ojeda, executive director of the Freeport-based nonprofit the Solidarity Group, said that some of the city’s migrants have moved out to Long Island, following family ties. But they find little help out in the suburbs, she said.

While local schools are legally required to enroll any child living in the geographic confines of a district — regardless of immigration status, homelessness or both — there are still hurdles.

Among the ways a family can prove residency is through a utility bill, but migrants typically pay a flat fee to rent a room, “and they don’t have cable, they don’t have National Grid, they don’t have any utility bills,” Ojeda said.

For children whose families lack a utility bill, residency can be established via an affidavit signed by the landlord. But landlords often hesitate to sign.

“The landlord, oftentimes, because they’re renting out these units, or these makeshift rooms, illegally, they refuse to sign off on the residency affidavit,” Ojeda said.

That leads to tension with landlords, who will sometimes seek to force the migrants to move out or otherwise make life difficult for the tenant. While nonprofits can step in to help and get children enrolled, she said, “The one at the end of the day who is suffering is the child, because they’re not able to attend school for days or weeks, almost, until this matter’s resolved.”

To reduce the city government's room-and-board costs — projected to top $10 billion by the next fiscal year — the Adams administration has begun evicting migrants after 30 days (for individuals) and 60 days (for families), forcing them to begin the cumbersome bureaucratic process anew.

Adams said on Tuesday that the program has succeeded in “getting 60% of people out of our care.” But the policy has made it harder for migrant school children to be stably educated and to adjust to new lives in the city, said Amy Leipziger of the Free to Be Youth Project of lower Manhattan.

“Families are being kicked out of a shelter and then have to re-enroll to get back into the shelter system,” said Leipziger, who is also a lawyer. “A family might be moved to a shelter in a completely different borough from where they already are. So, say you’re a kid in Brooklyn, and you’re attending a school in Brooklyn, and then your family has to move to a shelter up in the Bronx, you’re now asking that family to then make the trek from the Bronx to Brooklyn.”

Beyond education, Leipziger said, immigration advocates have not in recent memory seen such a confluence of difficulties all at once with such intensity.

Take, for example, the need to have a stable mailing address, required when filling out immigration paperwork and corresponding with the government about the outcomes.

“You're talking about a system that requires a lot of infrastructure and oversight and accountability and communication,” Leipziger said, “and when you lose even one of those pieces you're gonna throw a wrench into the works.”

On one U.S. government application, the Venezuelan immigrant said she's fleeing persecution and has no choice but to stay in the United States.

But on a separate form, she indicated she had resettled in Brazil before arriving in the U.S. — which would make her subject to deportation.

The woman had gotten help with her forms from a nonprofit and later noticed the inconsistency, said Paul Fleck, whose group, Immigration Law & Justice New York, assisted the woman last month in harmonizing the forms to maximize her chances of being able to stay in the country. 

“If she had not caught it herself, that could have jeopardized her asylum application,” Fleck said, adding: “She asked us if it's a problem, and we said, 'Yeah, it's a problem.' ”

WHAT TO KNOW

  • The migrant system is being pushed to the brink and can’t handle the influx, say advocates on all sides of the crisis.
  • Schools, city budgets, nonprofits and lawyers are all overwhelmed by demand for help.
  • Trying to stay, live and work in the U.S. legally means filling out pages and pages of forms.

Her experience illustrates the confusion and chaos in every node of a system coping with more than 170,000 foreign migrants who have been processed by New York City since spring 2022.

Nonprofits are overwhelmed by the influx. Lawyers are too expensive or too busy to help. Schools in New York City have been inundated. That has left migrants to navigate multiple bureaucracies, often without help and sometimes risking failure. And municipal coffers are being stretched, with Mayor Eric Adams cutting into the city’s budget, citing the migrant crisis, and warning of an uncertain future. The city, which has opened over 200 sites to house migrants, is running out of room to shelter them, Adams said.

After treacherous journeys lasting months or longer that can involve smugglers, bandits and dangerous terrain spanning continents, migrants face bureaucratic hurdles, including a sea of U.S. government forms, some coming with even more fees, and each key to trying to stay, live and work legally in the country.

There’s the I-589 asylum form, which must be completed within a year of crossing the border or a migrant forfeits the right to claim asylum. Migrants need to obtain a form called the I-94 to show a record of arrival to the U.S. And seeking to be able to work via the I-765 can’t be done until at least 150 days after the I-589.

For migrants such as those from Venezuela who are eligible for Temporary Protected Status under an expansion in September by the Biden administration, there is yet another form: the I-821. There’s currently a 14-month processing time.

The president extended the status under a 1990 humanitarian program established by Congress for migrants whose selected homelands are considered to be unsafe. The expansion exempts qualifying Venezuelans who crossed by July 31, 2023, from deportation and unlocks a legal right to work. According to statistics released by the city at the time, Venezuelans are by far the biggest nationality coming in the crisis — representing 41% of the total. The next-biggest nationality are Ecuadorians, at 18%.

The immigration forms are available online, but are complicated and in English, and can require proof a migrant may not have handy.

While application fees can be waived, a waiver needs to be sought, requiring still another form: the I-912, and then the whole application cannot be done online but only on paper.

Fleck, whose organization is affiliated with the United Methodist Church and has an office in Hicksville, said hiring a private immigration attorney is beyond the reach of almost all the migrants, and demand is sky-high.

“It’s almost impossible to find an attorney who can take their case, certainly at a low-bono or a pro-bono basis,” Fleck said. And, Fleck added: “The legal services practitioners are simply tapped out in terms of their ability to take on more cases.”

Hiring a lawyer can cost $10,000 or $15,000, with no guarantee of success. A “low-bono” attorney could charge $5,000 or $7,000.

Even if a migrant does manage to find help, the advice given isn’t always legally sound.

“Some of these lay-driven services sometimes do a disservice to the client,” Fleck said. “Everyone’s heart’s in the right place, everyone wants to do a good job and do right by these migrants, but that doesn’t equate to always doing it with the level of expertise that’s necessary.”

The influx of migrants has not let up. They are coming not just by charter bus — sent under a program spearheaded by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to transport migrants to so-called “sanctuary” cities — but by air and even from other U.S. states, according to the Adams administration. When New York City began restricting when and how buses could drop off migrants, the bus companies began stopping in New Jersey, with their passengers taking trains into the city.

Adams repeatedly has chided the Biden administration for failing to send more money to cover the cost of the crisis, and has sought more from the state as well. The White House reportedly has blamed the city's decades-old — and only-in-the-nation — right to shelter, which the city is seeking to restrict. 

Earlier this month, the city also sued 17 of the charter bus companies, seeking to recoup $708 million in costs incurred from sheltering and feeding the migrants. 

Help center in NYC has limitations

New York City last year established the Asylum Seeker Application Help Center program to advise migrants. That help is given to those who are currently in city-provided shelters and hotels. As of Tuesday, there were about 68,000 migrants being housed by the city.

But, when asked several times over the past few weeks, spokespeople for the Adams administration would not provide the phone number, address or website where a migrant can seek help. The details are not readily publicized. 

“Asylum seekers who have come through our care and then left are typically stabilized. Meaning, they got the help they needed and are self sufficient,” Adams spokeswoman Kayla Mamelak wrote in an email. She said that the city has helped submit 23,537 applications as of last month — 7,969 asylum applications, 9,448 work authorizations and 6,120 Temporary Protected Status applications.

And once a migrant leaves — and a policy implemented last year pushes migrants out of shelters and hotels after one or two months — accessing help becomes even more difficult.

Newsday reported last year that most migrants are unlikely to formally seek asylum, and due to the high bar long set in law for achieving asylum, those who do apply are nevertheless unlikely to be granted it. Being poor and wanting a better life isn’t a basis for asylum. An unknown number will stay in the country illegally anyway.

Andrew Arthur, a fellow with the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for stricter immigration enforcement, said so many migrants have come during the current crisis that private, nonprofit and government systems are being pushed beyond capacity.

“When you’re talking about that scale, everything breaks down,” he said.

Across the state, nonprofits seeking to help migrants face a nonstop torrent. The groups have finite resources, said Renold Julien, executive director of the organization Konbit Neg Lakay, which is in Rockland County and predominantly focuses on helping Haitian immigrants get social services and learn English.

“There is no money at all,” Julien said, especially outside of New York City.

Mary-Ann Ojeda, executive director of the Freeport-based nonprofit the Solidarity Group, said that some of the city’s migrants have moved out to Long Island, following family ties. But they find little help out in the suburbs, she said.

Proving residency can be difficult

While local schools are legally required to enroll any child living in the geographic confines of a district — regardless of immigration status, homelessness or both — there are still hurdles.

Among the ways a family can prove residency is through a utility bill, but migrants typically pay a flat fee to rent a room, “and they don’t have cable, they don’t have National Grid, they don’t have any utility bills,” Ojeda said.

For children whose families lack a utility bill, residency can be established via an affidavit signed by the landlord. But landlords often hesitate to sign.

“The landlord, oftentimes, because they’re renting out these units, or these makeshift rooms, illegally, they refuse to sign off on the residency affidavit,” Ojeda said.

That leads to tension with landlords, who will sometimes seek to force the migrants to move out or otherwise make life difficult for the tenant. While nonprofits can step in to help and get children enrolled, she said, “The one at the end of the day who is suffering is the child, because they’re not able to attend school for days or weeks, almost, until this matter’s resolved.”

To reduce the city government's room-and-board costs — projected to top $10 billion by the next fiscal year — the Adams administration has begun evicting migrants after 30 days (for individuals) and 60 days (for families), forcing them to begin the cumbersome bureaucratic process anew.

Adams said on Tuesday that the program has succeeded in “getting 60% of people out of our care.” But the policy has made it harder for migrant school children to be stably educated and to adjust to new lives in the city, said Amy Leipziger of the Free to Be Youth Project of lower Manhattan.

“Families are being kicked out of a shelter and then have to re-enroll to get back into the shelter system,” said Leipziger, who is also a lawyer. “A family might be moved to a shelter in a completely different borough from where they already are. So, say you’re a kid in Brooklyn, and you’re attending a school in Brooklyn, and then your family has to move to a shelter up in the Bronx, you’re now asking that family to then make the trek from the Bronx to Brooklyn.”

Beyond education, Leipziger said, immigration advocates have not in recent memory seen such a confluence of difficulties all at once with such intensity.

Take, for example, the need to have a stable mailing address, required when filling out immigration paperwork and corresponding with the government about the outcomes.

“You're talking about a system that requires a lot of infrastructure and oversight and accountability and communication,” Leipziger said, “and when you lose even one of those pieces you're gonna throw a wrench into the works.”

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