With New York City facing a crisis, NewsdayTV's Ken Buffa tells the stories of newly arriving migrants. Credit: Newsday Staff

Julio Zambrano stood in a daze outside the main New York migrant intake center in midtown Manhattan with his two young sons, clutching a printout of Google Maps directions and unsure where to go next.

A white Red Cross blanket draped over the Ecuadorian man’s short-sleeve shirt and the sweatshirts his 6- and 9-year-old sons wore provided scant protection against a cold January wind.

Zambrano, 35, and his sons were in the first hours of their new lives in New York City, and like many of the roughly 170,000 migrants who the city has processed since April 2022, they were confused and uncertain of their future.

Mayor Eric Adams has said the billions the city is spending to house and care for a surge of migrants unlike anything New York has experienced in recent years caused a municipal financial crisis. Political analysts say the continuing flow of migrants across the border is a political crisis for Adams, Gov. Kathy Hochul, President Joe Biden and other elected officials.


  • Amid a surge of migrants at the southern border, Texas has been sending migrants on bus rides to New York, Chicago, Denver and other Democratic-run “sanctuary cities.”
  • New York City this month sued 17 bus companies that have carried migrants from Texas, seeking to recoup what the city says is the $708 million to care for migrants who were on the buses.
  • Mayor Eric Adams and Gov. Kathy Hochul have criticized the federal government for not doing more to help the city with money and with expedited work permits for migrants. Hochul on Tuesday unveiled a budget that allocates $2.4 billion for migrant services.

But at the root, this is a human crisis.

Zambrano and other migrants said they are grateful to escape violence, extreme poverty or both in their home countries, and eager to begin working to support themselves. But they don’t know how, and federal law prohibits many of them from working legally, for at least 180 days for those who apply for asylum. 

Many, desperate for money, work anyway, delivering food on motorbikes or washing dishes.

Some, like María Bayas, of Ecuador, sell candy and sweets in the subway. She carries her toddler son on her back because she has no one to care for him.

The lucky ones find jobs through friends or family. Others wait — and hope.

Zambrano said he applied for asylum after crossing the border in Texas a few days before Christmas and got on a bus to New Jersey, and then a train into Manhattan. Someone paid their fares, but he wasn't sure who.

Texas has been sending migrants on bus rides to New York, Chicago, Denver and other Democratic-run “sanctuary cities.” Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said he wanted to alleviate the impact of migration on border towns and put the blame on the Biden administration for the continuing flow of migrants. Adams has called Abbott’s actions “cruel” and accused him of using the migrants as “political pawns.”

Adams on Dec. 27 ordered bus companies to give the city a 32-hour notice before dropping off migrants, among other restrictions, causing some companies to instead leave migrants in New Jersey.

Adams and Hochul have criticized the federal government for not doing more to help the city with money and with expedited work authorization for migrants. Hochul on Tuesday unveiled a budget that allocates $2.4 billion for migrant services.

Despite the $10.6 billion New York City officials say will be spent on migrants through June 2025, almost all that Zambrano and his sons had when they left the intake center at the former Roosevelt Hotel were plastic bags of crackers, packaged pineapple chunks and other snacks, and a MetroCard with a single $2.90 subway fare.

And those two-page Google Maps instructions to the Chinatown hotel where he and his sons would be staying temporarily.

Julio Zambrano, 9, rides the 6 subway train, headed toward an assigned hotel in Chinatown with his father and brother on Jan. 4. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Journey from Ecuador

After leaving the intake center, Zambrano walked north a block, stopped and looked around. He needed to catch a train but didn’t know where to find it.

A Newsday reporter guided him toward Grand Central Terminal — he had been walking in the wrong direction — and to the 6 subway train.

As Zambrano walked, he related how he and sons César, 6, and Julio, 9, fled their Andean city of Ambato two months earlier.

“In my country, there is a lot of crime, a lot of mafia, a lot of extortion,” he said in Spanish.

He said he owned a small grocery store, and because of that, several men with pistols and knives ordered him to pay them $500, “so they take care of me and not rob me.”

“Because I didn’t have the money, I didn’t give them anything,” Zambrano said.

He went to the police, he said, but they did nothing.

So he sold his store and other possessions and headed north. “The only option was to come here,” he said.

On the subway, passengers stared at Zambrano, his Red Cross blanket, and his sons. Some offered smiles. As one young woman got off the train, she pressed a $50 bill into Zambrano's hand.

After the three exited the subway station and began a long walk through lower Manhattan in the biting cold wind toward the Canal Loft Hotel, a shivering Zambrano clutched his blanket close to his body.

“Papa, I’m very cold,” César said as he crossed his arms tightly against his chest and the younger Julio pulled his own sweatshirt up to his neck.

A few minutes into their walk, a well-dressed man handed the children his gloves and scarf. César put on the too-large gloves and Julio wrapped the scarf around his own head.

A man hands César Zambrano, 6, a pair of gloves as the family walks toward a Chinatown hotel where they would be staying. Credit: Newsday/ J. Conrad Williams

Zambrano said no coats were given out at the Roosevelt. A spokeswoman for Adams, Kayla Mamelak, said the city doesn’t distribute winter clothing directly but works with more than 100 nonprofits that do.

'My boys depend on me'

The 51-room Canal Loft is still used for tourists as well as migrants, receptionist Sofi Nurmahan said after checking in Zambrano, César and Julio. A pile of envelopes, topped by one from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, sat on the counter in front of her.

Zambrano said he was relieved to be out of the cold and into a clean room with a king-size bed with a view of bustling Canal Street, and a shower where he and his sons could finally bathe for the first time since leaving Texas.

Down the hall, past rooms where other migrants lived, was a microwave and chairs where migrants sometimes gathered to talk.

Although appreciative of the hotel room and food, Zambrano said the crackers and pineapple chunks weren’t enough.

Six-year-old César, left, could not wait to eat with his brother, Julio, 9, after arriving at the Canal Loft Hotel in Manhattan's Chinatown on Jan. 4. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

“It’s not for me, but for my sons, so they are fed well,” he said.

A few days later, someone — he doesn't know from where — came by the hotel with additional food, like apple sauce, chicken-noodle soup and boxed milk, but it was still not substantial enough, he said.

Mamelak said all migrants are provided with three nutritious meals a day, from companies with which the city contracts.

Zambrano said he does not want to subsist on government aid. In addition to owning his small store in Ecuador, he was a welder, and wants to find similar work in New York.

“I need to do this on my own,” he said. “I don’t depend on anyone. My boys depend on me.”

His ex-wife — the boys' mother — has been in New York for the past year, with their two daughters, ages 8 and 14, said the older daughter, Jamilet. They live in a hotel on the Upper West Side, Jamilet said as she sat on Zambrano's hotel bed after being reunited with her brothers and father.

Zambrano worries about the ankle bracelet that an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent put on him at the border.

“It’s something with which I won’t be able to find a job, because here they only put them on criminals, bad people,” he said. “I’m not one of those people. For me, I think it’s an obstacle.”

Migrant Julio Zambrano worries the ankle bracelet he got at the border will make it harder to get a job. He and his sons, Julio, 9, and César, 6, arrived at the Canal Loft Hotel in Chinatown on Jan. 4. Credit: Newsday/ J. Conrad Williams

An ICE spokesperson said the agency does not comment on individual cases. An agency statement said monitoring migrants through GPS and other methods helps ensure they attend court hearings and other proceedings, and is used as an alternative to detention.

Zambrano said that, more than anything, he wants his sons to get a good education.

“I want them to be better than me,” he said. “I want them to study, to finish their studies, and do something with their lives.”

But Zambrano said he didn’t know how to enroll them in school. Four days after arriving at the Canal Loft, he hadn’t received any information from the intake center at the Roosevelt or elsewhere, he said.

Mamelak said parents with school-age children are told at the intake center about school enrollment.

Migrants arrive at the former Roosevelt Hotel in midtown Manhattan on Jan. 4. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Down the hall from him at the hotel, Venezuelan migrant Katherin Sevilla, 34, had received information at the Roosevelt about enrolling son Juan Andrés, 6, and daughter Yuleinis, 17, in school. She was handed a leaflet with a phone number to call — but her phone doesn't have cellular service, and the hotel phone is only to call the reception desk.

A few days later, Katherin and Yuleinis walked around the neighborhood searching for a school, found one, went inside and got enrollment information. Juan Andrés started school Tuesday, Katherin Sevilla said. City education officials disagreed whether Yuleinis, who received a secondary-school diploma in Venezuela in July but does not turn 18 until September, should attend high school, Sevilla said. But she and her daughter plan to start English classes at a library, she said.

Katherin Sevilla said she could not make ends meet in Venezuela on her salary of about $5 a month as a baker.

Katherin Sevilla, right, with her son, Juan Andrés, 6, and daughter, Yuleinis, 17, are Venezuelan migrants who arrived in New York City on Jan. 3 after a long and dangerous trip through South and Central America. Credit: Newsday/ Alejandra Villa Loarca

“We went hungry some days,” Yuleinis said.

Daunting journey, but also blessings

Like many other migrants, the Sevilla family faced an arduous trek to the U.S.-Mexican border, traveling most of the few thousand miles, through eight countries, on foot.

The five days in the Darien Gap, more than 60 miles of roadless jungle that straddles Colombia and Panama, was one of the most daunting stretches, Yuleinis recalled. They almost drowned in the strong currents of a river, and Yuleinis was struck on the head by falling rocks.

At the Mexico-Guatemala border, they were robbed of all their money — $500 — by men with machetes and knives, Yuleinis said. A friend in Utah then wired them money, some of which they used to bribe Mexican immigration agents several times to go forward.

But there were acts of kindness as well. In Mexico City, the co-owner of a bakery let the family stay with her for two weeks. She then drove them nearly 800 miles to the border.

“A blessing,” Katherin Sevilla called her.

Katherin Sevilla, right, spends time with her son, Juan Andrés, 6, and daughter, Yuleinis, 17, in the hotel room where they were being housed in lower Manhattan on Jan. 8. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

Like thousands of other migrants, the family asked for asylum when they crossed the border, Katherin Sevilla said. They were given an August court date, she said.

“We don’t know the process, where to go, how to find a lawyer,” she said.

Immigration court backlog up 50%

The city runs four centers that have assisted more than 27,000 people with asylum and other immigration documents, although it’s unclear how many of them have formally filed for asylum or other legal protections, Mamelak said.

Most people who make an initial request for asylum don’t formally apply for it or have their application denied, federal Executive Office for Immigration Review data from 2008 to 2019 shows.

The recent surge of migrants helped lead to a nationwide backlog of more than 3 million cases in immigration courts by November, up 50% in just one year, and to waits of nearly three years for an asylum hearing in New York State, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.

Venezuelan migrant Génesis Rondón, 33, said her brother recently got work papers with the help of someone at the intake center, through the federal Temporary Protected Status program, which allows Venezuelans and people from several other nations to temporarily stay in the country until conditions in their homelands improve.

She hopes to get work papers as well and is willing to do any type of job.

“Sweeping the streets,” she said. “Whatever there is … We need money. When we arrived, we had nothing.”

The two entered New York with their children on Dec. 29. City rules state that families with children can stay only 60 days at a hotel or shelter and must then reapply for a spot, and may be moved elsewhere. Childless adults have a 30-day limit.

Migrants arrive at the former Roosevelt Hotel in midtown Manhattan on Jan. 4. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Alejandro Olivares, 28, had a job lined up and was to start work four days after his arrival at the Roosevelt.

Like generations of immigrants before him, Olivares tapped into a network of compatriots who help each other find jobs and housing.

Olivares came to New York because of Jason Quintero, a friend from their hometown of Valencia, Venezuela.

Quintero, 22, had arrived in New York 15 months before Olivares. Quintero, a barber in Venezuela, found work on his second day in the city by wandering the streets of Jamaica, Queens, where he heard there were a lot of barber shops. Quintero said he got Olivares a job as a construction worker in Brooklyn, as well as space on an air mattress in a friend’s apartment in Flushing, Queens.

María Bayas, 35, ekes out a living on subway trains and platforms by earning $70 to $80 each 10- to 11-hour day selling chewing gum, cookies and suckers from a small plastic purple basket that she hides with a canvas bag when she spots Metropolitan Transportation Authority police.

As Bayas stopped to talk on a Grand Central Terminal subway platform, two small legs with black shoes dangled from the bottom of a light blue blanket on her back. She had wrapped her son, Dariel Jaya, age 17 months, in the blanket so she could carry him on her back as she worked.

Caring for Dariel limits her job options, she said. But the money she earns selling sweets isn’t enough, and she hopes to find a better job.

Asked what her New York dream is, her answer was simple: “I want to stay here to work.”

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