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‘We’re out of good options’: In New York City, an overwhelming migration surge is a warning for Massachusetts

David Pujupata, 20, rested his chin against Janet Maji, 20, and wrapped her in a blanket as the couple waited for their ICE check-in at Federal Plaza. Maji arrived to the US 11 months ago and gave birth six months ago. Pujupata arrived to the US in July with the couple's 4-year-old daughter. Federal officials have been unable to keep up with growing caseloads after more than 100,000 migrants reached New York City since last spring.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

NEW YORK CITY — On the outer edge of the city, nearly an hour’s drive from Times Square, three white tents sit on the grounds of a century-old psychiatric hospital, packed with 1,000 cots lined up head-to-toe.

The tents, which became the makeshift home of hundreds of migrants this week, are the newest outposts in a sprawling and sometimes ramshackle shelter system the city has hastily expanded to house 58,000 migrants who have reached New York since last spring.

The accommodations have ranged from luxury Manhattan hotels the city has rented out in their entirety to partially constructed buildings with, in at least one case, no functioning showers. The costs to the city have soared — more than $1.7 billion so far, according to City Hall. And the strain of sheltering and feeding tens of thousands of people prohibited by law from working to support themselves (because they are unable to secure work permits) has frayed political alliances and provoked denunciations that living conditions for migrants have deteriorated to unacceptable levels.

“We’re out of good options, we’re out of even OK options,” Fabien Levy, a top deputy to New York Mayor Eric Adams, told reporters Tuesday, hours before the tents at the Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Queens were opened to their first residents. “These are the only options left.”

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Dennis Chicaiza, 22, (right) tried to figure out directions to the shelter that he and Daniela Chasilvisa, 19, (center) had been assigned to as she carried the couple's 7-month-old daughter in her arms. The Ecuadorian couple had arrived in New York City two days prior. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

The unfolding emergency — city officials have called it a humanitarian crisis — serves as a warning for Massachusetts, illustrating what can happen when government’s ability to cope with a migrant influx is overwhelmed by sheer numbers. Something similar is already happening here. In the final months of the Charlie Baker administration, and continuing under Governor Maura Healey, Massachusetts officials have scrambled every week to house a steady flow of migrant families reaching the state. The state has contracted with hotels, rented apartment buildings, converted unused dorms, and, on at least two occasions, temporarily sent migrants to a military base when there was nowhere else to put them.

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The costs have mounted: climbing recently to $45 million per month to house, feed, and provide some legal services for nearly 6,000 migrant or homeless families.

Massachusetts has only avoided New York’s predicament because the numbers reaching the state — tens of thousands in the past two years, from Haiti, Central America, and Brazil — are not nearly as daunting as the more than 100,000 estimated to have reached New York City.

But that could change.

The reasons migrants articulate for traveling to New York City and Massachusetts are similar, and word is spreading that New York is full, meaning more may travel here or elsewhere. More migrants arrive every day, despite a recent slowdown of illegal crossings of the southern border — by far the most common migration route into the US. Both places are immigration magnets due to their unusual “right to shelter” policies that compel officials to house people in need. And they are both known among migrants for their generally liberal, immigration-friendly politics and their large, diverse immigrant communities.

Mohammed Abdoullah, a migrant from Mauritania, had his hair cut by Soufiane Khainauche, a migrant from Morocco, across the street from the shelter where he is staying in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Mohammed Lemine, from Mauritania, said he had been staying with a cousin in Kentucky after crossing the southern US border without authorization in July but under-the-table jobs were scarce. He decided to try his luck in New York, he said, after learning the city guaranteed shelter and because he believed Democrat-run locales were more welcoming to migrants.

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But the move has not panned out as he had hoped, he said. He is unemployed and living, alongside more than 300 other men, in an unfinished Brooklyn building filled with cots. “I need a job,” he said in French, but he predicts it will take months to obtain a work permit from the federal government, if he is ever able to do so.

Buses arrive from a red state and a blue city

Aid workers mark the beginning of the current migration influx as Aug. 5 of 2022. That’s when a bus chartered by the office of Texas Governor Greg Abbott dropped off more than 50 migrants at a terminal in midtown Manhattan.

“New York City is the ideal destination for these migrants, who can receive the abundance of city services and housing that Mayor Eric Adams has boasted about within the sanctuary city,” Abbott said at the time. The stunt was similar to Ron DeSantis’ gambit of flying nearly 50 migrants to Martha’s Vineyard last September in an attempt to bring the challenges faced by border states to the backyards of northern liberals.

Migrants who had waited in line throughout the night outside of Federal Plaza for a US Immigration and Customs Enforcement check-in appointment took shelter underneath sheets of plastic and cardboard as rain fell before sunrise in Manhattan. Some people were in line mistakenly; they had immigration court hearings and were redirected after they showed their paperwork to an official. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

But there was a key difference in New York: the buses kept coming.

After the first bus’s surprise arrival on Aug. 5, buses from Texas began arriving daily and then many times every day, according to Murad Awawdeh, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, which has often sent workers to greet and orient migrants as they disembarked. Abbott stopped sending buses in the winter and then resumed in the spring but at a slower pace.

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“It was a nefarious political stunt with no care for what [the migrants] would receive on the other end,” said Adolfo Abreu, the housing campaigns director at VOCAL-NY, a nonprofit, referring to the Abbott-dispatched buses.

Perhaps because of Abbott’s political objectives, his busing program attracted a lot of attention. But Abbott wasn’t responsible for sending the majority of migrants to New York City. He wasn’t even responsible for the majority of buses.

The city of El Paso, led by a Democratic mayor, bused 9,870 migrants to New York City between late August and mid-October, approximately triple the number sent by Abbott over a similar period, according to figures provided to the Globe last year by El Paso and Texas officials. (The El Paso busing program was a joint operation by the city and El Paso county.)

An El Paso spokesperson said migrants were only sent to New York if they said they wanted to go there and that the city and county provided food, water, first aid, and temporary shelter before the migrants’ departure from Texas. Thousands more stay on in Texas.

Many more migrants reached New York with bus or plane tickets purchased by nonprofits or churches in Texas and Arizona.

Three year-old Soemi ate strawberries while her mother, Alicia Tilmea, a migrant from Ecuador who arrived in New York City eight months ago, sold fruit cups inside Union Square Station. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

In New York, the shuffling of migrants from one place to another has continued. As the city’s shelters overflowed, nonprofit workers began asking migrants disembarking buses if they’d like to travel elsewhere. If they said yes, the workers would buy them new tickets.

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The Adams administration has since adopted this practice as an official city initiative, which it calls “reticketing.” It has sent migrants back to Texas, north to Massachusetts, and even back to their home countries in Latin America.

The city has also tried sending migrants to other parts of New York state, but with limited success. Approximately half of New York counties have issued emergency orders barring local hotels from serving as shelters for migrants.

Which leaves Adams in a bind. Unlike Massachusetts’ right-to-shelter law, which applies statewide, New York’s version of the policy is only applicable within the city limits. Practically speaking, that means housing migrants falls to City Hall, whereas in Massachusetts the state government takes the lead. Another difference: The Massachusetts law covers only families and pregnant women. The New York policy applies to all.

A single migrant man in New York City has a right to shelter. The same man in Massachusetts does not.

Fissures emerge between Democrats

As migrants have continued streaming into New York City, at an average rate of more than 2,000 people per week, tensions have flared between the city and state governments. Meanwhile, some New Yorkers, including some liberals, have opposed the city’s shelter plans.

The leader of a youth soccer league, Vilda Mayuga, circulated a petition against a city plan to build tent shelters on soccer fields, saying that sheltering migrants should not come at a cost to the city’s children. The protest likely would have gone unnoticed except that Mayuga is a city hall official — the commissioner of the city’s Department of Consumer and Worker Protection — and the petition targeted the policies of her boss, Mayor Adams. She backtracked after The City, a New York news outlet, reported on the matter.

In a statement to the Globe, Mayuga said, “Anyone who knows me or my work knows the passion I bring to supporting and advocating for immigrants and it breaks my heart that, with an email, I sent a very different message.”

On Aug. 6 in Brooklyn, two rallies — one in the morning, the other in the afternoon — opposed a city plan to turn a gym into a migrant shelter. The morning rally was organized by a Republican City Council candidate, Ying Tan. More surprising: the afternoon rally, also protesting the shelter, was led by Tan’s Democratic opponent Susan Zhuang, perhaps illustrating how the migration influx has shifted conventional political allegiances. (Zhuang, who declined to comment, said at the rally that she wanted the gym to be available to locals, according to a report in The City.)

At the upper reaches of New York government, tensions are also apparent.

From left, Jeramel, 8, teased 12 year-old Ronny as the Ecuadorian migrants ate snacks together on the steps of the Red Cross where Dios Mari Feliz, 53, had come to seek legal assistance at an Asylum Application Help Center on West 49th Street. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

On Aug. 9, the Adams administration called on Governor Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, to implement “a statewide relocation program” that would distribute migrants to New York counties in proportion to their share of the state population.

On Tuesday, a lawyer for Hochul responded with a scathing letter criticizing the Adams administration’s response to the migration surge, alleging that City Hall had been slow to act as the surge accelerated last summer and that the Adams administration had failed to take advantage of supports the state was already offering, including funding to resettle 1,250 families. (The New York Times first reported on the letter.)

The Hochul administration has allocated $1 billion this fiscal year to reimburse the city for shelter costs.

Adams vigorously defended the city’s response. “No other municipality,” he said at a press conference Thursday, “has been able to accomplish over 101,000″ placements into the shelter system, a number that includes both migrants and homeless New Yorkers. “No child, no family [is] sleeping in the streets.”

The city processes migrants seeking shelter placements in the lobby of the Roosevelt Hotel, a century-old institution that is now a city-run facility with 1,000 rooms for migrants.

Last Tuesday afternoon, the scene outside was orderly, except for one man who stood near the entrance shouting, “Trump, Trump, go Trump 2024! He won’t let any of you stay.”

Isabel Gómez, from Ecuador, had come to the Roosevelt with her two young sons, her father, and her brother. She and her boys had been staying at a Bronx hotel, run by the city as a shelter, for just over two weeks. She was grateful for a place to stay. But she said the hotel had rats and the frozen meals provided by the city were wearing on her sons, ages 5 and 12.

“We can’t cook and I have no money to buy food on the street,” she said in Spanish. She had left Ecuador because of street violence, she said. “It is not safe for my boys.”

Her father, Segundo Largo, and her brother, Jaime Andrade, had reached New York Tuesday morning. They walked into the Roosevelt lobby mid-afternoon and had shelter placements by that evening.

Inside Brooklyn’s Maranatha Seventh-day Adventist Church Riley Baines, 9, (left) and Jerrol Laidlow helped to assemble 300 bag lunches for migrants that members of Adventist Community Services handed out near the Asylum Application Help Center set up at the American Red Cross on West 49th Street.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

In a podcast interview with The City on Thursday, after the city’s and state’s dueling letters were made public, two prominent advocates for migrants and the homeless sharply criticized Governor Hochul, saying she has not adequately taken responsibility for the problems in the city, and offered qualified praise for Adams.

“The city has done an incredible job of identifying space and putting people in it,” said Joshua Goldfein, an attorney at The Legal Aid Society, which recently took the Adams administration to court to force it to fully comply with its right-to-shelter policy. The challenge came after City Hall left hundreds of migrants sleeping on the street outside the Roosevelt in late July.

Hochul’s press secretary, Avi Small, said the governor “has deployed unprecedented resources to support the City’s efforts and will continue working closely with them to provide aid and support.” Hochul and Adams have downplayed any tension between them and say they continue to work together collegially.

Washington deserves a significant share of the blame, Goldfein added. “If the federal government chooses to admit people to the United States and not allow them to support themselves” by granting work permits, “then they should pay the cost of that,” he said.

American dreams disappointed

Every day on a street corner in Bushwick, a neighborhood of Brooklyn, dozens of migrants gather around picnic tables and a Weber grill to pass the time. A train on elevated tracks periodically rumbles by drowning out the sound of men chatting in Arabic, Portuguese, French, and Spanish.

The young men — almost all are in their 20s or 30s — live across the street in a four-story building where the city has squeezed in approximately 340 cots. In a garage on the ground floor, there is a trailer containing eight shower stalls.

Ibrahim Dielo, 22, from Mauritania, cooked at Bushwick City Farm. Volunteers have shared their food and their small plot of land in the heart of Brooklyn with the more than 300 men living in a city shelter across the street. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

The men tell similar stories. They left behind economic hardship or pervasive street crime in Mauritania, Venezuela, Ecuador, or Senegal. They walked across the mountainous Darién rainforest from Colombia to Panama before riding buses and trains north to the US border (even the African men completed this journey after flying from Europe to Bogotá, they said).

After that grueling journey, they now, by and large, sit idle, waiting for their next court dates, hoping their applications for work permits will clear. Some have secured short-term jobs off the books, earning around $400 a week for full-time work in a grocery store or on a construction site. But the gigs don’t last and there aren’t enough to go around.

A handful have given up. A group of men from Mauritania recently self-deported, flying back home after concluding that staying in the United States was hopeless, according to friends who have remained at the shelter.

Others wondered if moving to another US city could help. “I would like to leave, but I don’t have the means,” one man from Mauritania said in French.

Another asked a reporter for recommendations. “Is Boston good for migrants?” he asked.

Migrants waited overnight in lower Manhattan for immigration court hearings or meetings with ICE. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Mike Damiano can be reached at mike.damiano@globe.com.