For days now, newly arrived international immigrants have waited night and day outside New York City’s Roosevelt Hotel, sleeping shoulder-to-shoulder on the sidewalk in hopes of a bed in the city’s shelter system. And for weeks, Mayor Eric Adams has said the city is out of room and sought to dissuade more migrants from arriving.
The scene outside the former hotel — now a migrant shelter and intake center — has underscored the extreme overcrowding in a homeless housing system filled to record levels. City officials and activists alike call it heartbreaking.
But some critics accuse New York City officials of exploiting the lines outside the Roosevelt as part of a campaign to pressure state and federal officials to come up with more money to tackle the crisis and discourage more migrants from entering the U.S. from Mexico.
“Mayor Adams should not be using asylum seekers as props to get the attention of the Biden administration or discourage asylum seekers from coming to New York,” said Murad Awawdeh, the executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition.
He added the city should work harder to free up space in shelters and keep migrants off the streets. “It’s hard to imagine that there are not enough beds to actually accommodate the people that the Adams administration is leaving out on the street,” he told The Associated Press in a statement.
At a briefing Thursday, one of the mayor’s deputies pushed back.
“I don’t think I or any person in this administration would use people to do any type of a stunt,” said Deputy Mayor Anne Williams-Isom.
She said the city has conducted itself “with humanity and with compassion,” adding the shelter system is at a “breaking point.”
City officials say the number of migrants arriving in New York since the spring of 2022 is approaching 100,000, overwhelming a shelter system designed to hold tens of thousands fewer people.
New York City has a unique court-ordered obligation to provide emergency shelter to anyone who asks for it, but officials have said in recent weeks that the influx of migrants seeking asylum in the U.S. had made it increasingly difficult to fulfill that duty.
While the number of migrants crossing the border has fallen in recent months, busloads still arrive nearly every day. City officials said that some 2,300 more migrants came to the city seeking shelter last week alone.
Adams last month dispatched emissaries to the border to hand out fliers, informing migrants that shelter space in his city is no longer guaranteed and that housing and food in New York City is expensive. It urged them to consider other U.S. cities.
Outside the Roosevelt hotel recently, migrant Miguel Jaramillo talked about sleeping in the street while waiting for a bed, saying he was willing to “endure the process.”
“We came here for a future,” he said.
On another day, security guards ordered migrants not to speak to journalists. During one interview, a migrant was told by a guard to stop speaking — first putting his finger on his pursed lips then dragging it across his throat like a knife.
The migrant, who had been speaking about his arduous passage to the U.S. and his hopes for a better life, immediately stopped talking.
“That’s pretty plainly a threat,” said Joshua Goldfein, an attorney for the Legal Aid Society in New York.
“There’s no question that the city could provide additional spaces for the folks who are on the sidewalk,” he said, though he added state and federal governments should do more, too.
Adams, a Democrat, has insisted the city is doing everything it can, including leasing entire hotels for migrants and opening multiple new shelters.
In a frantic search for more housing, city officials are considering building a tent city on an island in the East River, even though it closed a similar facility nearly a year ago just weeks after it opened. And soon a new shelter will open in the parking lot of a psychiatric hospital in Queens, providing about 1,000 beds for single men, who comprise the majority of arriving migrants.
Adams’ tough rhetoric, though, has implied more migrants would find themselves sleeping outdoors.
“It’s not going to get any better. From this moment on it’s downhill. There is no more room,” he said Monday while quickly vowing he wouldn’t let sidewalk encampments become a citywide problem. “I can assure you that this city is not going to look like other cities where there are tents up and down every street.”
Goldfein and others accused the mayor and city of shifting their tone from “we’re going to treat people with dignity and respect to we’re going to treat people very badly to send a message.”
Williams-Isom, the deputy mayor, countered that the city would remain compassionate.
“We are trying to say that if less people were coming through the front door, maybe we could catch up a little bit,” she said.