Understanding the needs and profiles of the refugee-seeking population in New York City

by Ashwin Parulkar and Kathryn Cardone

In early June, 81,145 people lived in New York City shelters,  marking a  69%  increase in the shelter census over the last year, due to the influx of refuge seekers that have been bused to the city by officials from southern states. 

HELP served 6, 188  people seeking refuge from September 2022 to May 15, 2023. In  May , 318 people lived in 8 HELP single adult shelters (Table 1); a 9% increase from January 31 (291 migrants) and an a five -fold increase since September 2022 (62 persons). 

This population increased in our family sites from 150 persons in September 2022 to 216 persons in January (44%), then declined to 182 persons in May . Approximately 45% of people seeking refuge in families were children. Two-thirds (66%) of individuals in families lived in HELP’s Morris family shelter (Table 2).

Migrants/Asylum Seekers Currently in HELP Family Shelters 5/17 (56 households)
 CrotonaCrotona IIHamiltonHillsideMorrisTotal
Total Individuals441242120182

Table 1 Source: HELP USA undocumented migrant database

Migrants/Asylum Seekers Currently in HELP Single Shelters 5/17
 AssessmentWomen’s SitesMen’s SitesTotal
 HWC/HMC*FranklinAudubonBWCClarke ThomasSECKeenerCreston
Count of Clients21720219516246318

Table 2 Source: HELP USA undocumented migrant database

In our previous newsletter (link) we reported findings from a survey we had conducted in the family shelter, HELP Morris.

Specifically,  73% of 66 surveyed adults met the official criteria for refugee status, an indicator of asylum eligibility in the United States.  The population was largely female (92%) and young , as half (49%) were under the age of 35. They had suffered greatly — 70% had endured hunger on  journeys from home countries to New York  and 58% had at least two children living with them in the shelter. Notably, 48.3% reported that their most urgent need was legal aid to process asylum requests.

Mayor Adams’ emergency funding in August 2022 expanded the number of shelter facilities and the range of basic services, like food, for this deeply vulnerable population.  By March 2023, the administration had spent $650 million. By May, the outlay had increased to $1billion, the Mayor pledged to spend $4.3 billion over the next year,  and the city had opened a total of 150 new sites since the start of the crisis.

The unabated influx of migrants has strained the capacities of the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) and nonprofits to serve the rapidly expanding shelter population. On May 11, Title 42 also expired. This 2020 Center for Disease Control (CDC) order had authorized Customs and Border  Protection officials to expel migrants entering the country from the southern border to prevent the spread of Covid-19. These events compelled Mayor Adams to attempt to curtail the city’s “right to shelter” mandate.  In early May, the mayor issued an executive order that suspended rules to place families in non-congregate shelter settings – with basic amenities, like private bathrooms – and time limits to “place” them in shelters after they arrive and are screened at shelter intake facilities . On May 23, the administration asked the Manhattan supreme court to wave the city’s duty to provide shelter to migrants when officials cannot muster the “sufficient” amount of “shelter sites”, “staff” and “security” measures required to ensure “safe and appropriate shelter” arrangements for such people in need.

On May 25, City Council passed a series of laws to expand access to housing vouchers for shelter clients as an explicit strategy to solve this shelter capacity problem, which officials acknowledge is an outcome of the migrant crisis as well as  the city’s housing shortage and surging rental prices that have partly resulted in 50,000 native New Yorkers having to live in shelters.  According to the city’s 2021 Housing and Vacancy Survey, half of renter households paid more than 30 percent of their income on rent (an indicator of “rent burden”), and one-third paid more than half (“severe rent burden”).  According to the Furman Center, the city reserved 30% of the total 185,000 multifamily housing units it produced from 2010 to 2020 for households that earned 80% or less of their area’s median income (AMI). However, the “severe shortage of units” for “low-and-moderate-income New Yorkers” persisted. The long durations of “shelter stays” – averages of over one year for “families with children” and “single adults”, and over two years for “adult families” – further constrain placements and resources in the system.

The new laws, sponsored by Deputy Speaker Diana Ayala and Council Member Pierina Sanchez, terminated the mandate on clients to live in shelters for 90 days before accessing the City Fighting Homelessness and Eviction Prevention Supplement (CityFHEPS) rental subsidy. They also eliminated work requirements previously associated with this housing voucher and revised its  income criteria from 200 percent of the federal poverty line to 50 percent of the area median income (AMI). The Mayor opposed the laws, stating that expanding — rather than “target[ing] — the provision of this rental subsidy would add “billions” to “taxpayer” obligations.

Critics argue, however, that steeper costs of living are and will perpetually be borne by middle and low income New Yorkers  in the form of skyrocketing rents, particularly as state lawmakers rejected Gov. Hochul’s housing plan that would have facilitated the development of low cost housing by eradicating zoning laws that have stymied the production of needed levels of affordable housing for decades.

Meanwhile, city officials estimated that by March 2023 only 1% of migrant crisis funds had been committed to legal services needed to processes asylum applications – a crucial prerequisite for migrants to obtain the authorization to work and live in the United States, and therefore exit shelters successfully. These funds made volunteer attorneys available at the Port Authority Bus Terminal to provide legal assistance to migrants when they arrive in the city and established an Asylum Seeker Navigation Center that has provided free healthcare, Medicaid enrollment, vaccinations, immigration legal orientation, and documentation services to 14,680 people, as of March. 

But there is an urgent need to expand these services because migrants have a deadline of one year to file an asylum application from the time they have entered the country . Comptroller Brad Lander and Council Member & Immigration Committee Chair Shahana Hanif have asked the administration to reserve $70 million for legal services in this final month of budget negotiations for the next fiscal year.

 As the range of services and shelters were expanding and debates over funding and adequate policies evolved, HELP conducted a brief survey in March of 55 refugee seeking adult migrants in Morris family shelter to understand the services they had accessed and locations they had done so.

Respondents were more likely to access critical services at their shelter than at the newly designated sites:  40% had accessed free legal assistance by volunteer attorneys upon arriving in NYC and 65% had received at critical services,  mentioned earlier, at the Asylum Seeker Navigation Center; 93%, 80%, and 73% had received physical healthcare, information on legal services, and mental healthcare services at Morris shelter. 

Half of respondents (50%) had applied for asylum since arriving in the United States (in October 32% had indicated they had). Four-fifths ( 79%) of 53 respondents (two did not answer)  reported that they had been detained by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) or Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials after they had entered the United States. 

It is necessary to identify the shares of the larger migrant population that have applied for asylum and that have been detained by immigration authorities after entering the United States to allocate the resources to address the needs of  varied asylee designations and timelines in the official asylum process. 

That is because New York City’s crisis  is partly an outcome of earlier federal immigration and asylum policy reforms.

In 2018, the Trump administration authorized a policy (known as “metering”) that prevented migrants entering the country from Mexico from applying for asylum at the U.S. border.  Traditionally, officials at the U.S. border screen asylum seekers.  Evidence of “credible” and “reasonable” fear of persecution in their country establishes eligibility for asylum.  Such persons may apply for asylum through the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) – a  process known as an affirmative asylum application. Persons denied asylum by the court undergo removal proceedings. However, they may also apply for asylum to the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR). This is called a defensive asylum application.  Trump’s 2018 policy eradicated the screening process at the US border, which directly placed asylum seekers in removal proceedings.

This resulted in an increased number and share of “defensive” asylum applications, backlogs of total asylum applications (470,000 nationally), and denial rates of total applications in the nation (71% in FY ’20) and in New York State (37% in FY’19 from 15% in FY15).

The Adams administration should identify the varied “affirmative” and “defensive” application profiles in the population to address the needs of migrants whose eligibility for asylum may soon expire.  This may also help the city secure the federal funds it is seeking to address the city’s current but deepening crisis as part of a  long-term and national one. 

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