African migrants leaving Randall’s Island shelter on Nov. 3, 2023, after the city capped shelter placement to 30 days. Photo: Naoufal Enhari.


African migrants face a treacherous journey to the U.S. — only to be confronted by mounting challenges.

By Naoufal Enhari
Edited by Tiara White

Two and a half years ago, Michael Ezugwu had never stepped foot outside of his native Nigeria. But facing police harassment and an arrest threat for violating the country’s anti-gay law, he left everything behind.

He didn’t see Europe, which has historically been the primary destination for African migrants, as an option for him because he didn’t speak many of the national languages. Instead, Ezugwu decided to attempt reaching the much farther away United States — he speaks English fluently — to “seek safety.” 

But without a visa, he couldn’t just take a flight to the U.S. So he flew to Guyana where he was able to get a tourist visa on arrival. From there, he decided to test his luck on the long perilous route over land from South America into Central America and Mexico — a path usually taken by migrants on this side of the Atlantic, but now increasingly used by people from Africa to reach the U. S.

He recalled walking for days across the Darien Gap between Colombia and Panama, a dangerous jungle crossing attempted by hundreds of thousands of South American, Caribbean and other migrants, often at the expense of their lives. He said he saw the “rotten bodies” of dead migrants left unclaimed deep in the jungle.  

“It’s hell on earth. It’s like you are between death and life,” said Ezugwu, 31, who worked as a hospital billing technician in Enugu, in southeastern Nigeria. “It’s either you come out or you die.”

More than a year after leaving Nigeria, Ezugwu finally arrived at the U.S. southern border in October 2022 and crossed into California, where he was picked up by U.S. border patrol agents and placed in a detention center in San Diego. A few days later, he was paroled and offered a plane ticket to New York City, which he suspects came from a immigration nonprofit after he used a New York acquaintance’s address on processing paperwork.

Ezugwu waiting with other migrants to be picked up by border patrol agents after crossing from Mexico to California in October 2022. Photos courtesy of Michael Ezugwu.

Today, Ezugwu is among the roughly 140,000 asylum seekers who have arrived in the city since the spring of 2022, according to City Hall. As of last July,  41% are from Venezuela, but a growing number are coming from West Africa. Many of these West Africans are fleeing persecution and a lack of economic opportunity, only to find more hardship in New York, especially in getting housing and employment.

Why African migrants are arriving in NY

Since 2016, roughly 70,000 refugees from 16 West African nations — including Nigeria, Senegal and Mauritania — have applied for asylum in the United States, according to U.S. government data compiled by the United Nations Agency for Refugees (UNHCR). But this year, the numbers of asylum seekers spiked, particularly from Senegal and Mauritania.

Between September 2022 and September 2023, the number of new proceedings in deportation cases for Senegalese nationals filed in US immigration courts increased by nearly 500%, reaching 11,408 cases. That’s compared to 1,958 cases a year before and an average of 217 per year for the five years prior to 2022, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University.







Meanwhile, the proceedings in deportation cases for Mauritanian nationals reached 14,405 cases in fiscal year 2023, compared to only 201 cases in 2022. Cases averaged just 95 per year in the five years before COVID-19 restrictions in 2020.

Many are fleeing “enslavement, forced statelessness, and ethnic cleansing” in Mauritania, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

Experts say this U.S. influx is indicative of a break with traditional African migration patterns and corridors — mainly to Europe — observed over the past two decades.

“The younger generations of West Africans are dreaming of America,” said Boukary Sawadogo, an associate professor at the City College of New York who has researched and written about African immigration and diaspora in the U.S.

“The American soft power and culture, like rap music, are having an important influence on them.”

Mauritanians protest in New York against racial persecution in their country during the U.N. General Assembly in 2023. Photo: Naoufal Enhari.

But, he noted, other factors like growing political instability, insecurity, poverty and climate change-induced droughts and famines are also pushing record numbers of young Africans to seek better opportunities on the other side of the Atlantic and elsewhere. 

The toughening of the European Union’s migration policies and the dangerous sea crossing to Europe are additionally driving this migration shift, he said.

The Challenges African Migrants Are Facing

Hadi Mohamed and his cousin Mohameden arrived this summer at the U.S. southern border from Mauritania through the Central American route.

Hadi, 26, said he left his native Mauritania to flee an “oppressive” regime and a depressing lack of economic opportunity in the desertic and sparsely populated West African nation rocked by a series of military coups since its independence from French colonial rule in 1960.

The cousins said their journey was quicker and less treacherous than Ezugwu’s, because they were able to fly without a visa to Nicaragua, avoiding the Darien Gap. But their detention conditions for over two weeks in a Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) processing center were “horrendous.”

“We were stacked in a room with 30 other people, and each day they would bring in more,” Hadi said. “There was only one bathroom inside the room and it smelled horribly.”

They were only fed a small sandwich once a day, he added.

After a brief separation following their detention and parole process, Hadi and his cousin eventually made it separately to New York, where their housing situation is similar to thousands of newly arrived African migrants currently living in city shelters. The cousins say they intend to submit a formal asylum application before their immigration court hearings scheduled next summer.

Adama Bah, the founder of Afrikana, a community center in Harlem helping connect African migrants with vital services in the city, said more help is needed to serve the new arrivals.  

“Five hundred people a day are coming into the city,” she said. “They are not ready for them.”

Bah added that African migrants are not receiving “the right resources, the right language access, and the right cultural competency” compared to others. She said some of them speak West African dialects — like Wolof, Pulaar Mauritanian, or Hassaniya — and only limited French, and often get “turned away” by city services and employees because of a lack of interpretation or translation services.

Photo: Mark Banchereau.

“Housing is just the beginning,” said Bah, whose organization helps African migrants apply for IDs and social services like Medicare and, in some cases, finding pro bono immigration lawyers.

Ezugwu, who had been staying in multiple shelters across the city since last winter — including the temporary makeshift shelter at the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal — said he received a notice last September to vacate the Midtown Manhattan hotel-shelter where he was staying.

After weeks of apartment and room hunting, he was able to find a unit to co-rent with a fellow Nigerian acquaintance, in southern Brooklyn.

“It is not an easy task,” he said. “Prices are high and people are asking for many documents.”

In June, Ezugwu filed a formal application for asylum in the United States with the help of an immigration attorney, and is currently waiting for an interview date for his case to be approved by an immigration judge.

From their side, Hadi and his cousin are growing impatient to leave the city’s shelter system. “It’s very hard to be living in a shelter,” Hadi said. “There’s no privacy, it’s loud, and I can barely sleep at night. But first, we need to get working permits and paying jobs.”

By law, migrants have to wait 150 days after filing their asylum applications to be eligible for a work permit. Yet many of those in New York City have not filled out their applications, which further delays their eligibility for employment authorization, according to City Hall.

“It doesn’t make sense,” Hadi said. “All these guys coming here, they want to work and provide for themselves and their families. Why can’t we be authorized to work now?”

Making matters worse, the city has recently capped placement in shelters to 30 days for single-male migrants, down from 60 days previously. According to city officials, the measure is aimed at pushing the migrants to find independent housing or “resettle” elsewhere to accommodate the roughly 10,000 asylum seekers arriving monthly amid a city budget crunch. 

Hadi hoped New York would be more welcoming, but now he’s not sure he wants to stay. “It’s not what I imagined it to be,” he said.

Asylum seekers wait to meet with lawyer Nuala O’Doherty Naranjo to go over legal forms together on the 34th Avenue Open Streets in Jackson Heights, QueensPhoto: Shukria Bayan.


Makeshift legal clinics are helping asylum seekers apply for protected status — but they need support, too.

By Divya Murthy
Edited by Amanda Salazar

On a windy evening in October, lawyer Tracey Kitzman calls the group of several dozen migrants and advocates at Brooklyn’s Plymouth Church to order. Nestled on sofas in the room’s corners, schoolchildren play on smartphones, eyes glued to their screens, the occasional video sound bursting through the hum of chatter. Their parents and older family members settle down next to lawyers at round tables, tall sheafs of papers in front of them. 

By the end of the evening, several families walk out with the confidence that their asylum applications are ready to be mailed. Others would return in a week, with more documents to bolster their forms. Some hope lawyers have better answers for more complex scenarios. For instance, what if an adult woman seeking asylum was born in Venezuela, a country eligible for special legal protection, but her 3-year-old child was born in Panama? Questions like these can stump both migrants and lawyers.

“What do you do in the face of overwhelming need?” said Kitzman, who has been leading these clinics with grassroots group Team TLC NYC since June. “The only thing that resonates for me is to do something. Is it a drop in the bucket? No, it’s not even a molecule on the drop that goes in the bucket, but for these people, it’s really important.”

To help the thousands of migrants in New York City navigate immigration and work permit processes, local lawyers have stepped in. The network of attorneys — from Team TLC NYC to New York Immigration Coalition to Jackson Heights Immigration Center — has banded together as an essential lifeline for asylum seekers as they navigate a legal process mired in multiple forms and ever-changing rules, all in English, a language foreign to many of the migrants. 

Sorting through an onslaught of paperwork

The three major forms asylum seekers must immediately fill out are: the 13-page plea for protected status that lets migrants stay in the country, called the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) form; the 12-page asylum application; and the seven-page application to get work authorization, which can often take up to 180 days to arrive. After city officials asked the Biden administration to expedite the work permit process, the administration extended TPS for 500,000 Venezuelans in September, which would allow them to stay in the country without getting deported as they await work permits. 

For migrants sorting through all this paperwork, help looks much like what was happening that busy evening in the Brooklyn church — lawyers aid migrants after work hours for free, in spaces set up by grassroots organizations like Team TLC NYC. These organizations blast out emails, asking for volunteer attorneys, translators, advocates and interpreters. 

For some, the legal clinics have already helped set them on a path to stability. Angela Carrillo, an asylum seeker from Venezuela who arrived in the city in June, spent five to six hours over four sessions to finish her paperwork. She has a court appointment in February.  

“They explained everything to me, they went slow, and I felt very supported in the process,” Carrillo, 46, said in Spanish through a translator. “They oriented me very well through what was going to happen.”

For others, the clinic could mark the beginning of a lengthy process. Dennis Mulligan, a Spanish-speaking attorney who has volunteered at Team TLC NYC clinics, is concerned that the grassroots sessions, while well-intentioned, may not be the best setting for filling out paperwork that rests on accuracy. 

“You’re sitting down with somebody in this big room and there’s 100 other people in the room and kids are running around and the person you met for the first time 10 minutes ago is asking you, ‘What happened to you in your country that caused you to leave and apply for asylum?’” he said, describing the workshop. “It’s very difficult for that person to just open up to you and start to tell you about very painful difficult things that happened in the past. That’s just a normal human reality.”

Mulligan, who has practiced immigration and refugee law since 1996, typically spends many hours on a single case in his private practice, as opposed to the limited time he has to get applications filed as quickly as possible while volunteering. Rushing applications can jeopardize the heart of the plea for asylum, he said. He worries that rushed cases could be rejected in court and the applicants deported. 

“Adjudicators and lawyers like to hear a very neat story about things that happened,” he said. “When a person can’t recall dates, can’t recall details of what happened to them or says one thing in the application and then says another thing at the hearing, then the judge will say, ‘Wait a second.’ That’s the risk in a nutshell.”

Offering legal help with limited resources

While Mulligan believes migrants need more legal guidance than just paper-signing help, Nuala O’Doherty Naranjo, who runs the nonprofit Jackson Heights Immigration Center out of her Queens home, said the priority is starting the clock. 

The country has to respond to the applicant within a certain time frame — the length can vary — but can only do so once the application is filed. 

“This is not rocket science,” said O’Doherty Naranjo, a former Manhattan prosecutor. “It’s nice to have a lawyer review it, to make sure there’s no problems. But it’s better to submit than not submit.”

The TPS form, she said, asks for the basics: name, age, addresses and reason for application, which can simply be “fear of persecution.” 

“You don’t need a bunch of lawyers,” she said. “You need people who speak English and Spanish and a nice black pen, a table and a chair, maybe a scanner and a copier. The city can figure this out.”

Nuala O’Doherty Naranjo teaches asylum seekers how to fill the Temporary Protected Status form in the basement of her home in Queens. Photo: Shukria Bayan.


O’Doherty Naranjo has helped more than 2,000 people file applications this year from her Jackson Heights basement. There, she hosts a free “immigration 101”-style morning class and holds afternoon office hours on the open streets at 34th Avenue three times a week. Her basement workshops are popular on TikTok, and people have slept outside her doorstep to get help in the morning, traveling from as far as Florida, she said.

The walls of her basement are plastered with flyers and directions to neighborhood resources. On a Friday morning, about 20 “students” sit in the room on fold-out benches, clipboards and pens in hand. Desks line the walls, where volunteers fill out forms with individual applicants. O’Doherty Naranjo walks in and immediately launches into her spiel: a welcome address, then a firm breakdown of the TPS form’s various fields, waving her hands and cracking jokes, a Diet Coke in hand.

One of the biggest administrative hurdles for asylum seekers is that they receive important information, like court hearing dates, in English, she said. An important task for anyone helping migrants fill out forms is to point out where to find these dates, as many asylum-seekers miss information buried inside 26-page handouts, she said.

O’Doherty Naranjo has been asking the city for more resources for her clinics since she began hosting them in January. Mayor Eric Adams and Gov. Kathy Hochul recently announced an additional $38 million in funding for migrant legal assistance, $20 million of which was earmarked for local nonprofits and associations like the New York Immigration Coalition, the Immigrant Advocates Response Collective and the New York Legal Aid Society. But it didn’t reach groups like Team TLC NYC and O’Doherty Naranjo’s basement workshops. 

“There’s no government money here at all,” she said. “I have begged the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs.” 

The Mayor’s Office declined to comment on funding.

O’Doherty Naranjo has rallied, relying on CUNY law students and even former asylum seekers-turned-volunteers to run the operation. Still, none of the stress distracts from her priority: helping the people who, if all turns out the way she hopes, will be her new neighbors in Jackson Heights. That’s why she begins every class with a big hearty welcome and a, “We’re happy you’re here.”

“It’s really a city of immigrants, no matter what their papers are,” she said. “And I tell them that, when you sit on a subway every day, you have no idea what the guy next to you’s status is — but you’re both New Yorkers.”

Mayor Adams lays out a plan to handle the migrant crisis at a press conference on March 7, 2023. Photo: Ed Reed/NYC Mayoral Photography Office.


What the migrant crisis is really running the city and what can be done to lower the price tag.

By Fitzwilliam Anderson
Edited by Christian Nazario

New York City Mayor Eric Adams has repeatedly sounded the alarm on the high cost of helping migrants. 

In September, he declared the city was being “being destroyed” by the influx of asylum seekers, which has grown to 130,000 over 18 months. In October, he traveled to Latin America to discourage migrants from coming to New York. In December, he made his 10th trip to Washington to ask the federal government to shoulder some of the costs of housing asylum seekers. 

“The goal is to constantly go there, be front and center and raise the concerns of how this is impacting our city,” Adams said on Dec. 7 of his trips to the Capitol.

Between July 2022 and July 2023, New York City spent $1.45 billion to care for asylum seekers, and is on track to shell out more than $12 billion through June 2025, according to the Adams administration. The cost of sheltering, feeding and providing medical services for the new arrivals is stretching the city’s budget to its limits, Adams says. To slow spending, the administration has taken controversial steps, including putting 30- and 60-day time limits on how long migrants can stay in city shelters — a move that’s angered some critics.

“It’s outrageous the way the Adams administration continues to go out of its way to gut New York City’s ‘right-to-shelter’ protections,” said Murad Awawdeh, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, referring to the policy that ensures the city provide a bed to anyone who needs one.

To better understand the costs of migrant care, the NYCity News Service spoke with City Council spokespeople and immigration scholars and advocates about how the city is spending its money — and how the money can be better spent. 

What does caring for an asylum seeker cost the city? 

In January 2022, the daily cost of caring for a single asylum seeker was $363, compared to the $136 for a single homeless adult, according to Adams. As of October, the daily cost of helping an asylum seeker climbed to $394, the mayor said.

During a contentious City Council meeting in October, members took turns grilling city officials and urging them to be more transparent in how they calculated the daily costs of caring for asylum seekers. In response, Michael Chimowitz, assistant director at the Office of Management and Budget, argued that the increased prices of goods and services in a “supply-constrained environment” have led to the increased price tag. 

Julia Agos, a spokesperson for the City Council, later told NYCity News Service that even after the hours-long hearing, the breakdown of these rates “remains an unanswered question.” 

“The city has to pursue more effective and efficient ways to deliver services that shift the approach from a short-term emergency response to a sustainable, long-term strategy that ensures both asylum seekers’ well-being and a forward-thinking allocation of city resources,” said Agos. 

New York City has opened more than 210 emergency shelters, Humanitarian Emergency Response and Relief Centers (HERRCs) and respite centers to house more than 65,000 asylum seekers, according to an October report from City Comptroller Brad Lander’s office. These sites include the Roosevelt Hotel in Midtown Manhattan, a newly constructed center on Randall’s Island and a vacant office building in Long Island City. 


Mayor Adams hands out meals to migrants with the nonprofit Aid for Life on Feb. 11, 2023. Photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office.


Getting migrants out of shelters and on their feet is a process mired in bureaucracy. To move out of city shelters and secure housing, asylum seekers need jobs. But to get jobs, asylum seekers must first apply for work authorization from the federal government, which can take up to 180 days. 

In September, the Biden administration extended Temporary Protection Status (TPS) for Venezuelans, which allows them to stay in the country as they await work permits. The Adams administration says this could help 10,000 to 20,000 Venezuelan migrants in the city. Others say that number is closer to 30,000 to 50,000. 

While Venezuelan migrants make up a large number of the recent migrants to New York, asylum seekers from African countries like Senegal and Mauritania, and other Latin American countries, like Guatemala, do not have TPS

What does the city propose to alleviate the financial strain?

With his pleas for funding being largely ignored in Albany and Washington, Adams has sought to slow spending by resettling some migrants in other states, including Florida and Texas, and even other countries like China, according to a report by Politico.

To further curtail costs and free up shelter space, the Adams administration recently introduced time limits for asylum seekers in city shelters. Single adults have 30 days and families have 60 days to secure housing before they must exit the shelter and re-apply. Since this policy went into effect in September, there have been reports of migrants sleeping on the streets and waiting in long lines at reticketing centers to get back into the shelter system. 

“The 30- and 60-day shelter limit policies raise concerns about the impact on the safety and stability of families with children,” said Agos. “There is a major concern about these policies being shortsighted and exacerbating street homelessness.”

Officials argue that the policy is necessary given the lack of federal and state support. “We are not operating in a place where we have good options or choices,” said Dr. Ted Long, senior vice president for ambulatory care and population health at NYC Health + Hospitals. “We are operating at a place now where we are forced to make decisions that are just the least worst option.” 

“We are not operating in a place where we have good options or choices.”

Dr. Ted Long, NYC Health + Hospitals

What are other options to house and care for migrants while shaving costs?

Former City Council Speaker Christine Quinn rejects that the city has run out of good options to shelter migrants. 

“While I agree with the mayor that no city should have to shoulder the migrant crisis without support from the federal government, there are solutions that haven’t been attempted yet,” said Quinn, the president of WIN NYC, which offers shelter and supportive housing for the city’s homeless families, including migrants. 

Expanding eligibility to the city’s rental assistance program, known as Family Homelessness & Eviction Prevention Supplement (FHEP), is one cost-effective measure that could get migrants out of overcrowded shelters and into permanent housing, according to a report published by WIN and the New York Immigration Coalition.  

The program helps cover the monthly rent for qualified families facing eviction, experiencing homelessness or fleeing domestic violence. Last year, 78% of households who moved out of shelters used the rental assistance program, according to a report by the Community Service Society

Proponents of the rental assistance program argue that it not only helps families escape or avoid homelessness, but it also saves the city money by reducing the need to build new shelters or rent out costly hotel rooms.  

“Providing asylum seekers with CityFHEPS vouchers would cost just $673 million annually, saving the city $2.9 billion per year compared to the current emergency hotels,” said Quinn. 

In July, the City Council overrode a mayoral veto of a plan to expand access to the rental assistance program. “We’re not going to say the voucher is a magical tool, but it is the strongest thing that keeps people from homelessness,” said Rendy Desamours, a Council spokesperson. 

Still, the Council has stopped short of expanding the program to asylum seekers. A federal law barring “unauthorized noncitizens from receiving most state and locally funded benefits” is a major reason why, according to Desamours. 

However, a 2015 ruling by the New York Court of Appeals casts doubt on the city’s strict interpretation of the law, according to Ava Ayers, an immigration law professor at Albany Law School.

“As a practical matter, it’s extremely unlikely that the Biden administration’s Department of Justice would file a federal lawsuit seeking to block assistance to migrants,” said Ayers, who previously clerked for Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. “The best legal analysis is that the city is free to exercise its authority to decide who gets benefits.”

Stephen Haff, the chief of Still Waters in a Storm, leads a reading and writing session on the theme of voyages on Nov. 11 in Poughkeepsie, New York. Photo: Owen Racer.


The latest wave of migrants further exposes New York’s struggling mental health infrastructure.

By Owen Racer and Mia Hollie
Edited by Nicolas Magrino

On a late November afternoon, leaves surround the red-brick exterior of a church in Poughkeepsie, New York. Inside, immigrant families come together to read, write and listen to each other in English. 

These lessons, hosted by nonprofit group Still Waters in a Storm, are practical for getting around in a new country. But they also provide a sort of therapy and support group for those adjusting to life in the United States. 

Ava Donne, a 50-year-old woman who migrated from Beijing more than a decade ago, attends with her sister, niece and nephew who are new to the country. The three recent arrivals live at a nearby Red Roof Inn under the supervision of DocGo, the medical provider contracted by New York City to care for migrants. Before coming to the U.S., Donne had endured the harsh realities of mental health stigma in China after the loss of a relative to suicide. 

Now a U.S. citizen, Donne credits her healthier psychological well-being to painting, cooking and an intentional awareness of her mental health. However, with her newly arrived family members dependent on her, she is still familiar with the impact of stress.

“Painting allows me to find inner peace within myself,” Donne said. “Poverty is not a disaster. The real disaster is the inability to overcome difficulties.”

New York City, which has experienced an influx of migrants over the past year, began sending asylum seekers to northern towns like Poughkeepsie this past summer. According to the Mayor’s Management Report for fiscal year 2023, New York City social workers served about 58% of families in the city’s care, down from 72% the year before due to higher case numbers and staff shortages.

The more city shelter capacity limits were pushed, the more towns upstate saw buses. The city of Newburgh received an initial group of nearly 80 migrants this summer, a number nearby Poughkeepsie quickly matched, according to volunteers working with migrants in Poughkeepsie. However, that number has nearly been cut in half, in part because a state Supreme Court justice ordered the city to stop sending migrants to Dutchess County and volunteers say some migrants have opted for job opportunities elsewhere or take New York City’s offer of a one-way plane ticket to anywhere in the country. 

This mix of a system ill-prepared for a wave of migrants and an understaffed and strained mental health workforce have led some migrants to rely on services such as Still Waters in a Storm for mental health support. And yet these organizations can only serve a small percentage of the population. Advocates and mental health workers say the migrant crisis has made clear the necessity of greater mental health support in the New York City shelter system.

“There’s so much that needs to change,” said Stephanie Darrisaw, a case management supervisor at Auburn Assessment Center, a homeless shelter in downtown Brooklyn. “But one thing that I feel really needs to change — and I can’t say that they’re not trying — but I think there needs to be more mental health specialists on-site [at shelters] for the clients that we see have trauma because just coming into the shelter period is traumatic for a lot of people.”

“Poverty is not a disaster. The real disaster is the inability to overcome difficulties.”

Ava Donne, New Yorker

 Meeting migrants’ mental health needs

Darrisaw said she is used to working with clients with trauma who enter New York City’s homeless shelter system. She remembers a young undocumented woman who sat in her Manhattan office crying about six years ago. The woman had recently lost her job and later revealed she had been considering suicide before speaking to Darrisaw.

“She said, ‘I’m still going to fight, I’m still going to be here’,” Darrisaw said. “Those things matter when you’re doing this job.” The encounter made Darrisaw realize the impact her work has on her clients. 

For migrants who travel through the deadly jungles of the Darien Gap connecting South America and Central America — much of the city’s recent influx comes from Latin America and Africa — the journey to the U.S. carries additional elements of trauma, on top of the reasons they left their countries to seek asylum. Asylum seekers tend to experience higher rates of common mental health issues like depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, according to a report published by the Mayor’s Office of Community Mental Health. 

“New York City’s newly arrived migrants bring different lived experiences and therefore require different resources,” said Lisa Pineda, a mental health clinical director for Terra Firma, which provides mental health, medical and legal services to migrants.

Those resources include essential needs such as food, housing and work eligibility, all of which tend to proceed seeking mental health services, she said. However, Pineda added, mental health services are also important because most newly arrived migrants don’t have pre-existing networks of family and friends in the city. 

Part of treatment is to approach with caution, so as not to retraumatize newly arrived migrants, said Dr. Alan Shapiro, senior medical director at Montefiore Medical Center and co-founder of Terra Firma. 

“We try to be a trauma-informed program as much as we can, and you do your best to make sure you’re not a part of the problem, the issue — retraumatizing children and families,” Shapiro said. “We’re a little careful about delving into mental health issues in that first visit.” 

Shapiro predicts that, over time, the stress of living in the city’s shelter system, coupled with the migration journey, will pile up and ultimately result in mental health issues — and migrants will need more support. 

The city’s mental health worker shortage

On its face, a shelter is a lot safer than a lethal jungle crossing. However, shelters can come with their own stresses. Upon arrival, migrants enter a shelter system long plagued by a shortage of social service workers.

“The [human services] sector wants to step up in moments of crisis, whether it’s funded or not,” said Michelle Jackson, executive director of the Human Services Council (HSC). “But because of the lack of investment in the human-services sector over the last two decades, the sector is unable to rise to these moments of crisis.”

Some of HSC’s members — which include 170 nonprofits in human services — report a 30% to 50% job vacancy rate, according to Jackson. With more vacancies, she said, comes more burned-out workers and less individualized care for the city’s unsheltered population. 

More than 230 human-services organizations have signed on as advocates of the Human Services Council #JustPay campaign, according to the council’s website. The campaign calls on the city and state to commit to providing workers with a 3.2% cost of living adjustment (COLA) this year and either multi-year or annual COLAs moving forward. 

The presence of mental health services in Department of Homeless Services-run shelters, like Darrisaw’s, is expected to receive more help from legislation that took effect in September. The new law requires city shelters to hire at least one mental health professional per 50 families. Councilmember Erik Bottcher (D-Manhattan) introduced the legislation in response to a shortage of mental health professionals throughout city shelters.

However, the legislation only applies to shelters overseen by DHS, which was housing about 50% of the migrants in city care in late October. Many other migrants are staying in hotels run by the city-contracted DocGo.

“It is kind of difficult right now to see how this bill will impact [migrants],” said Carl Wilson, Bottcher’s chief of staff.

Wilson said the shift of migrants from shelters to hotels sparked a conversation about whether adequate mental health services were available. However, he hopes the legislation could be used as a model for the city’s other migrant shelters in the future. According to Wilson, it was coincidental that the legislation rolled out amid the influx of migrants in the city’s network of shelters. 

“There’s a major shortage of social workers in the city, so ultimately this came down to choosing family shelters because it seemed like that’s where we could have some of the most direct effect on the greatest number of people,” Wilson said. “We want to utilize social workers, we need their skills for all kinds of reasons, but there really is not a huge number of them so you have to be thoughtful in your application of where they’re going to go to have the most effect.”                                          

However, for migrants and immigrants outside those systems, Donne, of Poughkeepsie, believes that mental health support is also needed to help prevent greater hardships down the line. 

“I wish more people would actually pay attention to those in need,” she said. “Behind every difficulty, there is personal growth and healing.”