NEW YORK CITY — When Marcos Marte arrived in America thirty years ago, he took the first job he could get. Even though he’d graduated with an engineering degree back home in the Dominican Republic, where inflation was reaching double digits, he found himself in a factory line in Long Island, New York. For 16 hours a day, he raced to pull defective steering wheels out of an oven, scraping off the rubber casing so that they could be redone.
“I got burned up all the time,” says Marte, now 62. “I still have the marks on my wrists.”
His coworkers gave him a nickname—“Mr. Overtime”—since he not only picked up extra shifts but even bought a van to make more cash transporting other employees to the factory. No one ever offered him “a giveaway,” but he says he wouldn’t have taken one anyway.
“I never knew any place where I could apply for food stamps because I refused to,” he says. “That creates a habit of not working.”
But now, he hears that migrants, who are currently pouring into New York City by the thousands, are given hotel rooms, laundry, and daycare. Mayor Eric Adams says that every night a migrant family is in the city’s care, the local government spends an average of $394 for food, shelter, and medical care. And that makes Marte, who now sells construction supplies, “angry.”
“It’s the mindset of the piñata—somebody’s going to hit it, and everybody’s going to pick from it. And before, it was like, work, save, and enjoy your retirement with dignity. Not anymore.”
He takes a deep breath. “It’s not fair.”
Since the spring of last year, nearly 130,000 migrants have arrived in New York City.
The subways are now filled with women, some who have children strapped to their backs, selling spiced mango for a couple bucks. On the sidewalks, young men display random possessions for sale—an iPhone charger, a can of beans, whatever they can find. And on East 45th Street, there are hundreds of migrants at any given time waiting to get into the Roosevelt Hotel, the processing center dubbed “New York’s new Ellis Island.”
Mayor Adams says the influx is due to “a propaganda machine” driven by coyotes—or human smugglers—who charge migrants for their help crossing the Mexico border, and who promise New York City will give them a “five-star hotel,” along with an automatic job. The truth is that the city is mandated to provide shelter to anyone who applies for it under a 1981 decree, often called the “right to shelter.” But Adams believes that obligation should extend only to homeless New Yorkers, not foreign nationals. His administration is now fighting to exempt itself from the mandate in court.
Earlier this month, he even traveled to Latin America for four days to tell aspiring asylum seekers to stay away.
“Our hearts are endless, but our resources are not,” Adams told a gaggle of press in Puebla, Mexico.
The city will have to spend a whopping $12 billion on the crisis over the next three fiscal years—and every city agency will have to cut its spending by five percent to pitch in. New York’s already-strained public school system is struggling to keep up with the addition of 20,000 migrant children. And Adams warns that the city is now “out of room.” Meanwhile, some native New Yorkers say they were pushed out of shelters to make space for migrants.
Adam Solis, a 33-year-old who’s half Dominican and half Puerto Rican, worries that “homeless people are receiving the short end of the stick.”
“We shouldn’t be removing a resource from another individual to provide it to a migrant,” says Solis, a financial consultant in the Bronx. “I find it completely unacceptable.”
But the migrants keep coming anyway—an estimated 600 newcomers arrive every day in the Big Apple.
While left-wing commentators like to blame “white nationalists,” “xenophobes,” and “MAGA Republicans” for any anti-immigrant sentiment, new polling shows that as many as eight in ten New Yorkers think the arrival of the migrants is a “serious issue for the state.” And some of those most opposed to the new migrants are immigrants—and their children—who came to the U.S. from south of the border years ago.
In Sunset Park, Brooklyn, miles away from the tourist attractions of Manhattan, George Cardona says migrants knock on the door of his accounting firm every day.
“I think they tell their friends that I’m helpful, or something,” he shrugs, talking about the newcomers who show up at his door, often tired and hungry.
A year ago, it was just one woman who wandered in, asking where she could get a Social Security number. He explained he couldn’t just produce one out of thin air. But he thinks she must have told others that he was someone who would help, or at the very least provide a cup of coffee. Now, they show up daily.
“It’s tough,” says Cardona, 63, whose family is from Puerto Rico. “Most migrants that come here want to do better. And you have to respect that—they’re not all coming here for a free meal. They want to work.”
So he does what he can, helping those who visit him fill out paperwork, or offering them an old winter coat. But their presence hasn’t been entirely trouble-free.
He says the neighborhood has reeked of marijuana lately, and while crime may be down by just over 25 percent in Sunset Park, it doesn’t feel that way. Plus, he thinks that migrants are the ones who’ve been stealing strollers outside a daycare near his office.
“The sad thing is I think they sell them,” he says.
It’s enough to make Cardona, a lifelong Democrat, consider voting red for the first time in his life for the upcoming city council election, which has become a de facto referendum on the migrant crisis.
“I’m thinking about flipping,” he says. “People are just getting away with too much.”
Many other residents of Sunset Park, a majority immigrant community, have already taken the leap. Throughout the 2010s, Republican candidates for governor struggled to break 15 percent of the vote in the district. Then, in 2022, nearly a quarter of voters here went for Lee Zeldin, a Republican candidate promising to restore law and order. The immigration issue, along with concerns about education and crime, has already pushed many Asian Americans in the neighborhood toward voting Republican.
Now Paul Rodriguez, a Republican running for New York City Council in the district that includes Sunset Park, hopes to build on that momentum, particularly among Hispanic locals like himself. A 2021 Pew study found that 82 percent of Hispanics in the U.S. agree that the country’s immigration system needs an overhaul.
“Even people who are still very much pro-immigration are acknowledging that the current situation is just unsustainable,” says Rodriguez, who grew up in Puerto Rico.
He says Hispanic voters are pulling him aside, telling him they’re angry that the Biden administration granted Temporary Protected Status to nearly half a million Venezuelan migrants in late September.
“They’ve been saying, ‘I’ve been working at this place for so many years, and I’ve been trying to legally get a permanent work visa, and I can’t get it,” Rodriguez says. (Even green card applicants wait more than five years, on average, for the chance to submit an application.)
Legal immigrants, he says, “get a little annoyed” by the warmer welcome America rolls out for the new arrivals.
“They never came here with the expectation that they were going to be taken care of,” he says about the old-timers.
Now, however, “a lot of the people coming here are coming with the expectation that they’re going to be taken care of.”
Far from the roar of the subway lines, there’s a shelter that houses about a thousand migrants near the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Men who’ve recently crossed the border sell sneakers as cars zip overhead on the Queens Expressway.
With only ten dollars to his name, Omar Kalla, 25, can’t afford to sell sneakers yet. But he hopes it’s enough to buy merchandise he can flip, so that he’s one step closer to joining the street vendor game.
Five months ago, he was dodging bullets in Sudan. The civil war had finally caught up with his village in Darfur, where the United Nations has verified accounts of mass graves, rape, and looting.
“My life was in grave danger,” Kalla tells me, speaking Arabic into an app on his phone that translates his speech into English. “We were being shot at in the house, so I had to run away.”
He says he spent everything he had on a plane ticket to Ecuador. And after that, he walked and caught the odd bus for forty days, until he reached the U.S. border.
“I worked along the way,” he says. “Sometimes I would sell candy.”
He was originally hoping to enter the U.S. through the diversity lottery program, but he says he ended up rejected like 99.8 percent of applicants. Now that he’s here, he dreams of becoming a veterinarian who cares for animals like his camel back home, named Nasir. But he just wants a job, period.
“I was hoping to enter legally but the winds were blowing in a way that the ships do not want,” he says.
I ask if he’s heard that some Americans don’t want him here.
“I heard something like this,” he nods. “We hope to improve our image and to be a good addition to the city. We want to decrease the burden on the government and rely on ourselves.”
About a mile away, Jairo, a 42-year-old Puerto Rican, is waiting for construction jobs at a Home Depot, where contractors come to hire day laborers.
He tells me that the migrant influx has made it harder for him to get by as a construction worker. Since they started showing up this past spring, he says some are underbidding him with rates as low as $50 for a full day’s work. And lately, he says he’s been doing a lot of waiting, holding out for an employer that will pay him closer to his standard rate of $250 a day.
“They do take the jobs,” he says of the migrants. “It’s become extremely competitive to get a job because these contractors know somebody’s going to take it.”
Now, he says he’s on his fourth day of no work.
“A lot of us are mad,” he says, kicking pebbles on the pavement. “Everybody gets affected.”
Marcus Marte, the Dominican factory worker, says “the melting pot” is what makes America beautiful—but it all falls apart when rule-breakers defy the law. And that’s why he says he patiently waited for five years to bring his wife to the U.S. legally.
“I could’ve easily brought my wife through Mexico,” he says. “But you have to do the right thing.”
When he first arrived here, over thirty years ago, he says he was “fascinated” by the “law and order” of this country. But now, he says a few bad actors threaten the whole system.
“It’s about the fruit of my effort,” he says. “If everyone keeps taking advantage, I think my generation is going to be the last generation that collects Social Security.”
Then his voice drops in tone, as if he’s confessing an uncomfortable truth.
“This is not the America from when I came here,” he says. “It has changed.”
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