Biden's visit, speech at UN overshadowed by a crisis just across the street in NYC

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NEW YORK – Just a few city blocks separate the towering, glass-curtained high-rise that serves as the U.N. headquarters and the hotel-turned-shelter that is Cristina Garcia’s and Raul Vaca’s temporary home.

But they feel worlds apart. Because they are.

One is a world of power and prestige. The other is inhabited by people trying to survive.

President Joe Biden and other world leaders gathered this week at the annual U.N. General Assembly, where they are deliberating matters of global importance such as regional security, climate change and the war in Ukraine.

Inside the Roosevelt Hotel, a century-old structure that has been converted into a shelter for some of the migrants who have flooded into the city, Garcia and Vaca are focused on more basic needs. A safe place to live. A steady job. A good education for their sons.

The couple and their three young boys fled the violence and corruption of Ecuador in July in search of a better life. They slogged through the dangerous Darien Gap, a remote jungle between Colombia and Panama that is a treacherous and often deadly pathway for migrants making their way to the United States. They survived dangers from traffickers and police in Guatemala and Mexico before eventually ending up in New York, where they hope to obtain work permits and find a permanent home.

“All we want is stability,” said Garcia, a restaurant cook in Quito, whose forehead still bears a large scar from when mafia members in Ecuador tried to rob her and split her head open. “When we have stability, we can work. We can help out our kids. We don’t want to be a burden to the state.”

Recently arrived immigrants in New York City gather outside the Roosevelt Hotel, which has been converted into a temporary shelter.
Recently arrived immigrants in New York City gather outside the Roosevelt Hotel, which has been converted into a temporary shelter.

For New York City Mayor Eric Adams and other city leaders, the influx of migrants over the past year has devolved into a full-fledged crisis, overwhelming the city’s shelters, schools and other resources and straining relations with the Biden administration, whom Adams says has offered little support. “This issue will destroy New York City,” Adams lamented earlier this month.

For Biden, who addressed the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, the migrant crisis is one of several domestic issues that trail him wherever he goes, even as he tries to project power on the world stage.

House Republicans have opened an impeachment inquiry into his son Hunter Biden’s business dealings and the family finances. Inflation remains a major concern for voters, whom polls suggest aren’t buying Biden’s message that the country is experiencing an economic rebound.

Thousands of United Auto Workers are on strike against Detroit’s Big Three automakers, testing Biden’s claim that he is the most pro-union president in history. Republicans are attacking Biden over a deal the administration negotiated to unfreeze $6 billion in Iranian oil revenues in exchange for the release of five Americans imprisoned in Iran. And a federal judge in Texas ruled last week that a revised version of an Obama-era policy that protects undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children violates federal law, dealing another blow to so-called “Dreamers.”

On Wednesday night, the Biden administration announced it would offer nearly half a million Venezuelans temporary protection to live and work in the U.S., a change that Adams and other top New York Democrats welcomed to help thousands of asylum seekers stuck in city shelters and hotels.

Threats and instability in the South American country prompted the Department of Homeland Security's announcement it would extend Temporary Protected Status to about 472,000 migrants if they'd arrived in the U.S. before July 31. This includes tens of thousands of newly arrived Venezuelan people in New York City, where they make up more than 40% of asylum seekers who have arrived since spring 2022, many of whom are stuck without legal access to work. The Adams administration estimated about 15,000 people currently in the city's care would be immediately eligible for the status, including work permits.

Nearly 243,000 people already benefit from Venezuela’s previously existing status.

The migrant crisis that has vexed New York officials has been particularly problematic for Biden. More than 110,000 migrants have poured into the city over the past year, at times sleeping on cardboard boxes in the street when shelters have run out of room to accommodate them.

Adams has slammed the Biden administration’s response to the crisis, arguing it has not followed through on the city’s request for measures that would provide some relief. Adams is pushing for the federal government to fast-track work authorization permits, which would allow migrants to take some of the thousands of jobs in the city that he says are waiting to be filled and would provide some much-needed relief to the city’s overburdened resources.

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New York City Mayor Eric Adams
New York City Mayor Eric Adams

The tension has created a rift between the two Democrats. Biden and Adams haven’t spoken in months and weren't scheduled to meet while Biden is in town.

Biden did, however, attend a pair of campaign receptions while in Manhattan to raise money for his 2024 reelection bid.

At the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on Broadway on Monday night, he took the stage as an orchestra played “All That Jazz.” Outside, a large red, white and blue marquee proclaimed, “Broadway for Biden.” Biden told the crowd of actors, theatre producers and others that the future of the country is on the ballot and said that if he’s reelected, “We will have saved democracy.”

Tensions persist over migrant crisis

Adams's office says New York has largely dealt with the deluge of migrants on its own since spring 2022, sheltering asylum seekers across 200 emergency sites with more than 60,000 people in care.

The city is mandated under its decades-old "right to shelter" law to provide emergency shelter to anyone who needs it, though officials have sought to undo the law in court and urge the state government to help house migrants.

The city has spent more than $2 billion to date on the crisis, with $5 billion in costs projected this fiscal year and $12 billion over three fiscal years. In response, Adams has ordered city agencies to implement a 5% reduction in spending by November.

"For more than a year, we have urged the federal government to show national leadership on this national issue by allowing asylum seekers to work, declaring a federal state of emergency, and implementing a decompression strategy at the border to provide relief to New York City," Charles Lutvak, a deputy press secretary to the mayor, said in a statement to USA TODAY.

While Biden and Adams haven't spoken, other administration officials have been in touch with city leaders. White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients talked with Adams early last week. White House senior adviser Tom Perez met with the mayor last Thursday to go over ways they could partner to better manage the arrival of migrants.

The federal government is working to provide information and services to ensure that those migrants who are eligible for work permits submit their applications immediately, White House assistant press secretary Angelo Fernandez Hernandez said.

Fifty federal personnel will be sent to New York this month to educate people on the immigration system and how to apply for work permits. The administration already has sent more than a million emails and text messages to hundreds of thousands of migrants who may qualify for work permits to remind them of their eligibility to apply.

In addition, at the request of the city and state, the National Park Service and local officials are finalizing a lease for portions of Floyd Bennett Field, a southern Brooklyn airfield that will serve as one of the largest shelter spaces available to the city. The federal government has provided the city and state with more than $140 million in federal funding this year and has requested an additional $600 million for shelters and related services.

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Migrants sleep outside the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City. The hotel has been converted into a temporary shelter for immigrants who have recently arrived in the city.
Migrants sleep outside the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City. The hotel has been converted into a temporary shelter for immigrants who have recently arrived in the city.

Adjusting to life in a shelter

Outside the Roosevelt Hotel, scooters that some migrants use for food deliveries, often for under-the-table wages, lined the street one day last week. Near midnight, families walked around the hotel aimlessly or sat in front of shuttered storefronts, talking on the phone or just looking at evening construction. Men stood chatting and smoking.

Garcia, 24, and Vaca, 30, appreciate the resources made available to migrants at the hotel. But appointments to apply for housing took days, they said. Shelter life also has been an adjustment for the family. Their children haven’t gotten used to the American diet and eating so many fruits and vegetables. At a friend’s apartment, they made rice with tuna, the easiest meal to prepare.

On Manhattan’s Upper West Side, parents like Anna Azvolinsky blame the city administration for strained school resources and crowded classrooms.

Nearly 20,000 migrant children have shown up in New York City classrooms in recent months. Azvolinsky’s two children attend P.S. 145, a diverse elementary school in a posh neighborhood. The school offers dual-language programs in Spanish and Russian. Last year, it gained notoriety for a surge of migrant students and was highlighted on “60 Minutes” by city officials as an example of the strain the new arrivals have placed on local resources.

To accommodate the new students, spaces normally used for music, the library and a television studio have been converted into classrooms. Those logistical challenges remain unresolved just days into the academic year, without help from the city, said Azvolinsky, who was born in the Soviet Union.

“They're not even doing the minimum for these new immigrants, and just overall for students,” she said. “Basically, what they're doing is, for some purpose or not, driving away people that can afford to leave the public school system.”

A few blocks south, Kyra Burstion, 63, dropped off her 7-year-old granddaughter at the entrance to P.S. 163 on a sunny morning. Burstion attended the same school as a child, as did her children. Her granddaughter’s second-grade classroom has seen a flood of migrant students, which initially caused Burstion concern about resources.

Burstion said her granddaughter hasn’t mentioned any differences in terms of schooling. But her granddaughter now has friends from Africa, Europe and Latin America. Diversity has always been the norm in local public schools, though.

“They’re used to that,” Burstion said.

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Damien Salinas, 5, right, hugs  a friend on his first day of school in New York City after his family emigrated from Ecuador in June. Damien and her family have been living in a room at the historic Roosevelt Hotel, which has been converted into a temporary shelter.
Damien Salinas, 5, right, hugs a friend on his first day of school in New York City after his family emigrated from Ecuador in June. Damien and her family have been living in a room at the historic Roosevelt Hotel, which has been converted into a temporary shelter.

'Está bien, mamá. Está bien.'

After dropping off their children at P.S. 163, three young mothers, all from Venezuela, slowly walked back to the subway. They had to travel about 60 blocks to the midtown hotel where they lived in a shelter. On the way, they chatted about their mothers back home, work authorization and when it would start getting cold in the fall in New York.

Yohalis Hernandez, 28, said her 6-year-old daughter wants to get to her first grade classroom quickly in the morning and doesn’t want to leave once class is finished.

Hernandez’s daughter tells her that some kids at the school speak English and some speak Spanish. Two of her daughter’s four new friends speak both languages.

“That’s why you need to learn so you can speak with them and other kids,” Hernandez said she tells her daughter.

“Está bien, mamá,” her daughter responds. “Está bien.” All right, Mom. All right.

Before heading home, the three women stopped in front of a Catholic church.

Diana Aguilar, 27, has two children, ages 5 and 7, in school. She takes care of her 7-month-old, Guillermo, during the day. In the stroller, he had been feeling sick, so she nursed him on the church’s ledge before they descended to the subway and back to the shelter.

Reach Eduardo Cuevas on Twitter, formerly X, @eduardomcuevas and Michael Collins @mcollinsNEWS.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Migrant crisis just one of many shadows lurking over Joe Biden at UN