Many migrants who flooded into NYC are ‘on the edge of despair’ as they struggle to find work — and stability

·7 min read

NEW YORK — Jesus O. was a skilled HVAC technician and business owner in Venezuela who thought his skills would easily secure him work when he came to New York last October amid a flood of migrants flowing into New York.

But now, each day, he wanders the streets looking for work.

“I have the experience. And I have the ability,” he said. “And there is this passion and desire to work. I’m just waiting for someone to let me work.”

More than 45,000 migrants have come to New York City since last spring, straining the city’s shelter system and sparking conflict over policy and funding between New York and Washington. Their journey here was treacherous: Nearly all of the migrants coming from the southern border waded through the Rio Grande, braved the dangerous stretch of jungle called the Darien Gap, walked for days on end and faced thieves and attackers.

But getting here was one thing.

Making a life here is another, and finding consistent work is nearly impossible for recent migrants.

“If I don’t have a job, I can’t just sit in the hotel, locked up, sleeping, doing nothing,” Jesus O. said. “I came to New York to work, to produce.”

The migrants The News spoke to said they are ready to start working. They want to build lives for themselves and support their families, especially after being bounced around the city’s shelter system and relying heavily on straining networks of nonprofits and volunteers.

However, their options are limited. While asylum seekers are legally allowed to work, federal policy requires they wait six months after they submit asylum applications to get a work permit. Mayor Eric Adams has called on Washington to loosen federal rules for asylum seekers to allow them to more quickly enter the workforce.

Even after the six months have passed, the legal system is so backed up that the process is all but guaranteed to drag on longer.

“A lot of them are living on the edge of despair,” said Pastor Juan Carlos Ruiz, of the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Bay Ridge, where he does migrant outreach.

Many of those who dreamed of a better life in New York are losing hope, he said. Some are thinking of giving up and trying their luck elsewhere.

“They come under the perception that once they get here, they will get a job,” he said.

“And it’s a big lie.”

Shadow economy

With legal paths forward closed off, Migrants are pushed into the city’s shadow economy, working for cash under the table. Beyond the day to day challenges of finding steady work, they are particularly vulnerable to wage theft, are more likely to work long hours for less pay and may be exposed to unsafe working conditions.

“These are jobs that are poorly regulated, industries where there are very few protections, and a lot of the businesses and employers actually rely on and make a profitable and sustainable business by exploiting the labor of newly arrived migrants because they’re more vulnerable,” Ligia Guallpa, Director of the Workers Justice Project, a worker’s rights center.

“Because of the lack of employment, job opportunities and workforce development pathways, workers have to feel that they have to accept anything that employers can offer,” Guallpa added.

The influx of migrants, the turbulent economy and the rising cost of labor have made jobs even more scare, said Kimberly Vega, director of the Day Laborer Workforce Initiative at La Colmena, a nonprofit based on Staten Island. Last week, she had 198 people she was trying to find work for. She was only able to place for ten.

“Usually, we have 20 people looking for a job, and at least would be able to dispatch half of them,” Vega said.

Jesus lives in a homeless shelter in lower Manhattan. He’s worked with heating, ventilation, and cooling systems for 18 years – since he was a teenager.

He spent money he barely has printing business cards with his contact information and a picture of him working, and posts about his work and skills on Instagram to market himself. When he’s not looking for work, he finds construction training courses. He’s gathering every bit of legitimacy he can, trying to leave absolutely no doubt that he’s qualified.

“The hardest part about not finding consistent work is that I can’t support myself, because you have to work to pay rent, for your own things, to avoid depending on the government,” Jesus said. “I need to work.”

Armed with his certifications and cards, he walks – a lot. He walks through Manhattan, stopping to drop a card at construction sites he passes. He walks through Queens, from Long Island City to Ozone Park. He pops into every construction company and introduces himself, showing managers examples of his work.

As he walks and goes to different construction sites and companies, he writes the names, addresses and contact information of potential employers in his tight handwriting on a carefully folded white sheet of paper.

When he does find work, he has to be cautious – recently, he was hired for a few weeks to do electricity work – but they never paid him. Jesus says the company owes him around $3,500.

“They never call”

Karen Tipan, a 25-year-old migrant from Ecuador, came to the US looking for a better opportunity for her three-year-old son. She’s a single mother who came to NY with her father, who was placed in a shelter far away, in the Rockaways.

“It’s tough to get a job,” Tipan said. “They ask me for a work permit, social security. If I don’t have that, they’ll tell me, for example, they’ll pay me $13, $12, $10 an hour. Others tell me, if you don’t have papers, I can’t let you work, because it’s illegal… I’ve tried all kinds of restaurants, McDonalds, fast food places, they all ask for social and ID.”

Having a child makes the search for work even more difficult: Her son is too young to go to school, and the shelter rules prevent her from letting another mother look after him. She has to coordinate with her dad, who is far away, or others, to watch her toddler outside the shelter while she looks for work.

“Some say, ‘Okay, we’ll call you, we’ll look for a position for you,’” she said.

“But they never call.”

Jaison Fernandez, 26, has two kids and a wife. He’s been able to find somewhat consistent work installing windows for a construction company. He gets paid $130 for a full 12 hours of work, about ten dollars an hour. He found it through a friend and considers himself lucky to have the gig – but the hours and days vary widely. Sometimes, he just works one day of the week..

“One day I work, the other, I don’t. Nothing is consistent. Sometimes I don’t get paid,” said Fernandez, who has been in NYC since September. “... We came looking for help,” he said. “It’s not what I hoped–fine. But we need to work, we need working permits.”

Pastor Ruiz said many of those who came to New York with dreams of a brighter future are losing hope.

“The shelter system is riddled with violence,” he said. “They don’t have kitchens where they can cook. Any kind of normalcy that they knew back in their home countries has been taken away. And often they come expressing their anxiety, their despair and they say, ‘I don’t know what to do.’ “

“I think many, I’d say even half of them, are considering to go to other states, because they don’t have enough money to get out of the shelter system – and secondly, the scarcity of jobs, to move so they can find jobs,” Ruiz said.

Gustavo Moreta, from Venezuela, has two young children with his wife. Last week, he decided that he had enough of New York. A friend told him he could get him a job in construction in Minneapolis, and a place to stay for his family.

“It’s too difficult here,” Moreta, 33, said as he sat with his family on the floor of the Port Authority Bus Terminal. “There aren’t any jobs. I walked all over: Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, Jamaica Center. I was looking for jobs in construction, but I never found anything. There aren’t any opportunities here.”