Inside the chaotic system of New York's immigration services

Lack of information, guidance and a language barrier are just a few issues migrants face while waiting sometimes overnight in lines.
Posted at 9:09 PM, Jan 26, 2023

It was a restless night for 10-month-old Adriel Brizuela — out in the cold, exhausted and ready for bedtime.

His parents, Delia Hidalgo and Johny Brizuela, tried to comfort him, but they say they don't have a choice in the situation; they have to be there.

The Venezuelan migrant family was lined up along with dozens of others outside a building in lower Manhattan.

"We must come because if you don't, you get into trouble with immigration," Brizuela said.

Migrants from all over the world are there, attempting to make it inside 26 Federal Plaza: a building housing New York City's check-in office for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, as well as the city's busiest immigration court and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office.

"I've never seen lines that long at the court, and I've never seen people line up so early," said Cassandra Estassi, staff attorney at Central American Legal Assistance.

Estassi says some of the recently arrived migrants must see an ICE official to meet their ICE check-in deadline. Others have appointments for immigration court hearings.

"The immigrant will have to update their address and their phone number, and it's something that immigrants are told that they must do in order to comply with their process to be able to seek asylum," Estassi said.

Estassi says the situation is creating chaos and confusion. Her office assisted an asylum seeker who stood in line for hours for her scheduled court appointment, not knowing she was waiting in the ICE check-in line and not the line for immigration court.

New York City mayor says there is no more room for migrants

New York City mayor says there is no more room for migrants

Mayor Eric Adams made the comments in El Paso, Texas after touring conditions in the Texas border city.


"She actually received an in absentia, a deportation order, because she didn't show up to her hearing," Estassi said.

She added that they were able to reopen the case, though if the order had not been resolved and had she not sought legal aid, she could have been deported to her home country. However, most migrants can't pay for a lawyer. She also said it could be possible there are people who don't even know they received a deportation order in their absence.

Because the ICE check-in office can only see 500 people a day and there aren't any staff guiding the migrants, those with appointments and ICE check-ins sometimes begin the line the night before.

Thursday, for instance, people began arriving as early as 8 pm. Some people, even children, slept on the sidewalk on top of cardboard and covered in sheets. Temperatures are low in the late night, and most people don't have proper coats.

One Ecuadorian migrant told Scripps News it was his second time trying to get a spot to finally make it into the court. Last week, he tried the same thing, but he and his family were not able to go inside. A woman inside a box took it upon herself to build a list with names to create some order for those waiting.

Then, there's another line for immigration court. It starts later, often shorter and quicker as people are allowed in for their appointment times.

"It's very confusing," Estassi said. "There aren't instructions in any language. There aren't instructions in Spanish, which a lot of the immigrants going there speak."

Minutes after Scripps News arrived, the building's security staff came outside, forcing everyone to form a line but never asked who was there for ICE check-in or an appointment.

A Brazilian woman arrived in New York 10 days ago after leaving Brazil to escape domestic violence and death threats from her husband. She says the situation in the city is like searching for a needle in a haystack.

Since April, Texas and Florida's Republican governors have bused thousands of asylum-seeking migrants to cities run by Democratic politicians, inundating cities like New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams said 41,000 asylum-seekers have arrived in the Big Apple since last April, and about 28,000 asylum-seekers are currently in the city's care amid the uncertainty.

ICE did not respond to Scripps News' questions about specific steps being taken by the agency to guide migrants outside the building but provided this statement to Scripps News: "U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is working to address current processing delays at some ICE offices. Noncitizens should review the ICE check-in criteria and, when possible, make an appointment using the ICE appointment scheduler."

That's a website set up by ICE for migrants to schedule their appointments.

The ICE official adds in the statement that: "The ICE appointment scheduler may help noncitizens avoid waiting on the phone or traveling to an ICE office to make an appointment on a walk-in basis."

In spite of the efforts by ICE, the majority of the migrants are not working, so they do not have the money to pay for a phone or access to the internet, making it almost impossible to use the tool.

As for Hidalgo, she's still hopeful there's an end of the tunnel.

"We want to work, pull through, because this has been tough. It's been rough, but we only came to work," Hidalgo said.

Migrants at New York City shelters are lacking necessities

Migrants at New York City shelters are lacking necessities

New York City residents are volunteering to help the wave of migrants arriving by bus from Texas into the Big Apple.