Around three dozen migrants stood inside a barricaded area in the north wing of the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Midtown Manhattan, aided by a host of volunteers and National Guard members on Wednesday afternoon.
They weren’t disembarking from a chartered bus at the terminal, according to volunteers at the site who help the migrants by giving them clothes and meals, helping them coordinate their next steps for their lives in the city. They gathered in the cordoned-off area, a kind of resource space, to exchange requests and information with each other and aid workers.
Rather, they were a mix of people who had already arrived in the city and people who had just made it to New York on commercial buses, or from entry points other than the bus terminal — all of them there seeking help at what’s become a sort of unofficial resource center for migrants.
While the number of chartered buses has dwindled in recent months as a result of federal policies, the importance of the Port Authority, the world’s busiest bus terminal, remains.
It’s become a landmark location for migrants, mentioned in WhatsApp groups and other social media hubs as a place to get answers and a helping hand.
“It only makes sense to actually have services at the port of entry, or near the port of entry,” said immigration activist Adama Bah, who is volunteering at the site most days. “Those are where the migrants are coming, right? So it only makes sense to have a walk-in policy at any time, at any moment.”
The migrants at the terminal on Wednesday afternoon included Alexander Febres Gonzalez, a 21-year-old Venezuelan, who arrived in the city five days earlier.
Febres Gonzalez said after crossing the border and paying for a bus from El Paso to Denver, he got on a free bus that went straight to Port Authority, where he was greeted with an offer of a free bus ticket if he had a place to stay elsewhere in the country. Now, he’d returned to the bus hub after a hunt for work that yielded only one offer for a job that would start in February and pay $10 an hour, off the books.
He came back to Port Authority to see if the offer of a free ticket still stood. It did. Febres Gonzalez, a cousin and two friends who were making the trip with him all smoked cigarettes in the January cold just outside of the bus terminal, snapping pictures and taking in the views of the soaring Midtown buildings. Next they would be off to try their luck in another American city.
“The process isn’t too difficult,” Gonzalez said in Spanish, about getting a ticket to another city. “You get here and they attend to you. You talk to them and if they have the availability, they give it to you. If not, you have to wait.”
A City Hall spokesperson did not answer a direct question about who provides and pays for those tickets. She suggested consulting a November press release in which an administration official says, “In New York City, asylum seekers will continue to be greeted with the compassionate care and dedicated support needed to meet them where they are and help them get where they want to go.”
The unofficial hub at Port Authority, where migrants can find people in an ever-growing network of volunteers to help new arrivals, exists in addition to an Asylum Seeker Resource Navigation Center at the American Red Cross of Greater New York headquarters a few blocks north, on West 49th Street. Mayor Eric Adams announced its creation in August. Nine satellite locations across the five boroughs have opened since then.
Bah, the activist and volunteer, said that migrants who arrived in New York City started returning to the Port Authority site about a month after the first buses chartered by the Texas government started coming to the city last summer, but that those return visits have ramped up in recent weeks.
She said that 100 to 200 migrants, not including those just coming off chartered buses, are visiting Port Authority each day.
Bah said many come with “shelter issues” they need the city to address, and end up back at the bus terminal after unsuccessful attempts to navigate the city’s bureaucracy and find help elsewhere. Other migrants come, she said, to get bus tickets to other locations, obtain help enrolling their children in school, or find legal aid.
Natalia Astudillo — who is staying with her husband and 6-year-old daughter at the Stewart Hotel near Penn Station, one of several Manhattan hotels the city is using to provide housing for migrants — visited the Red Cross navigation center on Wednesday to get help related to the city’s municipal identification card, legal services and OSHA certification programs.
The Ecuadorian family has been in New York City for about two weeks, following a short stay with relatives in New Jersey who told them to visit the Port Authority to get help finding shelter. That’s the case for many, who are shuttled daily from the bus terminal to city intake shelters in MTA buses.
Things have changed at Port Authority since the first chartered buses carrying migrants began arriving this past summer. Initially, the city played a major role at the site, particularly the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs (MOIA).
But after Adams declared a state of emergency about the influx of migrants back in October, Gov. Kathy Hochul responded by sending in the National Guard to help at several locations, including Port Authority.
Bah and Ilze Thielmann, the director of TEAM TLC, a volunteer organization that’s been at Port Authority since migrants began arriving on chartered buses last summer, said the Guard is now the main government agency helping with the day-to-day operations of the site.
They lauded the National Guard’s presence at the barricaded area, saying the troops ran a smooth operation to support migrants, and noted that the city recently set up a re-ticketing operation at the bus terminal, so that migrants looking for transport to other places wouldn’t have to traverse the city to obtain a bus ticket before coming back to Port Authority.
Bah also spoke highly of Port Authority itself, saying it could have simply closed down the space that they’ve been providing.
“If you ask me, Port Authority has been the foundation that has actually been important to migrants by just giving them a space to be there and for us to welcome them,” Bah said.
With fewer buses arriving these days, Thielmann said she hears talk about shrinking the cordoned-off space for greeting migrants, or even doing away with it altogether.
But, she said, as Team TLC is actively discussing setting up its own satellite sites, it’s vital to have a presence near the buses.
“They’re going to come to the Port Authority looking for assistance, and we don’t want to have to send them terribly far away,” Thielmann said.
Port Authority spokesperson Amanda Kwan told THE CITY that the agency, which is jointly controlled by the states of New York and New Jersey, “continues to provide support, including space, to the city and the state as they arrange for the intake of immigrants at the Midtown Bus Terminal.”
Kwan directed to city government any questions about whether the migrants’ space at the terminal could be reduced or removed to another location.
Ines Bebea, a deputy press secretary at the NYC Office of Emergency Management, did not directly answer those questions in a statement to THE CITY. “At this point, we are receiving asylum seekers from multiple ports of entry into New York City,” Bebea said. “As the number of asylum seekers arriving in our city has continued, our Port Authority operations remain in place, but, as we have said, we’re in serious need of additional federal and state assistance to handle this crisis.”
‘On Our Own Account’
The Port Authority operation closes at 5 p.m., Bah said, even as volunteers remain to offer help after that, as was the case on Wednesday. The National Guard departed before 6 p.m., while volunteers gave sandwiches and bananas to a group of about half a dozen men who told THE CITY they’d just arrived from Denver.
Standing outside the barricaded area was Katherine Quiroga, 29, and her young son. She had just crossed paths on West 31 Street with a friend from her hometown of Quito, Ecuador who had arrived in the city that day.
Quiroga walked with her friend to the bus terminal because “here they help,” she said in Spanish. She visited Port Authority for the first time a week ago, after a humanitarian organization provided her, her husband and their two children with transportation from Washington D.C.
Her friend stepped outside of the barricaded area and gave her a hug before rushing back inside to board an MTA bus that would take her to an intake shelter.
“Here they give us direction and help us with a shelter while we find work, get situated and then are able to pay for rent on our own account,” Quiroga said.
THE CITY is an independent, nonprofit news outlet dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.