New York (CNN) -- Jean Carlos Marín-Espinoza has a smile as bright as the lights of New York. Standing on a corner in midtown Manhattan, he talks about the generosity he and his family have received so far: a hotel room, food and clothes.
He tells CNN that he and his wife fled Venezuela to escape the poverty, violence and crime that prevail under the repressive regime of President Nicolás Maduro and says he is happy to feel safer and freer.
But then his smile is erased. "You have to smile so you don't cry," he says. "Because if (you cry), then you despair."
He is one of thousands of asylum seekers from around the world who have arrived in New York this summer, straining local resources and becoming a visible sign of the humanitarian influx, many hundreds of miles away, at the southern border. Some of those seen chatting on the streets during the day have been bussed from Texas and others have arrived on their own, but under a local mandate, the city must offer shelter to all.
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That's how Marin-Espinoza and his family got a room at the Roosevelt Hotel. And thanks to the city's help, they've been able to eat and get new clothes to replace all the belongings he says they lost crossing the Rio Grande from Mexico to Texas.
The king-size bed, television and air conditioning they now enjoy are a far cry from the conditions they faced during the month they spent reaching the United States, when they slept when they could and went hungry most of the time. "Here, with the food they have given me, I have gained a little weight," says Marín-Espinoza, still thin. "I was very skinny before."
Mayor Eric Adams has said the cost of the immigration crisis could "destroy" New York unless there is more state and federal aid. Marín-Espinoza is reticent when asked for her opinion on the broader political situation, focusing on immediate needs. She has no home, her one-year-old son is sick and she wants to get a job to support her family.
"It's okay, but what I want most is a job," he says, wearing a donated baseball cap and an "I'm an NYC Vax Champ" T-shirt reminiscent of the city's covid-19 crisis. "With your own work, you can earn your own money."
Inside the new Ellis Island
The Roosevelt Hotel in midtown Manhattan opened in 1924 and closed to guests in 2020 amid the covid-19 pandemic. Credit: Evelio Contreras/CNN
The Roosevelt Hotel that hosted Marin-Espinoza has a gigantic lobby filled with a faded majesty and glamour that once corresponded to its prime location between the gleaming towers of Rockefeller Center and the Chrysler Building, one block from Grand Central Station.
Closed to visitors since 2020, it has passed into the hands of New York City and is now the main migrant reception center. On the upper floors all rooms are full, and the hotel houses about 3,000 people, according to authorities. And downstairs between 300 and 500 people come in every day on average seeking help, explains Dr. Ted Long of New York City Health + Hospitals, which has called the Roosevelt "the new Ellis Island," after the place in New York Harbor through which 12 million immigrants entered the U.S.
Those who arrive first prove they have permission to be in the U.S., while asylum applications are being processed, and then help begins.
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First, they are offered a bath, food, water and provisions for the children. Next, physical and mental health tests are performed and vaccines are administered.
And just as important is the offer of human dignity, said Deputy Mayor for Communications Fabien Levy, especially for those sent to New York by other states.
The grand lobby of the Roosevelt Hotel is now a waiting room for asylum seekers seeking help in New York. Credit: Evelio Contreras/CNN
"Their first interaction in the country was a local government that sent them without food, without adequate health care, that put them on buses to a place that some did not want to come. So we have to rebuild that trust."
There is a lot of noise inside, with the sounds of children crying and playing and wondering what will happen next. There seems to be some hope in the air, but also a lot of weariness, with families who have come this far, but are still so far from a safe new home.
Long added, "In New York City, one of our primary concerns is to make sure that everyone gets the health care, which is a human right, that they deserve, and are not at risk of transmitting preventable diseases to others upon arrival. We solve it as soon as people arrive at the arrival center."
Medical care was one of the main concerns for Leidi Caeza, who was bottle-feeding her 8-month-old baby Mia. She told CNN that they had left Ecuador because the father of her daughter kept threatening to harm them and discriminated against Mia, who needs treatment for an illness.
"I feel happy because I'm here with my baby, I feel safe here," she said.
Leidi Caeza left Ecuador with her baby, Mia, to escape the threat of violence. Credit: Evelio Contreras/CNN
"I'm afraid to go home because of the way he threatened us."
While speaking to CNN, Caeza, 23, received good news. A space had opened up and she was able to move into a room for her and Mia, allowing more people to enter the lobby of the Roosevelt to start their own process.
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The cost of care
Long said offering medical treatment to asylum seekers was not a burden, but simply a normal public health practice to protect everyone from communicable diseases that recognize no borders. But there was a price.
"We are proud to have helped change the lives of more than 110,000 asylum seekers. But we're doing it by footing the bill for the rest of the country. We can't keep doing it if we don't get help," he said.
Levy added more details about what has been spent on asylum seekers: "This fiscal year we expect to spend nearly $5 billion. To put it in perspective, it's almost the budget of the Sanitation Department, the Parks Department and the Fire Department combined."
The city asks all arriving families if they have relatives or friends they want to go to and can help them by getting them a bus ticket to another city. About 1 in 4 has those connections and leaves New York almost immediately, Long said.
Migrants board a bus at the Roosevelt Hotel on May 21, 2023, shortly after the hotel was converted into a reception center. Credit: Evelio Contreras/CNN
But there's a key difference between those arriving in the city now and those arriving through Ellis Island more than a century ago: Many don't have a community waiting to take them in and need to get permission to work, said Murad Awawdeh, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition.
That means they need help at first, but he insists they will contribute as generations of immigrants have done before.
"The people who have come here will be the future of the city and the state," Awawdeh said. "We have a huge need for manpower. We have large numbers of people who have left our city and our state because of covid. We need the population. We have to see this as an opportunity, our golden ticket to help us move into the future and get through the difficult times ahead, because we're going to have a hard time."
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Among the people who enter through the Roosevelt there are many who have made the journey through Central America, but there are also people from all over the world.
Long said one case that has stuck with him was that of a West African woman who had undergone genital mutilation as a baby and had just given birth to a daughter.
"She said she would do everything in her power to prevent her daughter from suffering the same atrocity as she did. So, as soon as she gave birth, she came to the United States and settled in New York," she explained. "Nothing would stand in his way, not even with a two-week-old baby."
Children play and eat under images of President Theodore Roosevelt, after whom the hotel is named, and conductor Guy Lombardo, on September 20, 2023. Credit: Evelio Contreras/CNN
In the Roosevelt's melting pot of cultures, many of the families are Muslim, to the point that the city makes sure that all meals offered are halal. Italian food has turned out to be the most popular, but roast beef sandwiches were a flop, so they were removed from the menu.
For Marín-Espinoza and her family, the ability to buy and cook their own food is getting closer. He was given a new place to stay, and the Biden administration decided to allow Venezuelans who arrived before July 31 to obtain work permits.
He clutched a paper with the address of his new shelter in Queens, New York, along with his subway card. A ride on the New York subway was presented as the next, if not the last, part of your journey.