New York

Inside the Manhattan Hotel That Is the New Ellis Island

Inside a once grand but long-faded hotel in midtown Manhattan, dozens of immigrants huddle together beneath large chandeliers as they wait hours to be processed. They give their information — where they’ve come from, and their ultimate destination — and they strip down for a medical examination. They rest and hold their children tight.

But at the Roosevelt Hotel, New York’s new Ellis Island, as one city official called it, there is no view of the Statue of Liberty, only the Men’s Wearhouse across the street. And there is no giant American flag to greet immigrants, as there was in Ellis Island’s Great Hall. Instead there is a smiling portrait of Guy Lombardo, the once-famous bandleader who led the hotel’s house band, watching over everyone.

The Roosevelt — where Dewey conceded to Truman in 1948 — has become a symbol of the huge scale of the migrant crisis and a faltering government response.

Kelvis Jose Marquez, with his daughter, Keiliani, stopped in New York City briefly, but plan to keep moving soon.

In May, New York City began directing new immigrants to the hotel’s lobby, where they register with city officials upon arriving in town.

By July, the doors closed for several nights, leaving immigrants to sleep on the sidewalk outside the hotel. The city could not keep up with their surging numbers.

Dr. Ted Long, a public health official who is helping lead the city’s response to the migrant crisis, said he believes the Roosevelt Hotel is, ultimately, a hopeful symbol.

“We’re creating a new Ellis Island for New York City,” he said Wednesday afternoon after a new batch of migrants arrived: a Syrian man with a backward ball cap and a red roller suitcase, a family of four from Angola, a Venezuelan couple debating whether to stay in New York or find their way to Washington State, and dozens of others.

The lobby of the Roosevelt Hotel has been transformed into a processing center for migrants, many who go on to stay here or in other makeshift homeless shelters around the city because they have nowhere else to go.

But Mayor Eric Adams has sought to curtail who can come and stay in the care of the city, which has a unique legal obligation to provide shelter to any homeless person who asks for a bed. Officials believe this has become a draw to some migrants arriving in the country with nowhere to go, and limiting that right has become part of a broader campaign by city and state officials to respond to the influx.

In an interview on CNN on Wednesday evening, Gov. Kathy Hochul discussed one victory: A decision by the Biden administration to allow thousands of Venezuelans, the biggest group of newcomers in New York, to stay and work legally. She also said that she agreed with the mayor’s goals to restrict the right-to-shelter guarantee.

“We don’t have capacity,” Ms. Hochul said in the interview, adding, “Never was it envisioned that this would be an unlimited, universal right or obligation on the city to have to house literally the entire world.”

Officials have been reluctant to let reporters into the hotel, but on Wednesday, Dr. Long offered a limited tour. In the stale, warm air of the lobby, scores of immigrants waited for hours before receiving a bed assignment, either upstairs in one of the hotel’s 850 rooms, usually occupied, or at shelters — some without showers — spread across the city.

Young children, exhausted by their long journey — days for some, weeks for others — lay in their parent’s laps, sleeping or staring up at the shimmering lights overhead.

Outside the Roosevelt Hotel, Junior Marteguillen, who came from Venezuela five months ago, waits to see his wife, who is staying there. He hopes to find an apartment upstate so his wife can join him.

Like Ellis Island, the immigrant station in New York Harbor through which some 12 million people passed before its closure in 1954, the Roosevelt Hotel is becoming the gate through which the newest New Yorkers enter the city.

There are plenty of differences. The most obvious one is scale: The number of migrants processed at the Roosevelt is in the tens of thousands.

And while Ellis Island was run by the federal government, the operation at the Roosevelt Hotel is run by the city, and staffed by contractors.

Laundry hangs in a window at the Roosevelt Hotel, which is holding about 850 families.

Immigrants pass through what was once known as the Palm Room, with a sky mural on the ceiling, and into a large banquet hall for their medical exam. There they are screened for a range of illnesses, from tuberculosis to depression, and asked to disrobe behind a series of dividers for a full-body skin exam.

Rechel Rondon Flores, who is from Venezuela, waits with her daughter, Ashley Rondon Flores, 4, and son, Diego de Jesus Aparicio Rondon, 6, to get vaccinations.

Clinicians with a medical contracting firm, DocGo, examine them for measles or chickenpox. On Wednesday afternoon, a Venezuelan woman waited nearby with her daughter and son, who were about to receive the M.M.R. vaccine. The girl, scowling, seemed to be deciding whether to protest or not. Her younger brother held a SpongeBob SquarePants balloon.

Migrants wait under the chandelier of the old hotel to figure out where they will go next in the city.

Nearby an Uzbek woman with a stoic expression gently rocked her sleeping baby, just 3 days old. Her husband, Komiljon Doniyorov, 31, stood by them, beaming with pride at anyone who glanced in his direction. “My first,” he said. “This is my son.”

Few people were eager to catch his eye. Families kept to themselves. This far into their journey, children said little, remaining silent. Their parents tended to discuss matters quietly.

One Venezuelan family had faced a big decision. There was a sister here in New York. But another relative who lived clear across the country in Washington State had offered them farm work, if they could make it. The city told them it would pay for a plane, train or bus ticket.

Tania Morales, center, with her daughter, Luna Maradiaga Morales, 2, and husband, Yelsin Maradiaga. They came from Honduras, and arrived in New York Wednesday morning.

At a table by the hotel’s bar, a group of contractors helped migrants book travel. On the stained glass, someone had taped a sheet of paper with a mildly reassuring quote: “Everything is going to be alright, maybe not today but eventually.”

The family decided to head west.

Dr. Long, who works for the city’s public hospital system, said that about a quarter of new arrivals left for somewhere else in the country within 24 hours of arriving to New York, often to find relatives, friends, or better prospects.

But hundreds of those who arrive each day decide to stay in New York. Families are booked in rooms, at the Roosevelt or elsewhere. But at 5 p.m., many of the single men who had been waiting in the lobby were told to line up. They filed out of the hotel and onto another bus.

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