The migrants started lining up by dawn. After trekking to New York from across Latin America, young people and families had made their way to an elementary school on the Lower East Side to be greeted, in Spanish, by immigrants who had come before them.
Most of the greeters were Venezuelan, and many had made the same trek just weeks before. They guided the newest newcomers to tables covered in clothes and shoes, connected them to legal services, or offered a haircut and hot meal.
Yicel Rondon arrived in New York earlier this year with her partner and two children, after fleeing Venezuela and Colombia. “We came here with nothing — just the clothes we were wearing and our documents,” she said.
The makeshift welcome center run weekly out of the cafeteria at P.S. 20 Anna Silver Elementary has become one of the first stops for new migrants as they get their bearings in a new country. Many arrive with few connections to New York and have ended up in homeless shelters, which officials have said are past the breaking point. The city has recently stepped up a campaign to encourage migrants to move out of the shelter system — or out of the city altogether.
But the center is also a sign that some of the new immigrants are settling in and, in some cases, becoming self-sufficient.
Before the latest influx, the Venezuelan diaspora in New York City was tiny, estimated at 21,000 in 2021, including about 14,000 persons born in Venezuela. In the last year and a half, the number has roughly tripled. Officials have estimated that at least 40,000 Venezuelan migrants have arrived in New York City since 2022. While other migrants might have a consulate where they can turn, Venezuelans do not. Their consulate is closed, a result of deteriorated diplomatic relations between the United States and Venezuela.
The city opened an intake center at the Roosevelt Hotel in Midtown earlier this year to help place migrants in shelters and connect them to services, months after the city declared a crisis. The administration of Mayor Eric Adams set up an asylum application assistance program in June. It helped migrants complete more than 5,600 applications by mid-October, officials said.
But the city has received more than 130,000 newcomers, and their needs are enormous. Various volunteer groups and nonprofits have also provided clothing donations and other assistance. But migrants attempting to apply for asylum or protection from deportation need help to muster documents and navigate a complex court process.
Jesus Aguais and his nonprofit organization, Aid for Life, have since July 2022 tried to fill the gaps. Mr. Aguais, who is Venezuelan, has been established in New York for decades. His organization grew out of a sister nonprofit, Aid For AIDS, that Mr. Aguais set up in 1996 to provide free antiretroviral medication to people with H.I.V. in Latin America.
“We started providing nutrition to Venezuelans with the Venezuelan humanitarian emergency,” he said. “Then we expanded to migrants. This is all linked. We helped them in Venezuela, then in Colombia, then Peru, then Panama, now in New York.”
In addition to weekly welcome events, called “jornadas” in Spanish, Aid For Life holds legal workshops explaining the asylum process and has clinics where Venezuelan paralegals volunteer. They help migrants submit asylum claims and applications for temporary humanitarian protection — both of which enable them to work. The paralegals, who have been flying up from Miami, are now about to open an office locally to help with the volume of cases.
“This is about building community from the inside out,” Mr. Aguais said. “It’s not just about humanitarian aid. This is the first step to integration.”
On a Saturday in October that topped 70 degrees, that first step began in line outside ABC Playground, next to P.S. 20.
An Aid For Life staff member directed first-timers to volunteers who asked about everything from their nationality to their pregnancy status, and what services they needed.
Gelson Montero, 28, had come to the jornada a week prior, following the advice of an aunt who had arrived earlier. “Because of that I have these clothes,” he said, pointing to the sweatshirt and pants he wore.
Mr. Montero and his partner, Yusmely Parra, 24, arrived in New York on Oct. 5 and Ms. Parra gave birth the next day. It was the first time Ms. Parra was well enough to come to a jornada.
Breastfeeding her newborn with one hand, she sifted through piles of clothes with the other, pulling out a pair of jeans and a bra for herself, a princess dress for her older daughter, and a one-piece suit for the baby. Among a limited supply of shoes, she was lucky to find a pair of sneakers that fit. Volunteers handed her a pack of diapers.
Migrants also came for hot food: rice, beans, and chicken or meat prepared by the nearby Dominican restaurant, El Castillo de Jagua.
“It’s delicious,” said Yusty Parra, Mr. Montero’s aunt. (She is not related to Yusmely Parra.)
Mr. Aguais spends about $3,000 each week on the food. Other expenses include the permit for the school, bags of dry goods to give away, and token thank you gifts for volunteers. Small grants cover the costs and are supplemented by donations of clothing and food. Each week, Mr. Aguais also enlists the help of 30 to 40 volunteers.
The jornadas have served more than 20,000 migrants, he said.
Yordany Corona, 16, came for a free haircut. His barber on this day, Roybert Suarez, arrived in New York in September and began volunteering right away. Yordany’s father chatted with other newcomers while Mr. Suarez closely shaved his son’s neck.
Nearby, Selitza Castro, 51, a volunteer, explained that she has come every week since she arrived at the Port Authority Bus Terminal last year. She moved out of a homeless shelter and into a rental apartment in Brooklyn a few months ago.
“Those of us who have been here longer, we are a little more established — not very, but a little,” Ms. Castro said. “We feel like family, helping others who have arrived more recently.”