In New York, a City Official Welcoming Migrants Used to Be One

Photo for The Washington Post by Christopher Gregory-Rivera.
Manuel Castro, New York’s commissioner for immigrant affairs, at City Hall in Manhattan.

NEW YORK – On a chilly Saturday in late February, dozens of recent arrivals to New York filed into a small auditorium in Queens to learn more about applying for asylum.

Bundled in jackets and clutching cellphones, they were just a few of the more than 50,000 migrants who have flowed into the city since last spring, some on buses chartered by elected officials in Texas.

Suddenly, Mayor Eric Adams (D) walked in, followed by Manuel Castro, the city’s commissioner for immigrant affairs. New York is a place where officials don’t look down on migrants but lift them up, the mayor said. He gestured toward Castro, who was translating his words into Spanish.

The commissioner himself came to the country as an undocumented child, Adams said. That means someone who “once sat in your chairs is now in charge of making sure you are able to reach your dreams.” The audience burst into applause.

Castro, 38, is the chief adviser on immigration for the mayor of New York, a role that places him at the center of one of the city’s most pressing challenges. The upsurge of arrivals has strained the shelter system, taxed the city’s budget and vexed Adams, who has condemned the buses as a political ploy and criticized the lack of federal help.

Castro’s response to the crisis is infused with firsthand knowledge of what it’s like to immigrate to the United States. His earliest memory is of crossing the border at age 5. When he saw children stepping off buses in Manhattan last year, he understood the struggles they and their parents would face.

His journey is one of extraordinary mobility, from child of undocumented immigrant parents to city commissioner. It’s also one laced with disillusionment: Castro spent years advocating for reform of the immigration system, only to see it repeatedly fail in Congress.

At the legal aid clinic in Queens, Castro stayed to speak with the migrants and volunteers. Olga Rodriguez, 46, and her husband, Mauricio Requena, 54, were sitting in the audience when the mayor arrived. As she listened to Adams speak, Rodriguez began to cry.

The couple told Castro their story. They arrived in New York on a bus from Texas in September knowing no one. They had left their children and grandchildren behind in Venezuela, fleeing because they feared imprisonment as government opponents. They were grateful for their housing in a shelter but hoped to work legally, something that requires first applying for asylum, then waiting at least six months.

Castro listened, his manner quiet and almost gentle. It’s hard, he said later, to absorb so many stories, knowing he can’t meet all the needs people have after a long and traumatic road to their destination. “This was the ultimate goal,” Castro said. “Then they find that the reality is much more complex, and everyone tells them, ‘This is just the start of your journey.'”

. . .

‘This was our lives’

Castro is intimately aware of the hopes immigrants bring.

His family was living in Mexico City during the 1985 earthquake that killed at least 5,000 people and shattered the economy. His father struggled to support the family and made the difficult decision to leave a few years later. He found work in a garment factory in Brooklyn. In 1989, Castro, his mother and his aunt set off to join his father.

The journey across the border was perilous. After walking for hours, Castro became dehydrated and couldn’t continue. He asked his mother for water, but there was none. They hid in the shade of a bush, and his mother prayed to the Lady of Guadalupe, an icon of the Virgin Mary venerated across Latin America.

The coyote, or smuggler, who was leading them across the desert into California wanted to leave them behind, but the rest of the group persuaded him to wait for the mother and her child. Castro fell asleep, he doesn’t know for how long. When he woke up, he felt better, something his mother still describes as a miracle.

From California, they traveled across the country. Their first home in New York was a basement apartment that Castro’s father was sharing with several other people. Castro remembers shuttling among distant relatives, searching for a place to live. He once waited with his parents outside a building for hours so they could plead with the landlord in person to rent to them.

He started first grade at an elementary school in Sunset Park. At first, he spoke no English. He desperately missed his two older brothers, then in their teens, who had stayed behind with their grandmother because there wasn’t money to pay for them to cross.

As a teenager, Castro set his sights on becoming a documentary filmmaker like Ken Burns, the famed chronicler of chapters in American history. Only when his high school friends started working part-time did Castro begin to realize how his future would be circumscribed by his undocumented status. He couldn’t get a job or receive a driver’s license or apply for financial aid.

He applied for college anyway. “My approach to life was always, “Okay, well, let’s just go for it,” he said.

Hampshire College in Massachusetts – Ken Burns’s alma mater – found a way to give him a scholarship. First it had to consult its lawyers, Castro said, because he couldn’t receive federal aid.

During college, he joined a wave of activism at campuses across the country by undocumented students who drew inspiration from the civil rights movement. Brought to the U.S. as children, they risked deportation to tell their stories and push for legal status. They were dubbed “Dreamers,” after the legislation known as the Dream Act that would provide them a path to citizenship.

When Barack Obama was elected president, they thought their time had arrived. In 2010, the bill passed in the House but failed to overcome a filibuster in the Senate. All but three Republicans opposed the measure. So did five Democrats.

For young activists like Castro who had spent years working toward that moment, the defeat was crushing. It wasn’t “‘Oh, this failed, we move on,'” he said. “This was our lives, our futures.” It felt like a betrayal.

. . .

It ‘feels like there’s progress’

In 2012, by executive order, Obama created Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, a program that allows Dreamers to work and shields them from deportation. It’s a status that must be renewed every two years, and the program’s future is uncertain.

Castro began rethinking what he wanted to do, focusing his work on the broader undocumented immigrant community. He studied for a master’s degree in public policy. He ran advocacy campaigns for the New York Immigration Coalition, an umbrella group, and reinvigorated the push to allow undocumented immigrants to receive driver’s licenses in New York.

In 2015, he moved to New Immigrant Community Empowerment, or NICE, a Queens-based organization that focuses on informal workers and day laborers. His own immigration status also changed: In 2019, he became a legal permanent resident after marrying a U.S. citizen.

Robert Smith, a sociologist at the City University of New York, has known Castro for almost 20 years and described him as strategic and humble. Drawing attention to the injustice of an issue is sometimes easier for advocates than making a concrete difference, Smith said, but Castro also excelled at the latter. He always wanted “to make sure his work helped other people.”

In early 2022, Castro became commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs. He had spent much of the prior two years fighting for resources for low-income immigrant workers as the pandemic ravaged New York. Some elected officials have told Castro that it’s odd to see him inside City Hall instead of protesting outside it.

He is still a history buff who takes pleasure in pointing out a desk that belonged to George Washington in a ceremonial room above the council chamber. Large oil portraits of New York governors dating back to the 18th century hang on the walls. “They probably didn’t expect a Dreamer” in his job, he said with a laugh.

Castro believes his role is to act as a conduit between the city and its immigrant communities, which are often wary of the government. Part of the work is anticipating the effects of global events, whether war in Ukraine or an earthquake in Turkey. If “anything happens in the world, it usually shows up in New York,” he said.

The migrant influx that began last year was a challenge of a different magnitude.

Many of those arriving in the city were from Venezuela, but there were also migrants from Nicaragua, Ecuador and Haiti. Most had no place to stay, so the city had to provide one: In New York, there is a unique “right to shelter,” which means the city can’t turn away people seeking emergency housing.

To address the crisis, the city has established nearly 100 emergency shelters in hotels and seven other temporary housing centers, including in a cruise ship terminal in Brooklyn. Thousands of children from asylum-seeker families have entered public schools, and more than 30,000 migrants are housed in the shelter system. The city has also taken steps to reduce the influx, paying for onward tickets if migrants want to go elsewhere. Some have traveled to northern New York state and crossed into Canada.

The buses organized by authorities in Texas stopped arriving in February, but migrants are still coming on their own in smaller numbers. Now the city is preparing for a new increase when pandemic-era restrictions at the border expire in May. This month, Adams announced the creation of a new office to oversee the response to asylum-seeker arrivals.

The city found enough hotels to house this wave of arrivals, which kept families out of dormitory-like settings, Castro said. But if there is a fresh influx of another 50,000 migrants, it’s “going to put us in a really difficult situation,” he said, “because where do you find beds?”

Ilze Thielmann is the director of Team TLC NYC, a volunteer organization that welcomed busloads of migrants at Port Authority Bus Terminal. She has great respect for Castro, she said, and knows he “wants the best for these people.” But she also said the city’s response was slow and inadequate at first, and getting officials to do more has been a struggle.

Castro welcomes criticism but is proud of the way New York mobilized to help the new arrivals. He said many asylum seekers have approached him to express gratitude for the assistance they’ve received in the city.

He knows from lived experience the long road that awaits them: the setbacks, the disappointments, the bottlenecked immigration system.

“So many of them, they just feel depleted and they want to give up,” Castro said. He’s willing to share his story to impart a sense of hope. Perhaps when people see that “a Dreamer is now the commissioner,” it “feels like there’s progress.”