NEW YORK — Jose Rodriguez was tired, hungry and beaten down when he crossed the border from Mexico into Texas after a two-month journey. He didn’t have money, and he didn’t have many options. Although he had originally hoped to go to Miami, he heard there was a free bus to New York. Officials told him that if he boarded the bus, there’d be help waiting for him.
Rodriguez believed there was a plan — that Texas and New York were working together.
He knows now he was wrong.
“We arrived deceived,” he said. “I didn’t know that the governor had commanded this. They boarded us and brought us and that’s it. We didn’t know — just that the bus was free. I don’t know why, I thought they [Adams and Abbott] were friends.”
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision to bus migrants to New York has become a Red v. Blue showdown, with Abbott using migrants as political pawns to bolster his standing with tough-on-immigration Republicans ahead of midterm elections. Mayor Eric Adams has blamed an overwhelmed homeless shelter system on the influx of migrants, using them and Abbott as scapegoats for what critics say are deep-running problems in the city’s shelter system.
Lost in the political rhetoric are the stories of people like Rodriguez.
A 38-year-old from Venezuela with a family of four children he had to leave behind, Rodriguez arrived in New York with the same dream that has driven immigrants for centuries — the hope of a brighter future. But so far he, like many of the others on Abbott’s buses, has found himself caught in the middle of a political firestorm, a casualty of a culture war over immigration and the nation’s Southern border.
Six days arriving in New York, Rodriguez sat on a bench at the 34th Street ferry landing. He sipped on a can of Sprite — a small luxury for him — and looked out at the East River under the brim of his dark camo baseball hat, watching boats come and go. Midtown’s skyscrapers towered behind him.
He has a place to sleep and meals when he is at the shelter, but not much else. Since stepping off the 40-hour bus ride to New York, Rodriguez has been spending his nights in the homeless shelter in Brooklyn and his days walking the streets, going door to door looking for a job. He doesn’t have money to buy food when he’s out job hunting. He has no family or friends in New York.
Rodriguez carries his belongings with him as he goes about the city, but that isn’t difficult. After the long journey, his possessions don’t even fill his small black backpack. An extra T-shirt, papers from immigration officers at the border, and a tennis ball, so he can practice baseball, a favorite hobby. On a recent day, he had just $1.50 in loose change in his pocket. He drinks water from a refilled Coca-Cola bottle to stay hydrated in the August sun.
He’s hoping for some extra help from mutual aid groups and charities that he hears about through word-of-mouth. He scribbles their addresses on his palm with a well-used Bic pen nearly out of ink.
Rodriguez’s phone is his lifeline. On it, he navigates the confusing streets and subways of the city. As he wanders the city, he bumps music through his earbuds: Venezuela salsas, folk music from Colombia and his American favorite, Eminem. He uses the phone to take pictures and videos to send to his children; he calls them morning and night.
“I’m not happy to be here, no,” Rodriguez said with tears in his eyes. “I feel like a piece of me has been ripped off, to be without my kids ... Every day, every day it hits me.”
As he sat at the ferry landing, a helicopter flew close by, attracting attention from passersby enjoying the summer day. Some stopped to watch, taking pictures as the aircraft landed. Rodriguez stayed still, imagining what his 7-year-old twins might think of it all.
New York is a city of migrants; nearly 40% of the city’s residents are foreign-born. For centuries, those arriving here have searched for hope, for opportunity. Rodriguez hasn’t found it yet. When he looks up at the Empire State Building, built by immigrants decades before him, he thinks of home.
“It’s very nice here. It’s beautiful. But I don’t have peace. I feel incomplete without my children. If they were here, playing, I would be happy,” he said, gesturing around. “But when will I see that?”
Rodriguez was born and raised in Caracas, Venezuela. He’s worked in construction since he was 15, dropping out of school to work — a decision he’s always regretted. Now, he encourages his four children — Jnosmer, 19, Jnonder, 17, and twins Jnostin and Jhilber, 7 — to study hard.
In 2018, Rodriguez fled with them to Bogota, Colombia, looking for respite from Venezuela’s socio-economic collapse. Four years later, life was still difficult, with his family exposed to violence and an unstable economy. Rodriguez made the difficult decision to leave his family. It took him nine months to save around $800 for the long and arduous journey to the United States.
The trip began with a hike through the dangerous Darien Gap, a notorious stretch of jungle between Colombia and Panama and ended with him swimming across the Rio Grande. Rodriguez said he was robbed and attacked during the journey. At points, his feet were swollen and sore from walking. The food supply he packed for the journey — tuna, cookies, bread, instant soup and lots of sweets, for energy — slowly dwindled, and his main water supply was from rivers he passed along the way.
“Two months to get here. I had to sleep on the street,” he recounted.” You do not eat, you lose so much money, you are robbed. You don’t think you’re ever going to get there. You’re thinking of your children, and you’re like, ‘Thank you, God, because I made it.’”
It hurts him to be this far from home, but Rodriguez knows he’s doing it for his family. His kids are with their mother and don’t have much food at home, and the U.S. dollar stretches far in Colombia. If he can find work, he can better support them than he could in Bogota.
“$100 here? I send it to them, and it’s one week’s worth of work for them,” he said. “$200, $300? That’s around a month’s worth of work. I can send them in a week what I used to earn in a month. But that’s what worries me right now — I don’t have anything to send. They don’t have food right now.”
Rodriguez and the others who’ve come to New York in the past week don’t know what’s next for them.
Without papers, he can’t get a job. Without money, he can’t buy lunch or a change of clothes, let alone travel to Miami, where he has a friend. Without friends, he can’t find work or longer-term shelter.
The only thing clear is that the political fight is worsening.
Mayor Adams is calling for increased federal help, but his administration has not spelled out exactly what that means or might look like for people like Rodriguez.
Schools in New York are scrambling to accommodate more students.
The shelter vacancy rate is hovering under one percent, leaving migrants at risk of sleeping on streets if the city’s systems can’t accommodate them.
And Abbott is planning to send more buses to New York.