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31 January 2024

Joe Biden’s border problem

A former hotel in New York holds the clue to what might end the incumbent’s presidency.

By Sohrab Ahmari

In Making It, his brash 1967 memoir of American success, the writer Norman Podhoretz observed that “one of the longest journeys in the world is the journey from Brooklyn to Manhattan”. In his day, ambitious sons of migrants with “ethnic” last names like Podhoretz had to claw their way out of outer-borough neighbourhoods such as Brownsville to join the Manhattan professional class: in his case, winning entrée to the life-world of the New York intellectuals.

Today, a different set of strivers make the reverse journey. The illegal migrants in Gotham start out at the defunct Roosevelt Hotel in Midtown Manhattan before making their way to city shelters in Brooklyn (and Queens and the Bronx, too), where no glamour and a great deal of misery await them. The cumulative weight of their striving is straining public services, stoking public anger – and imperilling Joe Biden’s re-election.

On a recent Sunday night, I ventured to the Roosevelt and soon encountered a pair of Guineans as they set out to make the Manhattan-to-Brooklyn trip. One of them, Mohamed, spoke near-fluent English, while the other, Ibrahim, didn’t know a lick. “We want to take the train,” Mohamed said, pulling down his surgical mask to reveal a bright smile. They showed me subway cards ($5.80 each) and printed directions they’d been handed by authorities at the hotel, instructing them to make their way some eight miles from Grand Central Station to a shelter on Hall Street near Brooklyn Yards.

Mohamed and Ibrahim didn’t know what Brooklyn was. Or Manhattan, or Grand Central, for that matter. But here they were, prepared to seize their American Dream while standing in the rain outside a fallen icon of New York luxury.

Opened 100 years ago, the Roosevelt was a jazz age jewel that doubled as a sort of informal headquarters for the GOP. It (barely) endured the Great Depression and all the dramas of the American century that followed before Covid forced its most recent owner to shutter the hotel in 2020. Last year, City Hall converted it into a shelter and processing centre, as thousands of newcomers made their way from the border states to cities north. And they came – undaunted by Mayor Eric Adams’s warning that New York is “at capacity”.

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No kidding. All 850 available rooms at the Roosevelt have been filled up, while reports have circulated of migrants sleeping on the floors of the hallways and ballrooms. Not just the behemoth structure itself, but the entire surrounding block was dedicated to migrant operations. Local health officials, transit drivers, National Guard troops and NYPD officers filtered in and out, as city buses marked “OUT OF SERVICE” dropped off and picked up large groups of migrants at 30-minute intervals.

The buses were reserved for women and children, of whom I saw plenty: mothers pushing strollers, while dragging older siblings fighting over smartphones; other kids sitting in a daze while waiting for their buses to take them from the hotel to the shelter. There were also dozens of single males, typically self-divided into national and ethnic groups, some urgently going somewhere, others milling about, smoking weed. The singles wouldn’t be accommodated at the hotel and had to find their own way to the shelters.

Hence why Mohamed and Ibrahim turned to me for help. We hit the subway, boarding the 4 train to Borough Hall before taking a bus that dropped us off near the shelter.

As daunting as this last leg appeared to the pair, it was nothing compared to what they had endured further south. Mohamed had flown from Guinea to Guatemala, where he had procured the services of “the Mafia”, as he put it, to smuggle him through Mexico and across the US border. “The Mafia,” he said with a sardonic laugh, “take everything you have.”

All told, Mohamed had handed over some $5,000 to the smugglers, including for a boat journey across the Gulf of Mexico and two failed attempts that had ended with Mexican authorities pushing him back before he made it on the third try.

Why such determination? Mohamed admitted that he and Ibrahim weren’t refugees, but economic migrants. Even if you earn good money back home – he said he could make up to $2,000 a month in Guinea running a small business – the opportunities are precarious. Yet there is no guarantee that Mohamed and the millions of others who have crossed the US border over the past three years will secure “papers” or legal employment; many will end up toiling in the hyper-exploitative shadow service economy, putting pressure on the wages and public services of Americans on the lowest rungs of the labour market, a constituency Biden will depend on for re-election in November.

When we made it to their shelter, my heart ached for Mohamed and Ibrahim: the complex, known as the Hall, Brooklyn, was supposed to cater to an upscale office clientele before the pandemic ended those dreams. So the private developer leased it to the city for sheltering migrants, with security and other services also subcontracted to privateers.

It became notorious for Dickensian conditions, including the near-total absence of privacy for residents.

Still, my companions looked thrilled. Before the pair joined the intake line, Ibrahim, who’d stayed silent the whole time, gave me a hug. As he walked away, I noticed the logo sewn into the backpack in which he carried his belongings. It read: “US BOARDER: Future Is Yours.”

[See also: Censorship does not work]

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This article appears in the 31 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Rotten State