After Mayco Milano, a migrant from Venezuela, arrived in New York in late May, he spent a month walking all over Manhattan in search of work. Mr. Milano, who does not speak English, was turned down by countless restaurants. He landed a construction job, but it ended after three days, after he was asked for his Social Security number.
Then he came upon opportunity parked outside his door. Lining the sidewalks of the Roosevelt Hotel in Midtown Manhattan, where Mr. Milano and hundreds of other recent migrants are housed, were dozens of mopeds that belonged to food delivery workers. Mr. Milano quickly decided that being a food courier was his quickest — and perhaps only — way to make a living.
He found a Venezuelan man in Queens who rents mopeds by the week; he found a Dominican man who supplies functional Uber Eats logins for a fee. And with that, Mr. Milano joined New York City’s shadow army of 65,000 food delivery workers.
Mr. Milano is one of some 110,000 migrants who arrived in New York City over the last year and a half — an influx that has become an existential crisis for the city, straining its social safety net, its budget and even its purported values. The struggle to house the migrants from the southern border has altered the national political landscape and upended traditional alliances, most notably testing the once-strong relationship between Mayor Eric Adams and President Biden.
But on the ground, the stakes for people like Mr. Milano are simple: They need work, and they are not allowed to work.
“In the shelter, they support you with a place to sleep and some meals,” he said, “but you also need to improve your circumstances on your own.”
For many migrants, food delivery has proved to be the easiest way to make money and begin to support relatives, or pay down debts racked up during the journey to New York. Anyone with a bike and a smartphone is essentially qualified, and delivery apps, like Uber Eats, DoorDash and Grubhub, don’t require much verification.
But as migrants have flocked to delivery, the job has become increasingly fraught: The city has begun cracking down on unregistered mopeds — the very vehicles that the newest migrants rely on. In recent weeks, the Police Department, citing noise complaints and safety concerns, has targeted several migrant shelters, confiscating delivery bikes without license plates by the truckload. Already this year, the N.Y.P.D. has seized more than 7,000 mopeds.
At the same time, a new cottage industry of black-market moped brokers has emerged to serve — and sometimes prey upon — the newest migrants, who arrive with little money, no bank account and no tax ID or Social Security number. Several migrants, including one man who owes $15,000 to loan sharks in Venezuela, spoke openly about their reliance on a murky network of intermediaries to get motorized bikes, piggyback on app accounts and, if all goes well, get paid.
Mr. Milano, desperate to pay back the large debts he incurred in bringing his wife and three children to the United States, rents a moped (with helmet, lock and bag, but no license plate) for $400 a week; for the privilege of using an Uber Eats profile under the name “Jessica,” he pays a weekly cut of $150 to a Venezuelan woman.
These black-market fees eat up most of what he earns, but they enable him to work, which he does for more than 10 hours a day, seven days a week. He makes deliveries all over Manhattan and into Brooklyn, sometimes as many as 30 a day.
For each order, Uber Eats pays him a fee determined by an algorithm, about $4 on average; customers can add a tip through the app. “Jessica” receives all his earnings as a direct deposit into her bank account, and then hands over his payments and tips in cash, minus the fee. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work.
In July, after a good week during which he made $890 on the app — his share would be a little more than $300 — the person whose account he was renting disappeared without paying him. Mr. Milano had to borrow money from another migrant to cover his moped rental.
For the newest migrants to pay for the use of another person’s login or bike is a common practice, according to Ligia Guallpa, the executive director of the Worker’s Justice Project, which established Los Deliveristas Unidos, an advocacy group for food delivery workers. Normally, she said, these arrangements are not exploitative. “Usually, they know each other,” she said. “They’re friends, or from the same town.”
But the migrant crisis has altered the equation. Many people arrive without contacts in the city. Organizations that could help are overburdened. The recent group of newcomers are especially susceptible to scams.
Representatives of Uber, DoorDash and Grubhub said their companies provide work for immigrants but only as permitted by law.
“It’s a serious issue that tens of thousands of people in New York City want to work but don’t have the authorization to do so,” said Hayley Prim, a senior policy manager at Uber. “Uber supports open access to work, but we have processes in place to help prevent and take action on fraudulent behavior on Uber’s platform and will take additional steps if warranted.”
Mr. Milano said he needs the work, no matter the conditions. In Caracas, he was a motorcycle taxi driver, and his wife, Yohelin Nazaret, 31, managed a clothing store. “Things fell into chaos, we lost our jobs,” she said. “We were scraping the bottom of the barrel.”
To pay for the three-month journey with their children, ages 5, 10, and 13, Mr. Milano borrowed $1,500 in March, but with interest he now owes $3,000. During the trip, he said, the family was robbed in Nicaragua, in Guatemala, and again in Mexico. They were forced to beg, sell candy and borrow to push north.
To supplement her husband’s earnings, Ms. Nazaret cleans apartments in Queens once a week for $80. The couple sends money to family in Venezuela and slowly pays off what they owe. Meanwhile, the loan shark in Caracas is pressuring Mr. Milano. “He keeps sending messages asking when he’ll get paid,” he said. He fears that if he can’t keep up the payments, his family will be “messed with.”
Mr. Milano also worried constantly about being stopped by the police. His moped doesn’t have a license plate, and he doesn’t have insurance for it. Nor does he have a license to drive it. “They’d take the motorcycle,” he said, “and it’s not mine.” Not only would he be out of work, he would be responsible for the moped.
While the vehicles are a lifeline to some migrants, many New Yorkers have complained about what seems to be chaos on the streets, bike lanes and even sidewalks.
“The rampant illegal moped and e-bike use erodes our community’s quality of life and presents significant public safety concerns,” said Robert F. Holden, a city councilman representing parts of Queens, who has asked for targeted seizures of unregistered mopeds in his district. “Any official who overlooks this pressing issue is blatantly neglecting their sworn duty, and the citizens of New York will no longer tolerate such endangerment stemming from unchecked, illicit activities.”
According to a representative from the New York Police Department, the recent roundup of unregistered mopeds is in part a result of multiple complaints from New Yorkers.
“Unregistered vehicles and non-street-legal devices not only violate the law but also risk the safety of their operators and all road users,” a spokesman for the Police Department wrote in an email. “In fact, it is the safety of the users of these vehicles that is critically important because it is they who are often most at risk.”
The newest migrants feel immense pressure to work and yet are not legally permitted to — and to do so can jeopardize their asylum cases and even trigger deportation.
Under federal law, migrants who are seeking asylum can request employment authorization about six months after filing asylum applications, but the process is complicated. Few migrants have access to lawyers, leaving them at risk of missing deadlines and becoming undocumented.
Despite the pressure and stress, Anthony Campoverde Gómez, a 20-year-old migrant from Huaquillas, Ecuador, was initially exhilarated to be in New York City. But the inability to pay off his debts and provide for his partner and their 4-month-old baby in Ecuador quickly began to weigh on him.
“I thought it was going to be easier, that everyone could work,” he said outside of the Roosevelt Hotel, where he shares a room with his parents and 11-year-old brother. After two weeks in New York, he turned to the food delivery apps.
In early August, Mr. Campoverde Gómez began putting in 12-hour-plus shifts to pay off his debt, one pad Thai delivery at a time. But over Labor Day weekend, while Mr. Campoverde Gómez ran hamburgers up to a Tenth Avenue high-rise, his moped was taken — stolen, maybe, or confiscated by the police.
“I’m out from 2 in the afternoon to 4 in the morning doing hard work,” he said, visibly frustrated across from the shelter. “And they take my motorcycle,” he said.
Most of the vehicles being confiscated by the police are gas powered mopeds, the type most frequently used by migrants. Swarms of Transpro and Fly Wing-brand motorbikes are parked outside of migrant shelters. These gas powered mopeds require license plates, which migrants typically do not have, and can be operated only by a licensed driver, which many migrants are not.
Pedal-assist bikes with lithium-ion batteries have no such requirements. But they have been linked to fires and are banned in city shelters, and there is no way to charge them there. And so migrant delivery workers rely on the mopeds.
Some migrants manage to register their mopeds or pay to park them in garages, but any moped on the street without a license plate is subject to confiscation. And so delivery workers living at the Roosevelt Hotel take turns watching the mopeds overnight, Mr. Campoverde Gómez said, and they notify one another over WhatsApp chats should the police show up.
In July, Rito Zambrano, a 47-year-old migrant from Valencia, Venezuela, found a pedal-assist e-bike posted on Facebook Marketplace. The seller was a Mexican immigrant in Brooklyn named Timoteo, who came to New York 15 years ago and was getting out of delivery work, having bought a food cart.
“He met my wife and my children,” said Mr. Zambrano, who lives with his wife and two sons, ages 8 and 9, in the Watson Hotel in Midtown West. “He warmed up to us.”
Mr. Zambrano shared his story with Timoteo: how he fled to Colombia in 2016, and then to Peru; and how last year he borrowed $8,000 to make a five-month journey to New York, during which he said the family was held for ransom by armed men in Mexico for a month.
Timoteo told Mr. Zambrano that he was also once kidnapped. He was in a position to offer help. He let Mr. Zambrano pay for the $600 bike slowly over several weeks. He also gave his unused Uber Eats login for free, which Mr. Zambrano linked to his own Western Union account.
Still, it’s an uphill battle. “I don’t have any place to charge it,” Mr. Zambrano said. “I have to pedal.”
But with increased moped sweeps, any bike is an asset.
Last Friday, after making a delivery on 55th Street and 8th Avenue, Mr. Milano watched as the police carted off his rented moped. In an instant, he understood that he now owed more money and had lost his only means to work. Without any other options, he found a bike he could rent for a few hours and rode through the city to deliver the next night.