7,300 Migrants to Get Food Debit Cards as New York City Expands Program

New York City officials are significantly expanding a contentious program that distributes debit cards to migrant families staying in city-funded hotels, allowing them to buy their own food as the city tries to reduce the costs of caring for migrants.

The debit cards are expected to be distributed to more than 7,300 migrants over the next six months at a cost of about $2.6 million, city officials said, building from a pilot program that began earlier this year with roughly 900 families, or nearly 3,000 migrants.

The program drew fierce skepticism when it was proposed in February, largely over fears that the cards would be misused and concerns about whether migrants were being given preferential treatment over other people in need.

Officials connected to the program said that fraud prevention measures had been successful, with the cards being used as intended to feed more than 1,300 children and 42 pregnant women during the program’s first 13 weeks.

With more than 60,000 migrants currently in the city’s care, the program — which is expanding from three hotels to 17 — could serve about 1,230 people per month, or roughly 2 percent of the total migrant population.

The program is part of a contract with Mobility Capital Finance, known as MoCaFi, that could eventually cost the city as much as $53 million, with as much as $2 million going to the company and the rest being distributed to families, city officials said. Under the pilot program, a family of four with young children received about $350 per week for a month.

City officials say the program is significantly less expensive than a previous program that delivered meals, which was expected to cost about $5.6 million over the next six months.

Over the last year, food deliveries and other services at certain hotels sheltering migrants have been provided by DocGo, a medical services company, without a registered contract, according to a letter the city sent to the comptroller’s office in June that was obtained by The New York Times.

DocGo spent about $13 million between July 2023 and April 2024 and could receive up to $32 million total for those services through July, according to the letter, which has not previously been made public. DocGo lost a separate $432 million no-bid contract amid a series of troubling allegations.

A spokesman for DocGo, Thomas Meara, said in a statement that the company was proud of its work and had “leveraged our logistics technology, infrastructure and experience to deliver over 1.3 million meals to more than 16,000 asylum seekers” staying in the hotels.

With more than 200,000 migrants arriving in New York City over the past two years, the administration of Mayor Eric Adams has looked for ways to bring down costs. Many of the boxed meals that were delivered to migrants were never eaten and were thrown away.

Still, Joseph Borelli, the Republican minority leader in the City Council, expressed concern that the city intended to spend billions of dollars on migrant services with no end in sight.

“I appreciate that this is cheaper than a failed system of no-bid contracts, but this is a sign that the migrant crisis is here in perpetuity and the taxpayers are on the hook until the second coming,” he said.

The city is legally required to provide food to migrants under a right-to-shelter requirement that has guaranteed housing to the homeless for decades.

The debit cards are being given to migrants who are staying at hotels that are being used as emergency shelters under a 28-day voucher program, but the debit-card program could eventually expand further.

The city’s deputy mayor for health and human services, Anne Williams-Isom, characterized the pilot as a success, saying that it supported migrants, reduced costs and put money back into local businesses where the cards are used.

“When we empower people, we help them achieve self-sufficiency and access the American dream,” she said.

At one of the first hotels where the cards were distributed, in Chinatown in Lower Manhattan, families said they spent the money at nearby bodegas and a deli on the corner that sells sandwiches, salads, fruits and chips, along with $3 empanadas and $8 breakfast burritos.

A Venezuelan family of three that checked into the hotel on Friday headed directly to the corner deli to make their first purchases with the debit card. The father, Cesar Gil, 22, said he had been given a card with less than $100 for the week, while the mother, Naudelys Aguiar, 24, had been given a card with $170 for herself and her 4-year-old son, Jeremias.

“We weren’t even expecting it,” Mr. Gil said in Spanish, expressing gratitude. “They told us it’s only for food, no fast food, only at certain places, and no cash transfers and card sharing allowed.”

Jeremias ran around the deli, trying to persuade his parents to buy him a rainbow cookie or a coffee cake while the adults struggled to understand the menu options. They settled on two panini sandwiches, a container with four hard-boiled eggs, three soft drinks and two big bags of chips.

They handed the gray debit card to the cashier — who said the cards had become a frequent sight at the shop — and then scanned the receipt for their lunch total: $44.61.

The debit cards have digital coding to ensure that they will work only at certain stores, and participants must sign an affidavit saying they will use the cards only for food and baby supplies or risk removal from the program.

Some families said they were limited in what they could buy because cooking in the hotel rooms is prohibited. Some said they used the money before the week was up; others tried to be frugal. Most said that the cards had given them more flexibility to feed their children the types of foods they enjoyed.

Brenda Sierra, 29, a Colombian mother who arrived in New York with her 9-year-old son, Emerson, received $170 per week on her debit card. On Friday afternoon, Ms. Sierra made a quick run with her son to a Chinese fruit market a few blocks away, returning to the hotel with red plastic bags filled with peanuts, kiwis and dragon fruit.

“He hasn’t gotten used to the food here; he only eats fruits and some carbohydrates and vegetables,” said Ms. Sierra, adding that she missed the hearty soup and rice dishes from her hometown, Cartagena.

Ms. Sierra, who is unemployed, said she hoped to get a job soon and save money to rent an apartment and pay for her own food.

“That’s the idea, not to always be living off the government,” she said in Spanish.

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