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How NYC is coping with 175,000 migrants from the Southern border


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies. While much attention has been focused on the surge of migrant crossings at the U.S.-Mexico border and battles in Congress over immigration policy, a crisis driven by the influx of new arrivals has been building 2,000 miles away in New York City. More than 175,000 migrants have made their way to New York, which has long had a policy of providing shelter to anyone in the city who is without housing. Many of those trekking to New York came on buses provided by Southern governors, most notably Greg Abbott of Texas. Many others have come on their own to connect with family and find work.

The cost of providing shelter and other assistance to arriving migrants in New York is now in the billions of dollars. Other cities, notably Chicago and Denver, are facing similar challenges. But the crisis is particularly acute in New York. Mayor Eric Adams has said, quote, "this issue will destroy New York City."

Our guest, New York Times reporter Andy Newman, has been reporting on the crisis in all its dimensions - the city's efforts to house migrants, including building tent cities, and steps it's taken to reduce the number of migrants it must care for, including discouraging people from coming to New York, bussing some to other counties in New York state and, critics say, deliberately making conditions so difficult for migrants that they choose to leave the city's shelter system. Andy Newman has reported on New York City and the surrounding region since the mid-'90s, with a particular focus in recent years on homelessness, poverty and social services.

Andy Newman, welcome to FRESH AIR.

ANDY NEWMAN: Thank you, Dave.

DAVIES: You know, the scale of this issue is just striking. I cover Philadelphia, where the entire municipal budget is about $6 billion. In New York, more than $2 billion is spent already just on caring for these arriving migrants, 175,000, as I mentioned in the intro, and growing. Do we know how many of these migrants headed in from the southern borders on buses sent by elected officials there?

NEWMAN: We don't, actually. This short answer to that question is that people associate the migrant influx into New York with the buses sent by Governor Greg Abbott of Texas, but those buses only make up a pretty small percentage, maybe 20,000 out of the 175,000 people.

DAVIES: Right. A lot of people are coming on their own. And, you know, New York City has had this policy for many years of providing shelter to anyone who needs it. As I understand that, that is by court decision, not a law, right?

NEWMAN: Correct. That's - that stems from a court case in the '70s and '80s.

DAVIES: Do city officials think that that guarantee of shelter has encouraged more migrants to come to New York on their own?

NEWMAN: Oh, it's absolutely encouraged a lot of people to come to New York, because once a kind of a critical mass of people arrived in the city and found that they got free shelter indefinitely, they would spread word on social media, which is a very, very powerful driver of this entire global migration phenomenon. And people told their friends, come to New York, you know, you can have a place to stay while you get your life together.

DAVIES: Right. So the city, since it had to - had this obligation to provide shelter for so many, has a shelter system with an intake center and, you know, screening and many, many different shelters that unhoused people would go to. How well equipped was this system to handle these migrants?

NEWMAN: It was just not equipped to handle the numbers of people. The homeless system in New York is a little bit bumpy, even in the best of times. When Mayor Eric Adams took office, there were about 50,000 people or a little more in shelters in New York, and now there are over 120,000 people. So what we've seen over the course of the last couple of years is more than a doubling of the size of the homeless shelter system. And normally, opening up new homeless shelters in New York is a process that takes months. And for, you know, about the last year and a half, New York has been basically having to open up the equivalent of one new shelter every single day. And it's just been a phenomenal scramble for the city to try to do that. And they have sometimes fallen behind.

DAVIES: Right. And of those roughly 120,000 people in the system, roughly half are migrants from the southern border?

NEWMAN: Yeah. A little more than half. Sixty-five thousand right now.

DAVIES: Wow. Now, I guess the other difference is that citizens of the United States who are without shelter have certain needs. Migrants have different needs, right? And the system wasn't really designed to deal with those. I mean, you know, like applying for asylum, for example.

NEWMAN: When the migrants started coming in large numbers, people urged the city to help everybody apply for asylum. Another difference between migrants and non-migrants is that people who are U.S. citizens are eligible for all kinds of housing vouchers and other public assistance that can help them get out of shelters. With the migrants, most of them were not eligible for much of anything, and so therefore, it falls squarely on the city to house them in these shelters.

DAVIES: Right. And if they are seeking asylum, as I understand it, they can't legally work until at least 180 days after they have actually filed a petition for asylum, right? So that's six months.

NEWMAN: Yes, though there are now other - there are other mechanisms to get somebody work authorization. President Biden extended this thing called temporary protected status for Venezuelans back in September, and that immediately allowed approximately 15,000 people in shelters to apply for and to be able to get work authorization within a month or two months. But, you know, all of the migrants who come to New York City say that they want to work. Everybody you talk to says all I want to do is have a job so that I can support my family here or send money back to my family back home.

And, you know, for most of the migrants, there is no easy way for them to get legal employment. A lot of them, of course, as immigrants always have, get off-the-books jobs. A lot of them are doing delivery. People work in restaurants, people do construction. But if people were able to get legal jobs, they would have a path out of shelter much more quickly. And that has been a particular frustration for Mayor Adams and officials in New York because they don't have the ability to snap their fingers and give everybody work authorization. They need Washington to take action. And Washington has been notably paralyzed on this for a couple of years now.

DAVIES: Right. And the city, ideally, it would be able to help individual migrants apply for asylum if they haven't. In May of, I think, last year, you wrote that a reporter had asked the deputy mayor how many of the roughly 72,000 migrants then had applied for asylum. Do you remember the response here?

NEWMAN: Yes. She said something like very, very few. And then Deputy Mayor Anne Williams-Isom was asked why so few? And she said, basically, I guess they just don't really know how to get the paperwork done or what the procedures are. And that struck a lot of people as a very strange thing to say, because at that point, for eight or nine months, people had been begging the city to help people apply for asylum, which is normally, you know, that is not normally the city's job, and the city, once it did set up an asylum application help center, talked about how this was a new thing, something that no one had really ever put together before at the municipal level. And that's true, but people also were criticizing the city for being very slow to get going on that.

DAVIES: Right. It was a whole nother job in addition to having to just find housing for so many people. This sort of really developed in the spring, I guess, of 2022. And as the numbers grew and the system became overwhelmed, what were some of the conditions that you and other reporters observed in intake centers and shelters? What did you see migrants going through?

NEWMAN: So in July of 2022, this is about three months into the influx of migrants. There was a main intake center for families seeking shelter in the Bronx, and it just became so crowded that people were sleeping on the floor there, which is against this court decree that the city must house everybody who needs housing every night. And so you had basically the first instance of the system breaking down.

DAVIES: So people were sleeping in the office...

NEWMAN: People were sleeping on the floor. This was only for a couple of nights, and it wasn't an enormous number of people, but it was enough for the city and critics of the city and the advocates for homeless people who pushed the city to honor its commitment to notice and to speak up and to kind of take this city to task for just being caught off guard and not opening enough shelters in time to not get blindsided by that.

DAVIES: Right, an alarm which suggested a serious response is needed. You know, you're right that in the fall of 2022, as this was unfolding and the city shelters were - you know, were bursting at their limits, that the mayor brought people from other city departments in apart from the - you know, the homeless shelter providers and brainstormed about, you know, what can we do here to quickly provide more shelter? What kind of ideas did they come up with?

NEWMAN: So one of the big, early ideas was to basically build these tent cities - not individual tents, but just, like, picture a gigantic parking lot with, like, a huge catering tent that has enough room to put about a thousand or 2,000 beds in it. It was about to open one on a parking lot on a beach in the Bronx, and that one flooded after only an inch of rain, so the city scrapped that idea. There were some city officials that thought maybe we could put people on cruise ships because the cruise industry in New York hasn't really come back yet from the pandemic, and here's - you know, here's space and an opportunity. Mayor Adams has been saying since the beginning, everything is on the table; we will put people anywhere we can find them, whether it's in closed schools, you know, tent cities in parking lots and hospitals. The city has had to rent a lot of hotels, which is very, very expensive. You know, shelters that were used and then not used have been reopened. The city has been basically kind of turning over every stone, trying to find places to put people.

DAVIES: We're going to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Andy Newman. He's a reporter for The New York Times. He covers the city and region with a focus on homelessness, poverty and social services and has recently been writing about the impact of migrants streaming into the city from the Southern border. We'll talk some more in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Andy Newman. He's a reporter from The New York Times who has been covering the impact of migrants who have been streaming into New York City from the U.S.-Mexico border.

We were talking about how the city struggled to find options to house people, far more people than its shelter system was set up to accommodate. One of the things that was settled upon were tent cities, where you have a big open space. And, like, I think you described it as a huge catering tent. You could have hundreds of people, including families, in these. What was life there like? Did they have any privacy? Did they have access to, you know, bathrooms and showers?

NEWMAN: Life in the tent cities is difficult. There is not very much privacy. The city opened its first tent city for families towards the end of 2023. And normally, families in the shelter system are entitled to their own room with some kind of kitchen facility and a bathroom. That rule has basically been suspended. And so in the family tent city, which is at a former airfield way on the edge of Brooklyn - it's a place that is so kind of far from the population centers of the city that it's actually been used as a kind of urban getaway campground. So it's now home to, I believe, 500 families. And there are sort of dividers. Basically, each family gets a cubicle, and so there are little dividers, but there's no - it's not like having, you know, your own room with real privacy. You have to leave, obviously, your cubicle if you want to use the bathroom, if you want to take a shower, if you want access to laundry.

In these tent cities, for single adults, it's a different setup. Picture rows and rows and rows of cots, like in the children's book "Madeline," where she lives in an orphanage, and it's just rows and rows of beds. People, you know - there's a normal rule in the shelter system that for single adults, who sometimes housed in these big, congregate rooms where there are 20 people sleeping in a room, you at least get a little bit of personal space. Like, there's, like, six feet between you and the next bed. In these tent cities, the cots are basically right up against each other. So they're not very comfortable places. But they're not designed to be very comfortable places. They're designed to be temporary shelter that people want to get out of as soon as possible, and that's what the city is hoping to do.

DAVIES: Yeah. And since some are at remote locations, that makes it hard because your kids have to get to school if you're a family. You've got - you'll want to apply for benefits or look for employment - not easy to get anywhere. What kind of stories did you hear from migrants who are in these places?

NEWMAN: One thing that's become much more difficult for the migrants in shelters in the city over the last six months is that the city has phased in these limits on how long you can stay in a shelter. You are technically entitled to stay in city shelters for as long as you need to. But they made a rule that every 30 days if you're a single adult or every 60 days if you're a family, you have to pack up all your stuff, leave that shelter, go to the intake center, reapply and then get assigned to a new shelter. And this city is very, very forthcoming about doing this specifically to pressure people to leave the shelter system, or as the city calls it, take the next step. So this has caused a lot of kind of displacement and inconvenience and a lot of confusion, because people are being told different things by different people at these shelters. For the families, when that 60-day rule went into effect last month, a lot of people were very upset about that because what happens is you get your kid enrolled in school and then suddenly, you have to move out of where you're living, and you may be placed in a new shelter that's nowhere near your kid's school. And it's already been kind of a very difficult thing.

You know, you have thousands and thousands of kids who speak no English entering the school system, which is - there is room in the school system in New York because the city lost a lot of population during the pandemic, but the city has not been quite set up to help all these kids who some of them have, you know, journeyed thousands and thousands of miles through very difficult, treacherous conditions in the Darien Gap and arrived here kind of traumatized. It's a very difficult place to be right now, to come to New York. And it's already difficult for the families who live in shelters. And so these 60-day limits that force people to relocate every 60 days, a lot of families and a lot of advocates for migrants are very upset about them.

DAVIES: So what this means then, if you're in - if you're a family in one of these shelters or in one of the tent cities, you have to pack up everything you have, carry it to an intake center. I guess there's the Roosevelt Hotel in Manhattan is one.

NEWMAN: That is the main one for families.

DAVIES: Right. And then you're getting in line with other people who have expired their limits and new arrivals who are all there. What if they can't get to you in a day or two?

NEWMAN: The city has kind of made it a priority to find a place for families. So generally, right now, families who do want to stay in the shelter system are assigned a new shelter usually the same day. For single adults, where the city is really kind of pushing to encourage those folks to leave shelter as soon as possible. And it's kind of - the city is less concerned about the sort of public relations aspect of single adults going through hardship.

What we have now is single adults who hit the 30-day limit not immediately getting a bed. They get sent to a waiting center where they can sleep on the floor, which is really technically a violation of the city shelter rule. But there are people who are sleeping outside, even in the winter, because they want to be first in line to get the beds that open up that day. So right now, for men, it's predominantly single men, some single women, also. Those are the folks who are kind of really feeling the impact of the city's shelter limits. And there are people who have been sleeping either outside or on floors for days and days, sometimes over a week.

DAVIES: And it's remarkable, you say the city is explicit about this, saying, yes, we want to encourage people to leave the system and these challenges are part of that?

NEWMAN: The city has been using kind of a carrot-and-stick approach. It has been kind of counseling people, trying to help them find housing, trying to help them connect to family that they can live with, trying to connect them to all kinds of services to make it easier for them to move out and pay rent somewhere. The stick is just making it as - basically as unpleasant and inconvenient as they can get away with to try to coax people out of the shelters. And for the single adults, this process has been very effective for the city. The city says that about 80% of the single adults who hit that 30-day limit and have to reapply if they want to stay in the shelters don't reapply. Some of them leave the city, some of them leave the country and go back home. The city is also buying tickets for people. At one point it was buying plane tickets all the way back to South America if people were willing to take those simply because it's much less expensive to buy somebody a flight that costs $500 or $1000 than it is to house them for weeks or months at a time.

DAVIES: We're going to take another break here. Let me introduce you.

We are speaking with Andy Newman. He's a reporter for The New York Times covering the city and the region with a focus on homelessness, poverty and social services. For much of the past two years, he's been writing about the impact of migrants streaming into the city from the U.S.-Mexico border. He'll be back to talk more after this short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies. We're speaking with New York Times reporter Andy Newman, who's been covering New York City's efforts to cope with the arrival of more than 175,000 migrants from the U.S.-Mexico border. Many came on buses provided by southern governors, including Greg Abbott of Texas, but many came on their own. The city has a long-standing policy of providing shelter to anyone without housing. It's already spent more than $2 billion on the new arrivals and has been unable to keep up with the demand, even after building tent cities to house some. Mayor Eric Adams has said the crisis could destroy New York City and is seeking help from federal and state officials.

For migrants who leave the shelter system but try to stay in New York - I mean, it's not a place with a lot of affordable rental housing - what do they do? What becomes of them?

NEWMAN: It's a very good question, because the city doesn't really track what happens to people after they leave the shelter system. But, I mean, I think when people leave the shelter system, they do what immigrants have always done in New York. They double up with friends, with family members. There are - in some communities, there are places where you can rent a bed for, like, $30 a night in someone's apartment.

A lot of people are leaving New York - now that they're finding out how hard it is to get housing here, a lot of people are leaving New York that we don't really have numbers on that. The city and the state have an effort to move people out of New York City into other parts of the state where housing is a little bit cheaper and the state is paying the rent for folks for the first year, because even in other parts of the state, rents are pretty high right now. They've only been able to house about a hundred people. But the city is just desperate to find places for everybody and move to.

DAVIES: Many have criticized Greg Abbott and some other southern elected officials from bussing people to northern cities. In mid-2023, New York City kind of began doing the same thing, didn't it, busing some migrants to other counties outside the city?

NEWMAN: Yeah. So as part of the city's efforts to find places for all these people, where there simply was no room inside New York City and its shelters, Mayor Adams was making arrangements with hotels and other places in upstate New York, places outside the city. He was not always particularly coordinating with the local officials in those other parts of the state. Most of New York state outside New York City is Republican territory, so there was a lot of pushback. There were a lot of Republican local officials all over New York state who issued executive orders saying, no, you cannot house your homeless people in our county, Mayor Adams.

So this was a situation that probably called for a good bit of diplomacy. And Mayor Adams does not always play well with others, does not always communicate particularly effectively. And so he often found himself kind of butting heads with local officials outside of New York City when he wanted to send migrants to those places.

DAVIES: The mayor wanted help from Governor Kathy Hochul. Were they able to collaborate? Did he get what he was looking for from her?

NEWMAN: In Governor Hochul's new budget, which she released a few weeks ago, there is, I believe, $2.4 billion for New York City to help take care of its migrants. And Mayor Adams said that that's great, but it is nowhere near enough. The mayor has said that this fiscal year, the one that ends in July, the city is going to be spending more than $4 billion. That number is expected to increase the following fiscal year.

So the mayor kind of splits his efforts between begging the state for more aid and begging Washington for more aid. And in Washington, like other cities around the country that are dealing with migrants, the mayor has been kind of - has fallen victim to the paralysis in Congress that has made it very hard for Washington to issue a lot of aid to cities to help them with migrants. So Mayor Adams has made at least 10 trips to Washington to kind of bang the drum to try to get more money. And he does not have very much to show for it.

DAVIES: Yeah. You know, Mayor Adams also last fall took a four-day trip to Mexico, Ecuador and Colombia, I guess, to discourage migrants from coming to New York. What did he do? How did it go? Were you on the trip yourself?

NEWMAN: I was on this trip, and this was probably the most surreal moment of this whole crisis. We had the sight of the mayor of New York City traveling thousands of miles to the spot in Columbia where people set out for the Darien Gap, which is the main kind of human smuggling route through Central America, arriving by helicopter with his big entourage. And he comes to spread the message to the migrants that they should not come to New York because there's no room.

And it was - it seemed like a kind of a tone deaf mission because you have people who are fleeing unbelievable poverty, political instability, government dysfunction, like, people who are so desperate that they are willing to trek thousands of miles through the jungle on foot, facing all kinds of dangers - whether it's natural disaster or, you know, robbers and criminals and rapists who prey on the migrants - people who are really, really at the end of their rope as human beings, desperate for a place to go. And many of them want to come to New York, which has been a magnet for immigrants, you know, forever. And some of the migrants that we spoke to in Colombia when the mayor came to visit were saying things like, wow, New York must really have some great stuff if the mayor is willing to come thousands of miles...

DAVIES: Oh, no (laughter).

NEWMAN: ...All the way here to talk to us, to try to protect the resources of his city. It was a message that was, I thought, doomed to fail. And sure enough, it has had no effect on the migrant influx into New York City.

DAVIES: Yeah, I often find that chief executives greatly exaggerate the power of their own words on others. It also seemed that at times on this trip, he was kind of giving a different message that, you know, immigration is wonderful and it, you know, pollinates the culture of the city.

NEWMAN: Oh, the cross-pollination.


NEWMAN: Yeah, I mean, you know, the mayor has been dealt a very difficult hand. This challenge would be an enormous challenge for any mayor. He - you know, the mayor started when the migrants were first arriving, and it was not at the level of crisis that it is right now. The mayor was very kind of Statue of Liberty in his rhetoric and talked about how we open our arms and, you know, we welcome all these people that are going to help make the city even better. By October 2023, when he went to South America, he was sort of splitting his messaging between going and actually, like, going to shelters in South America and trying to meet migrants and hear their stories of woe and difficulty and, at the same time, spreading this message that you should not come to New York because there's no room. It was a very kind of conflicting and contradictory messaging adventure and, like I said, one that did not have a particular effect on the migrants coming to New York.

DAVIES: Let's take another break here. Let me introduce you. We are speaking with Andy Newman. He is a reporter for the New York Times covering the city with a focus on homelessness, poverty and social services. He's been reporting for the past two years on the impact of migrants streaming into the city from the nation's southern border. We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Andy Newman, a reporter for The New York Times who has been covering the impact of more than 175,000 migrants from the southern border who have entered New York, many of them in the city's shelter system.

A hundred seventy-five migrants that have come to New York since over the past - what? - nearly two years is a lot. It's a big city. Are these migrants a visible presence in New York on subways, streets, parks?

NEWMAN: They are now. I think at the beginning of the crisis, it was something that you read about in the paper and didn't see very much of. But as more and more people - as the number of migrants currently in shelters passed 60,000, you do see - it's become a very common sight in the subway system, which, of course, is used by millions of people every day, to see families, sometimes with little kids, selling candies, selling mangos, selling other kinds of, you know, food and other treats on the subways. In recent weeks, there has been a lot of attention paid and a lot of coverage of migrants as a sort of menace and some coverage of crimes committed by migrants or allegedly committed by migrants.

And there's been kind of a backlash against the migrants in recent months in New York. Part of that is I think people are just kind of exhausted with the fact that taking care of the migrants is so expensive to the city. And the mayor at one point was threatening to cut other services in order to kind of keep housing the migrants. The shelters where the migrants live - as more and more of these shelters open, there have been more and more protests against these shelters. Also, on the other hand, a lot of the migrants who are working in the city who have found jobs as delivery people or as candy sellers or whatever have, you know, already - like other immigrants to New York, they've become part of the fabric of the city.

DAVIES: Obviously, you know, immigration and immigration from the southern border is a huge national issue in the upcoming race. And, you know, Trump's pitch - his anti-migrant pitch has resonated with a lot of voters, including some who are sympathetic to immigrants and who, you know, would want to welcome them in a way but may believe that, you know, the country's employment opportunities and public resources are not unlimited and that there needs to be some limit. And, you know, while it's not an open border, when people see video of folks wading across the Rio Grande, it creates maybe an alarming impression. You know, I'm just wondering. You know, New York is a huge city. And I'm - do you have an opinion - you're not covering the economy, per se. Do you have an opinion about whether it can absorb, you know, 150,000 migrants in its economy without doing economic damage?

NEWMAN: I think once people have the ability to work, it can absolutely absorb that many migrants. The city lost a couple of hundred thousand people during the first couple of years of the pandemic. So there's definitely space. What there is not is affordable housing. That is a problem that is perhaps worse in New York City than just about any city in the country except maybe San Francisco. It is a phenomenally expensive place to live. Rents for even a one-bedroom apartment are often 2 or $3,000. So if the housing part of the problem can be tackled - and the housing part of the problem is one of the main things that's keeping the shelter population so high 'cause people just have very few affordable places to live. If the housing issue can be tackled - for centuries, New York City has been a magnet for immigrants, and it has absorbed 100,000 migrants in a year, many, many, many times. So it's not literally that there is no room for people. It's that it's unsustainable for the city to have to house and feed this many people indefinitely.

DAVIES: You know, the bipartisan deal that was developing in the Senate appears is not going to pass. And so the immigration laws are not going to change for the - this election year, it seems. What's your sense of what New York is in store for over the coming year?

NEWMAN: And don't forget that one of the things in that border deal that seems doomed was going to be a lot of aid for cities like New York and Denver and Chicago that are housing a lot of immigrants. So it's not just a matter of tighter controls at the border that was lost when that deal fell through. It is a bunch of money that could have been coming to the cities that is on hold again. As far as what will happen to New York over the next year or two, it's a really interesting question. For the last month or two, the city has actually been able to reduce the number of migrants in the shelter system. It's down about 5%. Part of that is the new limits that the city is putting on how long people can stay in shelters and the pressure that it's putting on people to leave.

Part of it, though, is also that there's just seasonal fluctuations in border crossings. And we just learned that in January, the number of people crossing the border illegally fell by 50%. It's not clear how much of that is just a seasonal thing and how much of that is due to other kind of national and international border politics. But as far as what this holds for the city and its future, it's very hard to say. The city does not want to have, you know, basically a permanent extra $3 or $4 or $5 billion that it needs to raise. But right now, there doesn't seem to be an alternative to that.

DAVIES: You know, we interview a lot of reporters here. And one of the things I always do is look at their bios on, you know, the webpage of the publication they work for. Your bio page for The New York Times is longer and much more interesting than many I read. You know, I think a lot of reporters who cover the city for The New York Times see it as a steppingstone. You know, they want to make it to Washington and cover the Pentagon or Congress or go overseas or cover national politics. I sense that you really love engaging with and reporting on the life of this city.

NEWMAN: I feel like I could easily spend the rest of my life reporting on the life of the city and never run out of fascinating things to write about. I've been only reporting on New York and the surrounding area for my whole time at the Times. And I did a series on jobs where I was delivery bike rider for Grubhub and Uber Eats. I have written about transit, religion, mosquito control. Like, there is no end to the things in New York that make for very, very compelling stories.

DAVIES: Among your stories was a story about a turf war in Manhattan between ice cream vendors. You want to give us the thumbnail of this?

NEWMAN: The thumbnail of this is that Mister Softee is kind of synonymous with soft ice cream trucks. They have the, do-do-do, do-do-do, do, do-do - the jingle that everyone knows.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

NEWMAN: I think it's not just in New York but in some other cities also. And several years ago, kind of an upstart ice cream truck company started by former Mister Softee drivers basically took over Mister Softee's turf in much of Manhattan and enforced it in a little bit thuggish ways. There were a lot of threats. There were - if a Mister Softee driver came onto this other company's turf, they would kind of pull their trucks in and box him in so that he couldn't do business. There was one ice cream truck driver who I interviewed who talked about how everybody who drives an ice cream truck keeps a baseball bat in their truck. And it's not for, you know, robbers who are going to hold you up, it's for other ice cream trucks that you need to face off with.

DAVIES: Wow. The ice cream is soft, but the drivers aren't.

NEWMAN: Very much not.

DAVIES: That was really interesting, that story, because it seemed like the executives weren't talking to you, but a few of the drivers said, yeah, you know, this is physical. Well, Andy Newman, thank you so much for speaking with us.

NEWMAN: Thank you, Dave.

DAVIES: Andy Newman is a city reporter for The New York Times focusing on homelessness, poverty and social services. For the past two years, he's been writing about the impact of migrants streaming into New York from the U.S.-Mexico border. Coming up, book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews a new detective novel that's an alternate history. It imagines an America where Native Americans flourished and exerted political power. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

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