Inside NYC’s underground migrant economy

With stiff, cold fingers, Sambeittou Sambeittou removed the neatly folded piece of cardboard he carries in his pocket like a wallet and treats like a precious jewel.

“I’m looking for carpenter jobs” is written in marker along with a phone number.

The 45-year-old huddled with other migrants from Africa at the entrance of a Lowe’s in Brooklyn, hoping for a few dollars in tips from customers loading sheetrock, lumber and insulation into their vehicles.

Sambeittou never learned to read and write in Mauritania, the west African country he left three months ago on a journey that took him through Senegal, Turkey, Nicaragua and Mexico.

He spoke to The Post in halting French. His first language is Hassaniya Arabic, spoken by everyone in his hardscrabble village, where he worked as a carpenter and where his wife and three children still live.

“It’s a little tough here, but I had no choice,” Sambeittou said when asked why he made the journey to New York City. “I had no idea what to expect or where I was going. I just came for work.”

Sambeittou is one of the more than 157,000 migrants who have arrived in New York City since the spring of 2022, with 68,000 now overwhelming city-run shelters, according to the city’s Department of Social Services. Unable to work legally, they are seeking employment in the burgeoning underground migrant economy — taking jobs as food delivery drivers, day laborers on building demolition sites, cooks, subway candy sellers and cleaners.

Sambeittou Sambeittou made the trek from Mauritania in search of work in New York City. Stefano Giovannini
Guinean migrant Ibrahim Diallo, 18, works as a DoorDash delivery driver. On good days, he said, he takes home $50 for several hours of work. Stefano Giovannini

Many are paid in cash. And while app-based delivery drivers are paid minimum wage, they are independent contractors and employers do not withhold taxes from their wages. It’s up to the individual to file a 1099.

Recently arrived migrants are typically unable to work for the delivery apps because they have to produce a social security number and some kind of government-issued identification and demonstrate that they are legally able to work in the US.

But some migrants admitted to The Post that there is a trend of migrants sharing identity documents needed to obtain delivery jobs. So it’s virtually impossible to track who is paying taxes.

Monica Yamaira Arias looks on as fellow Venezuelan migrant Lolymar Gonzalez shows photos of the food they are selling to recently arrived Ecuadorian migrant, Edison, outside the Roosevelt Hotel in midtown. Stefano Giovannini

“The biggest impact is that it’s going to reduce tax revenue for the city because it’s a largely cash based, unreported market,” said economist Daniel Di Martino, a graduate fellow at the Manhattan Institute. “And the city is providing all these benefits for migrants … that’s going to lead to worse social services and lower quality of life.”

Some new arrivals work privately delivering for a particular restaurant, experts said, and are paid in cash under the table.

Employers often receive “no match” letters from the Social Security Administration, said Andrew Rigie, executive director of the New York Hospitality Alliance, a trade association that represents the restaurant and hospitality industry. Employer Correction Request letters are sent to employers when the federal agency detects a discrepancy in information with a social insurance number, such as a name that doesn’t match their records.

Lolymar Gonzalez’s menu includes plats of rice, beans and plantains that she sells outside of the Roosevelt Hotel, a migrant intake center in Midtown Manhattan. Stefano Giovannini

“It’s been an ongoing situation,” said Rigie, whose organization has set up trainings for employers who receive the letters. “The failure of the federal government to responsibly manage immigration has caused chaos in the city. Good employers want to hire migrants for jobs that most Americans don’t want to do, but they want to do it lawfully. The failure of comprehensive immigration reform exacerbates the crisis.”

According to Di Martino, “There is a myth pushed by the left that the migrant crisis isn’t bad because we need workers. The issue is that [without the ability to work legally,] these people are not the workers we need.”

Migrants are also shut out of most construction jobs since they have to be legal to qualify for safety certifications and union membership, but some sites hire them for demolition and clean up and pay them in cash, contractors and migrants told The Post.

Lolymar Gonzalez shows off the plates of Venezuelan food she sells outside the Roosevelt Hotel. Stefano Giovannini

“Legitimate construction businesses will not hire them because God forbid something happens to them on a job site, and we are not covered,” said one local homebuilder who also does work on Long Island and in the city. “There’s too much liability. If we pay cash it has to be reported, and migrants are not reporting cash payments.”

Many new migrants are creating their own underground economy within their community — selling homemade food to other migrants or providing them services such as hair-cutting.

“They aren’t going to a barber shop or a deli,” Di Martino said. “They’re creating cash businesses and not paying taxes.” 

Ibrafima and Mamadou Djouma Barry (right) are recent arrivals from Guinea concerned with how they will find work in the city. Stefano Giovannini

Monica Yamaira Arias, 43, hawks roast pork, rice and fried plantains from her perch outside the Roosevelt Hotel in Midtown, which the city transformed into an intake center for recent arrivals. Arias, 43, arrived in New York more than a year ago from Venezuela, and now sits every lunch hour on a blue Igloo cooler selling home-cooked meals, packed in aluminum containers, for $10 each.

“It’s what we’re used to eating in our country,” said Arias, who makes the hour-long train journey to Port Chester in Westchester County every morning at 6:30 to cook the meals in a friend’s kitchen.

Arias arrives back at the hotel around 11:30 a.m., she said, announcing “Almuerzo! Almuerzo!” (“Lunch! Lunch!”) to passersby.

Migrants from West Africa help customers at a Lowe’s in Brooklyn load their truck with insulation last week. They are hoping for a few tips, they said. Stefano Giovannini

Fellow Venezuelan Lolymar Gonzalez, 48, helps Arias sell the meals. She arrived in the city from Caracas with her 14-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son five months ago, she said.

The women said they take in about $300 a day, and pocket about $170 after their expenses — food, transportation and a small rental fee for use of the friend’s Westchester kitchen.

Gonzalez said they were recently approached by a police officer who said that they had 60 days to obtain a vendor’s permit or they would be fined.

An Ecuadorean migrant, wearing her baby on her back, sold candy to passengers at Grand Central Station on a recent afternoon. Stefano Giovannini

“Do you know how we can get a vendor’s permit without any identification papers?” Gonzalez asked a Post photographer and reporter.

Rigie said there is no good answer. He told The Post there is a waiting list of thousands for mobile vendor permits in New York City, and it’s not uncommon for those who have them to rent them out to others for up to $25,000.

“Mobile vending is controversial,” Rigie said. “The number of permits have been capped for years. There is not currently a workable process to get a mobile vending permit, so people are either doing it unlicensed or renting someone’s underground permit for thousands of dollars.”

Delivery bikes are often parked outside the Madina Masjid mosque in the East Village while migrant workers from West Africa attend afternoon prayers. Stefano Giovannini

At the Madina Masjid mosque in the East Village, dozens of migrant Muslim men from West Africa crowded the foyer and sat on the interior stairs to escape the bitter cold last week. Many had parked their orange delivery electric bikes from JOCO, which rents shared e-bikes for workers and companies, on the sidewalk outside.

“They come mostly from Guinea, and go through Senegal, Turkey, Colombia and Nicaragua to get here,” said Hafiz Choudhury, the imam at the mosque.

Ibrahim Diallo, 18, said he had arrived from Conakry, the Guinean capital, a month ago, and was already working as a DoorDash driver. Bundled against bracing 17-degree winds last week, he told The Post that on a good day, he rakes in $50.

Sources told The Post that migrants sometimes use someone else’s identity to obtain jobs with delivery apps. Stefano Giovannini

Diallo refused to tell The Post how he got his job or if he was using the identity papers and social insurance number of a more established immigrant.

Mohammed Diallo, 34, is also making deliveries. The former sociology student from Guinea said that the recent change putting delivery drivers on minimum wage for Uber Eats ($17.96 an hour) and DoorDash ($29.93 an hour) has many earning far less than they did before.

The change came into effect in July after the City Council passed legislation to improve conditions for the drivers.

Venezuelan migrant Jose Gregorio Chavez Guzman said he wants to move to Kansas City where the cost of living is much lower than in New York City. Stefano Giovannini

“They pay you $29 an hour but now they limit the hours that you can work,” Diallo said, adding that tips are less frequent because the apps are now collecting them after the delivery rather than at the beginning of the ordering process.

Jose Gregorio Chavez Guzman, 35, also works as a food delivery driver for DoorDash. The Venezuelan migrant told The Post he doesn’t mind the hard work or the hazards of the job, which allows him to clear about $300 a week.

He has lived in the city for a year and five months and pays $600 a month for a room in Flatbush, he said. But he is eager to move to Kansas City, where he has friends and has heard that the cost of living is significantly less.

Senegalese migrant Mamadou Yaya Coure, 21, stood outside a Lowe’s in Brooklyn, hoping to make a few dollars in tips for helping customers to load construction materials. Stefano Giovannini

“I’m waiting for my wife and three children to join me,” he said as he waited outside Cipriani Dolci in Grand Central station for a delivery meal. He said his wife and three children had made it to Panama and were preparing to cross the Darien Gap.

“Right now I’m just trying to stay warm, ” he said.

Smith Escalona was also complaining about the cold. He and his nephew, Alejandro Rivas had stood outside a New York City Enrollment Center in Brooklyn waiting for an appointment since 3 a.m. last week. The centers provide city identification cards that allow migrants to access government services, such as shelter housing, but do not allow them to obtain work papers, Rigie told The Post.

Venezuelan migrants Alejandro Rivas and Smith Escalona were an NYC Enrollment Center in Brooklyn recently, hoping to obtain a city ID. They said they didn’t have the cash to pay for another migrant to stand in line for them — a burgeoning business in itself. Stefano Giovannini

However, delivery drivers are able to use the NYC ID cards to rent bikes from JOCO, the shared ebike company, delivery drivers told The Post.

The two men had arrived from Venezuela a month earlier and have gotten odd jobs on construction sites, cleaning debris, Escalona said.

“We do whatever comes along,” said Escalona, 29, who used to work as a butcher in the city of Valle de la Pascua, in Guarico state, south of Caracas. “In Venezuela, the salaries don’t amount to much. If you make $50 a month, you’re lucky.” He added that some months he took home just $4.

Escalona and Rivas, 23, are living in a Brooklyn apartment with Rivas’s mother, who arrived from Venezuela more than a year and a half ago and now works cleaning houses, and is paid in cash, Escalona said. They spend their days looking for work, and get free meals at a church in Flatbush.

But they’ve had no luck getting an appointment at the enrollment center, Escalona said. For one thing, other migrants are charging a fee for a place in line, he said, adding that he didn’t ask the price because he and Rivas can’t pay.

Among those milling outside the city agency on Thursday was a migrant from Angola, who carried a backpack emblazoned with the word “Gucci.” When The Post began to ask him questions, he said in Portuguese: “I’ll only speak to you if you pay.

Additional reporting by Kirsten Fleming

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