In an exclusive interview with The Washington Post, New York City’s Commissioner for Immigrant Affairs, Manuel Castro, opened up about his journey crossing the border at the tender age of five — braving the perilous trip in search of a better life in the U.S.
Castro’s firsthand experience of growing up undocumented informs his work today as he strives to welcome immigrants to the city, and address the unprecedented surge of asylum seekers in New York City.
By sharing his personal journey, Castro provided a powerful insight into the immigrant experience and the importance of fueling a mission in supporting newcomers to achieve their dreams.
A chilly February day
Dozens of newly arrived migrants gathered in a small auditorium in Queens on a chilly Saturday in late February to receive guidance on applying for asylum, among the over 50,000 individuals who have flocked to the city since last spring, some transported by buses arranged by Texas elected officials.
The event took an unexpected turn when Mayor Eric Adams (D-NY) and Manuel Castro, New York City’s commissioner for immigrant affairs, entered the room. Adams proudly declared that the city does not look down on migrants but uplifts them — pointing to Castro — who was busy translating his words into Spanish. The audience listened attentively, bundled up in thick jackets, and holding up their cellphones to record the event.
Adams shared with the audience that Commissioner Castro himself entered the country as an undocumented child. The mayor emphasized that someone who has been in the same position as the audience is now responsible for ensuring their ability to achieve their aspirations, causing the room to erupt in applause.
Connecting on a deeper level
As the chief adviser on immigration for the mayor of New York, 38-year-old Castro holds a crucial role at the heart of the city’s most pressing challenges. The influx of newcomers has stretched the shelter system, burdened the city’s finances, and frustrated Adams, who has criticized the buses as a political tactic and federal inaction.
With his firsthand knowledge of immigrating to the U.S., Castro is uniquely positioned to tackle the ongoing crisis. As a child, he vividly remembers crossing the border at the age of five, giving him a deep understanding of the struggles and dangers that migrants and their families face.
Despite his remarkable trajectory from the child of undocumented immigrant parents to city commissioner, Castro’s journey has also been marred by disillusionment as he has watched immigration reform repeatedly fail in Congress.
During a visit to a legal aid clinic in Queens, Castro took the time to speak with both migrants and volunteers. One couple, Olga Rodriguez, 46, and Mauricio Requena, 54, shared their story with Castro, describing their journey to New York on a bus from Texas in September. They had left their children and grandchildren in Venezuela, fearing imprisonment as government opponents, The Post reported.
While grateful for their shelter, they hoped to obtain legal work, a process that requires applying for asylum and waiting at least six months. As Castro listened attentively, he acknowledged the complexity of their situation and the difficult road ahead, expressing empathy for their plight. “This was the ultimate goal,” Castro reflected. “Then they find that the reality is much more complex, and everyone tells them, ‘This is just the start of your journey,'” he said.
The immigrant experience
Despite the challenges, Castro possesses a deep understanding of the aspirations and challenges that immigrants face. His family was living in Mexico City during the devastating 1985 earthquake, which claimed over 5,000 lives and devastated the economy. His father struggled to provide for the family, prompting him to make the difficult decision to leave and seek work in a garment factory in Brooklyn, New York.
In 1989, Castro, his mother, and aunt embarked on a perilous journey to join his father, with Castro falling ill from dehydration during the desert crossing. The coyote leading them wanted to abandon the young Castro, but the group convinced him to wait a few days. His mother prayed to the Lady of Guadalupe, and miraculously, Castro awoke feeling much better, he shared.
Their journey eventually brought them to New York, where their first home was a crowded basement apartment shared with several others. Castro vividly remembers their search for a place to live — including waiting outside a building for hours to plead with a landlord in Queens to allow his family to rent there.
He began first grade in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, struggling with the language barrier and missing his two older brothers who could not afford to join them. Through his own experiences, Castro gained an intimate understanding of the hardships and determination that underpin the immigrant experience.
Castro empathizes with the exhaustion and frustration that many immigrants experience, saying, “So many of them just feel depleted and want to give up.” He is eager to share his story in order to instill a sense of hope, believing that his personal journey is evidence of progress. As a Dreamer who is now the commissioner of arguably the world’s most famous city, he hopes that it will inspire others to see that change is possible.
Making a difference
In 2022, Castro assumed the position of Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs (MOIA) after spending the previous two years fighting for resources for low-income immigrant workers amidst the pandemic’s devastation in New York. Some elected officials have found it unusual to see him inside City Hall, rather than protesting outside it.
Despite his new role in the government, however, Castro remains a history enthusiast and takes pleasure in highlighting George Washington’s desk in a ceremonial room above the council chamber, where oil portraits of New York governors dating back to the 18th century adorn the walls. “They probably didn’t expect a Dreamer” in this position, he said with a chuckle.
Now, with pandemic-era border restrictions set to fully expire in May, the city is gearing up for a potential new influx of migrants. Mayor Adams recently unveiled plans to establish a new office to manage the city’s response to the arrival of asylum seekers.
“Embrace your story [and] share your story with others,” said Castro. “We want to make sure this is not just a city of immigrants, but a country of immigrants.”