NEWBURGH, N.Y. - Before he left Mauritania, the West African nation of his birth, Mohamed thought of New York as a place of 'open arms,' a refuge for immigrants fleeing dire circumstances.
Now that he's here, seeking political asylum from a government he feared would kill him, he doesn't feel welcome. The 19-year-old has become a pawn in an escalating stand-off between New York City and suburban and upstate communities, which are using lawsuits, emergency orders and political pressure to keep people like him out.
Mohamed is one of about 400 international migrants the city has been putting up in a small number of hotels in other parts of the state this month to relieve pressure on its overtaxed homeless shelter system.
Some of the relocated asylum seekers say they now regret leaving the city, pointing to a lack of job opportunities and resources to pursue their asylum cases, as well as a hostile reception.
'It's better in New York City,' Mohamed said. 'There, no one cursed at you and said 'go back to your country.''
Mohamed, who fled political persecution in Mauritania, holds a picture of himself as a child, May 22, 2023, outside the Crossroads Hotel in Newburgh, N.Y.
The Associated Press is withholding Mohamed's full name at his request to protect the safety of his family in Mauritania. In his home country, Mohamed said he had joined a group of young people to decry the government's corruption and human rights abuses, including allegations of ongoing slavery. Days later, he said a group of men threw him in an unmarked car, took him to a secret room, and beat him viciously for two days.
After a journey that took him across the U.S. border with Mexico, he landed in a shelter system in New York City he found frightening and overcrowded. In one Brooklyn shelter, a room with 40 beds, someone stole his few remaining possessions as he slept.
So when outreach workers offered him the chance to relocate earlier this month, promising more space and chances to work, Mohamed took it. He joined other asylum seekers at two hotels a few miles outside the small Hudson River Valley city of Newburgh, about two hours north of the city.
Republican county officials there have accused the city of dumping its problems on its neighbors, while insinuating that the new arrivals pose a danger.
Last week, Orange County Executive Steven Neuhaus won a temporary restraining order barring the city from sending additional migrants. More than two dozen other counties across New York state have declared emergencies in an attempt to block migrant arrivals, even in places where none are planned.
As far as 400 miles (644 kilometers) north of the city, Niagara County officials have warned of an imminent safety threat, vowing criminal penalties for hotels found to be housing asylum seekers.
New York City Mayor Eric Adams, a Democrat, says he will continue his efforts to disperse some of the more than 40,000 asylum seekers currently in the city's care.
Meanwhile, some who joined the initial wave of relocations have since returned to New York City's shelter system. Those who don't have money for transportation, such as Mohamed, say they are stuck.
'It's like the desert,' lamented Mohamed, who studied law and taught himself English in Mauritania. 'There's nothing here for us.'
Mohamed of Mauritania, points in the direction of his prospective work opportunity, May 22, 2023, in Newburgh, N.Y.
Some asylum seekers described a sense of being lured upstate on false pretenses, saying outreach workers described local economies in need of off-the-books migrant labor. Instead they have suffered a stream of harassment.
'There are people driving by pretty constantly in big pickup trucks telling them to go back to their country,' said Amy Belsher, an attorney for the New York Civil Liberties Union, describing a phenomenon also witnessed by an AP journalist.
'It's a completely predictable outcome of the local county executives jumping on the migrant ban bandwagon,' she added. The NYCLU has brought a lawsuit against Orange and Rockland counties alleging discrimination against migrants.
An attorney for Orange County, Richard Golden, said it was 'utterly ridiculous' to accuse the county of fostering xenophobia. The county's lawsuit against the city, he said, rests on a 2006 state administrative directive requiring municipalities to meet certain requirements before transferring homeless individuals.
Misinformation among local residents has not helped, including a false allegation that migrants displaced homeless veterans inside the hotels - a widely-circulated story that has fallen apart.
Peruvian Jhonny Neira offered a more mixed assessment of his time in Newburgh. The 39-year-old asylum seeker described a recent Sunday visit to a church where he felt welcomed by the congregation, even if he couldn't understand the English sermon.
'I'm a respectful, hard-working person,' he said in Spanish. 'I think after getting to know me, they would trust me.'
The number of U.S.-Mexico border crossings has declined since May 11, when the Biden administration put new rules in place intended to encourage migrants to apply for asylum online rather than enter the country illegally. But New York and other migrant destination cities are still dealing with thousands of people who entered the U.S. before the new rules.
The Crossroads Hotel in Newburgh is now home to men from South and Central America, Senegal, Egypt, Mauritania, and Russia. They speak in French and English and Spanish, as they kick a soccer ball in the hotel parking lot, beside a diner and a tangle of highways. A few yards away, a man who once worked as a barber in Venezuela offers haircuts for $5, as another sweeps up.
In order to gain asylum in the United States, they will have to prove they have a 'well-founded fear of persecution' over their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.
Mohamed's experience tracks with a report by the U.S. State Department, which found Mauritania has overseen an expanded crackdown on political dissidents since 2021 and cites allegations of torture in unofficial detention centers.
If his story passes a credibility check, it would likely constitute a legitimate asylum claim, according to Jaya Ramji-Nogales, an asylum law professor at Temple University. But getting to that stage will require navigating an immigration system under severe strain.
'It was always an under-resourced system but now it's really at a breaking point,' Ramji-Nogales said. 'There's not the political will to put aside the money it needs to function.'
Mohamed said his goal is building his asylum case - something he's come to believe is not possible in Newburgh. A few days ago, he missed a key immigration appointment after a car that was supposed to take him to the city never showed up.
'You can't stay here just sleeping, eating, after that going back to sleeping,' he said. 'If you make no progress in your case, they will send you back home. For me, that would be very bad.'