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Transcript: Deputy Mayor For Health And Human Services Williams-Isom Holds Briefing On Asylum Seeker Crisis

May 24, 2023

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Deputy Mayor Anne Williams-Isom, Health and Human Services: Good afternoon, everyone. I'm Anne Williams-Isom and I'm the deputy mayor for health and human services. As mentioned one week ago in my first briefing, we are again here to provide an update on the humanitarian crisis facing New York City. 

Today we will take a deeper dive into the financial cost impacting the city to support this humanitarian crisis. As stated before, we have done and will do all we can to support asylum seekers, but we can't do this alone. From the start, let's be clear, we are in no way seeking to end the right to shelter. The city's actions yesterday were a request to get in front of the court to gain clarity from the court and preserve the right to shelter for the tens of thousands of people in our care, both previously unhoused New Yorkers and newly arrived asylum seekers. Given that the city is unable to provide care for an unlimited number of people and is already over extended, it is in the best interest of everyone, including those seeking to come to the United States, to be upfront that New York City cannot single-handedly provide care to everyone crossing our border.

The city now estimates to have more asylum seekers in care than New Yorkers experiencing homelessness when the administration first came into office. Let me say that again, that we now have more asylum seekers in our care than we did the homeless folks that were in our care when we came in at the administration, which is about 45,000 people. So before we take your questions, joining me today is City Hall's chief counsel, Brendan McGuire; Jacques Jiha, the director of the Mayor's Office of Management Budget; and Manny Castro, commissioner of the Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs. Before I turn it over to Jacques though, let me share the latest numbers with you.

We currently have more than 44,700 people currently, asylum seekers in our care, and over 70,000 people who have come through our intake center since the beginning of the crisis last spring. We have opened up more than 150 emergency shelters, including nine humanitarian relief centers. As you can see by the numbers, we continue to see a significant increase in the number of people coming to New York City on a daily basis. This has pushed us to open up additional emergency respite sites, and move into more counties upstate as part of our voluntary program. I want to now turn it over to Director Jiha to walk us through the financial pieces in more detail. Jacques?

Jacques Jiha, Director, Mayor’s Office of Management and Budget: Thank you very much, Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom. As you said, this is a very costly endeavor for the city to do by itself. As of April 30th, we spent a billion dollars on asylum seekers' needs. And as you can see on the chart, we are providing a range of services to those asylum seekers. Ranging from shelter, medical care, food, and social services. And as you can see also, we have eight agencies coordinating all these activities, including DSS, H+H, NYCEM, DCAS, HPD, DOHMH, and DDC. So it's a major, major, major effort on the part of the city, that consumes a lot of time and energy. Next chart. Now I'm going to show you the calculations, because right now, as we said, we spent a billion dollars. We believe that before July 1st, we will spend $1.4 billion. And by July of next year, we spend $2.9 billion, for a total of $4.3 billion.

Let me quickly walk you through the calculation that is a basis for the forecast. The math is straightforward. For fiscal '23, the average daily census is about 9,751 households. The estimated per diem is at $380 a day. And so the total cost is straightforward, as I said, is multiplying the number of households by the number of days in a year, which is 365 days, and multiply by the per diem of 380. That gives you $1.4 billion. In other words, once you forecast the number of households, it is straightforward. The same thing is happening for 2024. We expect 24,882 households. We have an estimated perm of $320 per day, that is a drop from the 380 that we use to compute the fiscal '23. And again, you multiply the number of households by the number of days in the year and by the per diem, and you come up with $2.9 billion.

Next slide. This slide gives you a sense of the challenges that we're dealing with. That forecast I just mentioned to you was based on the assumptions that we were getting about 40 households a day, okay? For the month of May, we looking at 188 households a day. Let me repeat again. That forecast was based on the assumption that we'll be getting 40 households a day. We are now at 188. So as you can see on the chart, there is a huge divergence between the actual which is the black line, and the forecast which is the red line. We don't know if that is going to persist, that system over time. We don't know if it's a blip, if it's going to go back to the trend line of that we are forecasting. But if that persists, it's going to be a very, very, very expensive proposition to basically cover the cost of caring for the migrants.

So we're going to have to update our forecast. As you already know, the city comptroller came out yesterday with the forecast. And they already think that our forecast is on the low end, and they already looking at $765 million above our forecast. We haven't made the decision to change our forecast yet. But because we're waiting to see if there is a new trend that will be established. But once we do, we will have to update our forecast going forward. So again, we are in the midst of a fiscal crisis. We have received very inadequate aid from both the state and the federal government, in particular the federal government. We have received so far awarded $38.5 million from the federal government. FEMA gave us an award of $8 million last December, and of the $800 million that was allocated to localities nationwide, we have received an initial award of $30.5 million.

So the $38.5 million barely covers five days of asylum seeker costs at our current spending rate. Regarding the state, the state is providing us a billion dollars, which is about 29 percent of the cost over a two year period of to a billion dollars. This aid will probably cover five months of asylum seekers over a two year period. Not over a year, over a two year period. But however, while the governor gave us a billion dollars, we also have cuts on our budget of about half a billion dollars a year. So whatever we gain on one on one hand, was taken from us on the other hand. So this is where we are, and because of the inadequate aid that we have received so far, we are looking at a billion dollar gap that was just open in the executive budget that would have to address at adoption. Again, so this is where we are. We believe we need more assistance from the federal government. And don't forget, we are assuming all this costs in an environment when we're looking at many forecasters predicting a slowdown of the economy, or if not a recession, at the end of this year. So you can imagine a combination of a big slowdown in the economy where you have a decline in your tax revenue base at the same time you're looking at the kind of increases we are looking at to spend for the kind of resources that we are looking to spend, if that trend were to continue in the future. Anne.

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: Okay. Thank you so much Director Jiha. We'll take questions in a moment, but before we do that, I'd like to turn it over to Immigrations Affairs Commissioner Castro to share some of the updates about ongoing efforts to provide immediate support for the influx of asylum seekers.

Commissioner Manuel Castro, Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs: Thank you so much, deputy mayor. First, I want to take this opportunity to thank the hundreds of city employees who are working incredibly hard, have been working incredibly hard in support of asylum seekers in New York City.

The logistics of caring for so many people is monumental, and I have seen it firsthand at our humanitarian centers, in our shelter system, at our schools, New Yorkers have stepped up and have contributed to this humanitarian crisis like no other city in the country.

And I also want to thank Deputy Mayor Anne Williams-Isom and Mayor Adams for leading us through this crisis with incredible humanity, with incredible compassion. We have said this over and over again, it is not the asylum seekers that we are seeing continue crisis, but it is the inaction by our federal government.

So today, as we seek additional support, we want to make clear that this is not about whether if we want to help people. We have and continue to help people. We have helped more people than anywhere else in the country. But as has been said before, we are at a breaking point. And without a real comprehensive strategy by the federal government, adequate support to our city, this is just not sustainable.

We don't want people to show up at our doorstep and end up in the street, whether it's longtime immigrants, of which we have millions, or newly arrived asylum seekers. This is the last thing we want to see happen. This is why we need a sensible conversation about what is possible and what is not moving forward.

So at this point, we do not have the physical infrastructure to continue to provide the same level of support to an indefinite number of people. I wish we could, but there are realities we must face. And that is why we are here seeking, again, support from the federal government and seeking for others to do more in response to the humanitarian crisis.

I also want to voice concerns coming from our longtime immigrant communities, of which I speak with often. Historically, immigrants have arrived to our city and found shelter with their friends, family members, acquaintances from their countries of origin.

Seeking shelter in our city system has been always a last resort. But what we are seeing now is significantly different, as you know, with the buses being sent here by Governor Abbott, flights from other localities and a lack of decompression strategy by the federal government.

Longtime immigrant communities, New Yorkers fear this is creating hostility against all immigrants as a whole. And a perception is developing that immigrants seek to depend on the government, which is simply not true. They want to continue to be here to work and contribute back to the city and their country that has provided an opportunity to them all.

So this is why we are hearing now from immigrant communities themselves that the current situation cannot continue indefinitely, and we need a comprehensive solution by the federal government, including comprehensive immigration reform. Thank you so much.

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: Thank you so much, Commissioner Castro. So in addition to supporting asylum seekers, we do have an unwavering responsibility to continue to provide funding for our schools, for public services for working families, for our older adults and essential services for the 8.8 million people who rely on daily us, but we need additional resources. As the mayor has said, this is a national problem and it requires a national solution.

No one city can or should be asked to play a disproportionate role, but that's what's happening absent additional support from federal leadership. We don't see an end in sight. And as we have said, we are at a breaking point. It's not fair that all those in our care, approximately 94,000 if you include the folks that are in our DHS system in all of our emergency centers, that's 94,000 people that are in our care right now will have to suffer because we have not yet seen a national decompression strategy.

With that, we'll now open it up to the floor for questions.

Question: I wanted to ask about this piece of the letter that talks about the lack of resources, the city not having sufficient resources to abide by the right to shelter law. Mayor Adams was asked about this before and kind of put it off to the court, and I'm guessing there was some internal discussion about this. How does the city expect to quantify what that lack of resources is? In this situation you're saying, we just kind of reached our limit, but down the road, if such a suspension was put in place, how would the city kind of measure that, I guess?

Brendan McGuire, Chief Counsel, Mayor’s Office: So I'm not going to get into legal strategy given the filing of the letter. I will though provide you with the thinking in terms of where we are now. And I think what we are faced with now after there being no change at the federal level after May 11th and the change at the border with respect to Title 42, we are now 12 months into this. The mayor declared a humanitarian crisis in October.

We have been beating the drum, as you all know, for quite some time now. And we have now gotten to a point where it is essential and necessary to revisit the Callahan requirements because the question is, how is the future going to be any different than the past year? And if the future, there's no reason to believe that anyone is riding in with a solution with respect to the numbers.

And so the idea here is, as the mayor has said repeatedly, all options have to be on the table. And the goal here, to be very clear, to be very clear, the idea here is to obtain clarity and additional flexibility to the extent it is needed. That's the goal. And so you're asking specifics, Mike, I appreciate where the question comes from, but there's a legal case that is going to follow from the filing yesterday where that will be addressed.

Question: One second. Do you view that clarity as applying just specifically to the migrant thing or just in perpetuity kind of?

Mayor Adams: I don't understand the question. So the migrant thing...

Question: Yeah, you're seeking clarity on Callahan from the court. And the question is, is the administration seeking clarity just as it pertains to the migrant crisis or in perpetuity as the law would apply in future situations?

Mayor Adams: So the filing relates to Callahan as a whole, but it focuses specifically on adults and adult families only. It does not seek any modification with respect to families with children. So it is all intertwined in terms of the Callahan requirements. Obviously, 40 plus years ago, the judgment did not distinguish between unhoused New Yorkers and asylum seekers. That was obviously a foreign concept back then, and that is one of the real concerns here, is that this never contemplated, Callahan and its progeny never contemplated this reality that we're in.

So as a result, this is all part of the same issue, to respond to your question. But that's why we're going to court, is an effort now to seek relief based on this reality that it was never foreseen.

Question: I want to go off that same line of questioning in that particular paragraph because I'm perplexed, or I question, the logic of saying you don't want to change the right to shelter when literally that paragraph legally would give you an out to the right to shelter. And if you were actually... If a judge, which has not changed this in 40 plus years, does decide to side with you and give you that paragraph, well then what does it look like? Does that mean that migrants are sleeping on the street? Will you no longer be opening up emergency shelters? What's the end game here? What do you exactly want?

McGuire: So what you want, as I go back to it, is clarity and flexibility. And so, it's important to be precise about what we're talking about here. When things are said like, "The administration wants to end the right to shelter," that is inaccurate. That's why we're pushing back against it. I think there are many hypotheticals one could try to spin out from this legal filing. I'm not going to get into all of those. What I will say is, if you look over the past 12 months, no administration in the history of this city has done more to preserve and ensure the Callahan requirements than this one.

It's not even close because no administration has been faced with this number of people who need help. So the idea that a filing designed to obtain clarity and flexibility in a crisis should be read as a signal that the people in this administration, including these folks who've committed themselves to this for the last 12 months, we've suddenly decided, you know what, we're not abandoning all of this, is I think completely unfair and distorts what we've done for the last 12 months.

The goal here is to, again, given that 40 plus years ago, this current reality was not contemplated, to understand how a court will address this situation as we deal with obviously the other parties to Callahan in an attempt, again, to get clarity and flexibility in this circumstance.

Question: For Jacques, yesterday you said that you're going to set up a tracker for migrant costs. When is that going to come out? And then also, are you guys going to set up a tracker for how many people are coming in, the daily numbers, and what's going on with the Office of the Asylum Seeker Operations? When are we going to see that come to fruition and the person named?

Jiha: Yeah. We currently are working on a tracker, like we did for the Covid expenses, to give transparency and clarity to folks to see exactly where we're spending. So the goal is to get it up soon. I can't give you an exact date because I know the programmers are working on it. But we will announce it when it's completed. We got a new office. I believe we have somebody.

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: So the work of the Office of the Asylum Seeker is continuing. We said that we really wanted to focus on a legal strategy. We wanted to focus more on exits and resettlement, and so the group of folks at City Hall and in the agencies are focused on that. We did name Molly Schaeffer as our interim asylum seeker, the head of the office, and I think we really want to make sure that we're picking the right person for that position and have the right operational experience.

And so, we'll keep you posted when that position is filled, but the work of what we think the office is doing is going on every day.

Question: So that's kind of happening unofficially, but with the team of all these agencies?

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: Correct. Yes.

Question: So how will things change once it's set up? What will that look like?

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: So I think that that's my point, Brenda. The infrastructure of who's working on legal strategies, who's working on exits, who's working on front door strategies, who's working very closely with the state on resettlement. All of that work is happening, and we didn't really want to add so many additional new lines. So we pulled lines from other people in the administration, in the similar way that we did during Covid, right?

And so, financial considerations are very important to us, so the work is getting done by a group of people who are going to continue to get that work done. When we announce who's going to be the permanent person, I'm not sure about that, but I will tell you because we want to make sure that we're appointing the right person to do that.

Question: Question for Jacques. You said yesterday, the migrant cost could go well past $4.3 billion by next July. Do you have any idea or sense of what that number could be at this point?

Director Jiha: At this point, no, because we're looking at the data to see if there's going to be a new trend established over the next two months before, because that could be simply a blip and it goes away and comes right back to the trend, in which case we don't have to make a major adjustment to the forecast. But if that trend persists, we're going to have to update that forecast sometime in our upcoming plan.

Question: Could there be budget cuts in the future?

Director Jiha: I don't know at this point in time. Assuming the uncertainties, I cannot say one way or another what we're going to do to address it.

Question: If I can just get a quick logistical question, how many respite centers are currently open?

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: There are nine humanitarian centers. And in terms of the emergency respite centers, we keep on opening them as we need them, so I can get you the exact number, but it changes from day to day.

Question: If I could just add, what distinctions are currently being drawn between the traditional homeless New Yorker and the new migrant people who are coming in?

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: You mean in terms of the—?

Question: Places?

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: So we actually have been trying to keep sanctuary sites for folks because there was some conflict at the beginning. So I think people, when they come here, they're scared, they're nervous, they don't know many people. Staying with their similar community, if we can do that, we've been trying to do.

Question: Just a question. So when you guys say you're looking for clarity in this law, nowhere in there does it say that you guys are looking for clarity. You say that you're actually looking to move it, transition it. So just looking for clarity there, and then also do you guys expect, if this were to be modified or returned, what sort of guardrails would be in place to keep people from sleeping on the streets?

McGuire: Well just on the first points, the way you seek clarity from a court is you make a request of the court. And so, we've made a request of the court with respect to the specific language in Callahan and that's laid out. So that's what we mean by clarity, and that clarity would be designed to provide us with flexibility.

In terms of guardrails, again, we don't want to get into speculation here about where the judge may go, where this court case may go. And so, that would be part of the further proceedings in the court to work out amongst the parties and with the court to determine, okay, how can we go forward here, again, given these crisis conditions that were not in existence at the time of Callahan.

Question: Yes. [inaudible] the governor and the mayor [inaudible] what can they do to really help these asylum seekers to [inaudible] there's a long time waiting. Wouldn't it just be easier to just get all the immigrants who [inaudible] positions to [inaudible]?

Commissioner Castro: Over the last several months, I've heard loud and clear from all the different immigrant communities that they too want forms of relief, so not just asylum seekers, which is why we have been calling for comprehensive immigration reform, which would allow everyone the needs work authorization to access work authorization. One thing we've requested the federal government to do is use their powers to redesignate TPS for many of the community of the people who arrived in the last year.

By redesignating TPS to a more recent date, for instance, for Venezuelans, that would allow all of these individuals to access work permits quicker and easier and allow them to get to work faster. And this applies to many different communities, including West African communities, which we have also been advocating for. So, the work of our federal legislative team is ongoing. They're in D.C. working really hard, both with our congressional delegation and others in D.C. to try and get something done. Because this requires action by the federal government. I've said this over and over. The fate of asylum seekers rests in the hands of the federal government. They're the ones that must act.

Question: Thank you. Question for Brendan. I think it's a reasonable question for New Yorkers to want to know your intentions. And of course the judge will ask your intentions as well. It's not really legal strategy. So, the question is whether your plan is to shut the door if you get what you want from the court or is it to perhaps continue to shelter people but maybe just not get sued over the specific conditions that you might not be able to guarantee anymore? And then second, have you asked Governor Hochul and the state to join you in this lawsuit, and did they decline?

McGuire: I'm not trying to be cute in my answers. Again, when you look at the record of the past year of this administration, the intention here is not to get a court order so that we can shut the door and have thousands of people living on the street. That is not the way this administration thinks about this. We have, regardless of our legal requirements, have gone above and beyond over the last year just from a moral standpoint. And I think the folks who are involved in this with us from the advocate community, again, I think there is a recognition of the effort that we've put in here. So, to answer your first question, this is not the intention. Again, back to the point, which is—

Question: ... want to shelter people to the best of your ability and you wouldn't stop trying to shelter migrants.

McGuire: The—

Question: ... don't want to get sued if you can't do it the way you're supposed to.

McGuire: It's not a question of legal risk. It's a question of the ability of... It's doing the responsible thing now before the entire system buckles. And it is looking for areas of flexibility where the mayor, the executive branch, is not hamstrung unnecessarily by a 40 plus year old judicial order. To the extent that we can have an action with a court agrees and there can be some flexibility secured, it's to have that flexibility. Do we want to necessarily exercise that in every case, in every way, whatever it may be? Not necessarily. So, it's an effort to be responsible here to secure some flexibility now.

Question: How about the state joining the litigation, considering that they always were a party in the past?

McGuire: Right. I'm not going to get into specific conversations we've had with them about legal strategy. But I will say that we have been coordinating closely with them on a full range of matters, as we've said before, and continue to do so.

Question: Just to follow up on that, Legal Aid actually hasn't sued you so far, right? And they've been, I think, in close communication and there's things that haven't been aligned with the right to shelter all along, right? There's not social services on site. The facilities like Randalls Island were way too big, like what the law was already... More than 200 beds. So, I guess my question is what is different now? They've already said, "We understand you have a crisis. You're doing what you can." This seems like another step to wave it all together to ask for the permission if you don't have the resources or capacity to do this. It seems like you want to close that door.

McGuire: All right. So, I think this is part of the incremental but responsible approach that we've been taking for a year. And the idea here is, let's see what is going to happen. This is now coming sometime after May 11th. We did not know what the federal government was going to do up to that point. We have waited to see what was coming after that. There is no real change that we're seeing from there. So, now the question is, what is the next phase of this strategy? And again, you're right. I think that conversations led by the deputy mayor with Legal Aid along with the corporation counsel have been very productive, and they will decide to do what they decide to do. We recognize and appreciate the role that they have to play and have played here. And I think that's actually gone a long way in making this effort over the last year as effective as it has been. So... Yep?

Question: Just a quick follow up on that. So, I think it was Comptroller Brad Lander said the city could have actually gone to the judge and say, "This right to shelter requirement could apply to the whole state." Why not take that opposite legal tactic?

McGuire: Well, as a legal matter, he's wrong. There is no constitutional right to shelter. So, that's the first issue. There's a constitutional provision that mandates the state and its subdivisions to provide care to the poor. It does not specify a right to shelter. So, as a legal matter, you can't do what he's proposing. But secondly, the issue here is what distinguishes the city from the rest of the state. And one of those things historically, as you all know, has been Callahan. And so we are addressing that now. And again, the idea here is this isn't an effort here to turn our backs on anyone. The past year demonstrates that we're not going to do that. We will not do that. The issue here is flexibility in a crisis.

Question: Mr. McGuire, assuming a favorable disposition and the court adopts the language that you have in your letter and there's a situation where DHS finds that the city lacks resources and the capacity, what happens if an adult male or an adult family shows up and seeks shelter? Specifically, what happens in that case?

McGuire: I understand the question, and I'm not going to answer it because it's a hypothetical that's based on how the court case plays out. We have not put in filings yet. All we have done is the filing yesterday, which is a request for, as you saw, for a judge to be assigned. And it is the first chapter in this. You're asking what is a fair question, but one that we're not in a position right now to answer.

Question: Are you prepared to answer it to a judge who asks you that very question?

McGuire: When the time comes, there's no question that the Law Department will be prepared to answer whatever questions the court has.

Question: Just to take a slightly different tactic off on Melissa's question. Obviously, the city had something in mind when they sought the order and you did actually give some clarity that you don't want this order to give you the right to just shut people out altogether. So, I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit more. Because I think some of the concern about this is the uncertainty here. No one really knows what you're trying to do. So, thinking about the flexibility, the clarity before you filed the case, separating that from the legal machinations that will happen, what do you want? What is the clarity and flexibility that you want specifically?

McGuire: Right. So, the idea here, Joe, is that there are a set of laws and regulations that govern the way that the homelessness population has to be treated here in the city. And so the idea here is to think responsibly and holistically about what currently governs this crisis and what can we do to ensure that, to the extent there are restrictions, that that can be revisited that may make it more feasible for us to avoid the system in its entirety from buckling under its own weight. And so when we talk about this, as you see in the filing, it focuses on adults and adult families. And it focuses on the requirements with respect to them under Callahan. And so the idea here is, we want to understand, through going through the court system, what can be done in light of this current predicament that we find ourselves in.

I understand there's a desire for specific answers here, but part of being in a crisis is that what you have to do is look ahead and try to understand without potentially knowing exactly how everything is going to play out, because you never can, what tools, though, can you try to secure today that are going to provide you with the ability to handle the crisis tomorrow? And that's what this is about, more so than any kind of deep, detailed plan that is sketched out. Because as you know, in a crisis, you're not going to be able to predict with certainty where it's headed.

Question: It’s what you want though.

McGuire: Flexibility and clarity on that issue.

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