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

June 14, 2023

Deputy Mayor Anne Williams-Isom, Health and Human Services: Good afternoon everyone. My name is Anne Williams-Isom and I'm the deputy mayor for health and human services. And I'm joined at this week's briefing with our chief engagement officer, Betsy MacLean, our Housing Preservation and Development Commissioner Adolfo Carrión, Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan, who is on the screen, will be on the screen in a little bit, and White Plains Mayor Tom Roach. Thank you all for being here today.

As you all will know, for months we've been calling the federal government to enact a national decompression strategy to relieve the pressure that New York City, as well as many other cities have been feeling and dealing with largely alone.

Last month, we launched a citywide program where we're opening up sites and locations across the state to house migrants who choose to go there. This is a fully voluntary program where New York City is paying the full cost of shelter, of food, and provide casework and other on onsite supports for asylum seekers, as well as connecting migrants to organizations on the ground that they can connect to and create a local community for themselves.

In the absence of a national strategy to handle what is clearly a national crisis, New York City has done what we New Yorkers do all the time and every day, which is to face a challenge head on. We're about a month into this work and I want to thank our partners across the state who have stepped up to help us and have seen that this issue is a national crisis and that we all need to do our part. As the mayor said, we are meeting our obligation here in New York City, but this is not sustainable. And that is why we need to really do our own decompression strategy right here across New York State.

Before I turn it over to Betsy, Commissioner Carrión and the mayors, Sheehan and Roach, I'd like to share some of the numbers. As of June 11th, we have had over 48, no, let me say this. We have over 48,100 asylum seekers in our care. We have opened up 169 emergency sites, including nine humanitarian relief centers, although I will note that on Monday we opened two more humanitarian relief centers. Over 76,200 asylum seekers have come through our intake system since last spring. And last week, from June 5th to June 11th, more than 2200 new asylum seekers entered our care.

As you have seen over these last few weeks during these briefings, we continue to witness thousands of people entering our system. And there is a total of more than 97,000 people in our care, including our longtime unhoused New Yorkers. I'll now turn it over to HPD Commissioner Carrion to provide us an update on our out of New York City efforts.

Commissioner Adolfo Carrión, Department of Housing Preservation and Development: Thank you, deputy mayor. My name's Adolfo Carrion, everyone. I'm the commissioner of the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development. I'm here to share some of the important work our agency is doing to help manage sites for asylum seekers outside of New York City.

This is part of the city's decompression strategy, as the deputy mayor mentioned, as thousands of asylum seekers arrive in New York City seeking freedom and safety in the United States. While we're working hard to find sites within the city, we believe other counties and cities must also do their part, as this is not just a New York City humanitarian crisis, it's rather a national crisis.

Mayor Adams has called on our team at HPD to help alleviate pressure within the city by identifying sites where asylum seekers may seek refuge beyond the five boroughs. The city is providing transportation to these locations where New York City is paying for a number of services at no expense to the local counties or cities, including a bed, food, health services, laundry services, case management services, and everything else we provide in our sites within the five boroughs.

We're glad to be coordinating with our partners in the state as well. And before we send folks, we develop partnerships with local elected officials to help coordinate our efforts. Working closely with local groups is extremely important to help asylum seekers integrate into these new communities and feel supported.

As much as there has been pushback from certain officials, there have been also many more moments of encouragement, with neighbors and local leaders stepping up to welcome people to their communities. As buses arrived in Orange County, we saw heartwarming scenes of local churches and community organizations gathered at the hotel with signs welcoming the asylum seekers.

We've continued to push this program forward and continue to look at all viable options. We're developing productive partnerships with county executives, mayors and town supervisors across the state. I want to particularly thank and call out Mayor Sheehan from Albany, who's joined us virtually, and Mayor Roach from White Plains, New York. They have been phenomenal partners in this effort. We're meeting regularly with local organizations and faith-based institutions to make sure there are people there to welcome asylum seekers upon their arrival.

We're also on the lookout for other locations in the state, particularly in places where we can establish partnerships with local elected officials and community organizations. We will continue to do everything in our power to provide people with the dignity and respect that they deserve as they overcome unbelievable odds and lay down roots in our state. That's the New York way. We're committed to that way. Thank you very much, Deputy Mayor.

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: Thank you, commissioner. And the mayor always reminds us that this is a whole of government approach.

Commissioner Carrión: Yes.

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: So thank you so much to you and your staff for stepping up and showing that leadership.

Commissioner Carrión: Thank you.

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: Chief Engagement Officer Betsy MacLean, you want to give us a little update on your relationship with community groups?

Chief Engagement Officer Betsy MacLean: I'd be happy to. Thank you, Deputy Mayor. Happy to be here with everyone today.

I want to just talk a little bit about the kind of particulars of the upstate program. The upstate program is voluntary and currently available to adult singles and adult families without school aged children. People choose to go upstate for a wide variety of reasons; everything from social connections, they have family or friends upstate to a preference for different accommodations or just a preference for a smaller city.

The city is providing, as the commissioner said, housing, food, healthcare, casework, transportation, and more to the migrants that volunteer to go upstate. In all of the places where we are operating the program, local community members, nonprofit organizations and faith institutions have been welcoming asylum seekers upon their arrival, arranging community picnics, gathering donations, and providing additional services, in many cases without additional resources.

Where possible, the city is subcontracting with local food vendors, laundry services, and other kinds of social service providers whenever possible. And we're really working hard to better coordinate with the vibrant network of local community organizations, social and legal service providers in many upstate municipalities to really round out the services the city provides and to help migrants make important connections to local communities.

We know that local connections are essential to set up asylum seekers for success, and we are working hard to help facilitate those connections. We've been working with a large network of upstate faith leaders, the New York Immigration Coalition and their upstate partners, as well as the United Way of New York, among many others, to make connections with upstate organizations and to coordinate our efforts moving forward. Thank you.

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: So many organizations who are stepping up, so we really want to thank them and know that it's so important. Now we're going to hear from our two mayors, Mayor Sheehan of Albany and Mayor Roach of White Plains, leaders who have stepped up and partnered with us in this work.

I often wonder what history is going to say about this moment and what history's going to say about us. I know what they're going to say about these two mayors: That they stepped up at a time when they were needed to help those who were most vulnerable and in need. I'd now like to pass it over to Mayor Sheehan.

Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan: Thank you so much, and we appreciate the work that we've been able to do together. It is critically important that we remind our residents and all New Yorkers that these are individuals like our ancestors, who have come here for a better life, who want to work, who want to become part of our communities, and who want to succeed in this next chapter of their life that they hope will include the American Dream.

And so, we have welcomed to Albany County, 265 individuals so far. The overwhelming majority of them, all but 25, within the city limits of Albany. And our community based organizations are actively involved in assessing what their needs are and what they want, in order to be able to proceed with their asylum petitions and their desires to stay here and to become part of our community.

On the front page of the Times Union, our local newspaper, today, there was yet another story about the labor shortage that we are facing up here. And so, like you and like our governor and like many others across the country, we are joining in a call for the ability of these individuals to get legal work status as quickly as possible so that while they are here awaiting their court date, they are able to legally work. That is a critically important element that we think will help protect them and help our communities as we seek to fill these many, many vacant jobs, and as these individuals will then have the ability to find housing and to become a part of our community.

So we have found that while there are challenges and there will always be challenges, we've been a city that has welcomed refugees for many, many years, so this is not new to us. We understand that oftentimes there might be gaps, there might be challenges accessing healthcare, there might be challenges accessing the documentation that individuals need, but folks up here are experienced in this. If we can do this in the way that we're doing it right now, where we're communicating, we're talking about capacity, and we're talking about what our ability is at this moment in time, and I would encourage mayors and others across the state to recognize that if we all play a role in ensuring that we are providing that welcome to these individuals, that they are going to, like our ancestors, provide incredible assets to our communities, our neighborhoods, and our state going forward.

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: Thank you so much, Mayor. Now, finally, I'd like to pass it over to Mayor Roach.

White Plains Mayor Thomas Roach: Well, thank you. And hello, Mayor Sheehan, my friend. She's currently the president of the New York Conference of Mayors. I'm a past president. We've spoken a lot about this issue.

I jokingly have said we are the last community that was the old method of the upstate, what's called upstate housing. I got a text from a representative of the City of New York that I know from the Executive Committee at New York Conference of Mayors on June 3rd, telling me that asylum seekers were coming to my city, where they were going, and general information about that.

Within minutes, I had a call from the county executive. I also had a call from staff at the county. And I had contact information provided to me for who I could talk to about who's coming and how do we get to work. I can tell you right from the moment when I first spoke to Chris, it was, "How do we get to work? Let's make this work as well as we possibly can."

On June 4th, the next day, I had a long conversation with the point person from this city on June 5th. I received a call from her saying, "People came out a little earlier than we thought. No problem, no problem."

The next day, June 6th, we had a teleconference, a video conference with myself and other city staff, as well as a number of people from New York City, the mayor's office, and two of our nonprofits, based on the individuals that we were told would be there, we had El Centro Hispano and the Haitian Resource Center available to discuss things. And our focus was, "What do you need?" Because, as was pointed out, when the city does this, they're contracting directly with a private building to house people, and they come with funding and staff to manage the building, to provide medical care and the basics, food. What we wanted to do was say, "What else do you need and how do we get involved?"

What I was told at the time was English language learning is what most people are interested in. And immediately one of our nonprofits said, "Do I have good news for you?" And she talked about, "We're just getting ready to start up a program of English language instruction at all levels, that people could jump right into." As it turns out, they're about to move into their new location, which is about two to three blocks from the motel that we're talking about. So it really came together that way.

I just want to say that, to echo what has been said by the deputy mayor, that this is a national problem. This is a national issue. And I shouldn't even say problem, but it's a national issue that has to be dealt with. The federal government has taken a long time to talk about immigration reform without doing anything about it. And the consequences are here. And when you're a mayor, when they're in your city, you have to deal with it. There's no one else. There's no other level of government to go to. And so, that's how we handle it. But to be fair, this needs to be a shared commitment by the entire country, not just a few cities, not just a few communities. Because my dad used to say, when he would wake my brothers up to work in the yard, "Many hands make lighter work." That's what it boils down to.

I also agree that we need to expedite the ability for people to get to work. These are people that want to work. We have jobs that need filling. And I want to finish by saying how proud I am of my city, because I called each council member individually when this happened, and I didn't get a single negative comment. I got, "How do we help?" And that was what we had to deal with initially, was a lot of people wanting to help and trying to keep them, "Just wait until we figure out how you can help." And the calls I've gotten from people that want to come help far outnumber the calls I've gotten from people that are opposed to what's happening. So, I'm proud of my city and I'm proud to work with New York City on this challenge.

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: Thank you so much, Mayor Roach. And the thing I want to say before I open it up for questions is that we are showing a solution here, and we would really like the federal government to lead and to lead us in a national decompression strategy. There are so many wonderful places across this country where people and asylum seekers could settle, that we really think that we would love for the federal government to step up and lead us in that effort.

People seeking asylum, as both of these mayors said, are here, and they came to the United States for opportunities, a desire to be independent, to work and to succeed, and we owe it to them to be able to do that and to help them in that journey.

We also just want to really thank Governor Hochul in her support to call for work authorization. We know that we've asked for the federal government to expedite work authorizations for people seeking asylum, so that they will be able to have access to the American Dream in the way that all of us have. Additionally, we need federal leaders and Congress to take this moment to tackle comprehensive immigration reform.

With that, I'll open it up for some questions.

Question: Hi. Deputy Mayor, my name is Mariela Salgado. I work for Univision. Two things. One is, have you had any update from the federal government as far as the work permit authorization? And two, organizations like Make the Road have made studies that said that about 1,000 people they interview, most all of them did not have access to an attorney, and these are people who came. The question is, why did we wait so long to actually see this, that this will be needed? Because if that had been granted, or they had had an attorney from the get-go, they could have done their applications for asylum, because they only have a window of one year to apply. So, those two things.

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: So the first was the question about whether or not we've seen any progress on the expediting work authorizations. No, and we think that that's a very important part of what needs to happen. When we did our blueprint a couple of months ago, we really said that that's what we wanted to focus on, was legal strategies and connecting people, getting people resettled, and getting people connected to work. I think that you're asking the exact right question. The city has put over, I think, $60 million in services and in supporting other organizations that help with legal strategies. But I think what we're most proud of is that we are, looking at our obligation, we are making sure that we are fulfilling our obligation and we don't have people sleeping on the streets every day. We're trying to make sure that we are taking in the numbers. It's unbelievable the amount of folks that we have right now, and I think that we are looking to our partners and coming up with new strategies all the time, but you are exactly right. Getting folks connected to attorneys or whether it's paralegals, it's to the institutional providers of this and even more. And right now, we're actually doing something called a legal sprint to get a large number of people connected and to figure out the very complicated application that the asylum seeker application is.

Question: You guys will need, like you said, paralegals, all the attorneys, and you still need more.

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: Yes.

Question: So I guess when you talk about the sprint, what particularly are you doing to accelerate the fact that somebody can get an attorney and work on their application?

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: That may be another briefing that we do another time and we'll bring the team here to talk about that. But I wanted to let you know that when we did our blueprint back in March, I think, I can't remember when it was now. Time is going so slowly. That was one of the priorities that the mayor said that we need to really think about is to look, to see, and to make sure that we get people connected to attorneys and to support so that they can do their applications and of course, work authorization.

Question: Hi. Yes, my question, the two mayors talked about how many asylum seekers they've taken. It seems like only 100. That's a drop in the bucket compared to the people that are just arriving every week. Does the administration have any long term plans? I know some people have thought about eminent domain and working with private developers. Is that something the administration is thinking about? Because right now, it seems like it's just per weekly finding space, a couple beds here, a couple beds there. But what is the long term strategy? As we have seen, the federal government is not willing to help at this…

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: So I want to answer that two ways, Kelly. One is it's a drop in the bucket, but if we get more people who are engaged in this, it could be thousands of people who are resettled across the state. So I think that that's a very important point to make.

I think the long-term strategy is a decompression strategy across the country because we've seen that we can do it. We can connect families to communities, we can connect and get kids enrolled in schools, and that's really the solution that we need here. We need folks to be able to work so that then they could get settled. And so there is a long-term solution. We just need our partners to step up and work with us in order to do that.

Question: You mentioned other cities that can take… Could you mention any of those cities that you have in mind?

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: I think because this is a national issue, I like you saying not a national problem, we really do need the federal government to lead in that because we want to make sure that we're working with other states and other cities to make sure that people are communicating. But we would really like the federal government to step up and lead in that way.

Question: Deputy Mayor, it struck me that because of the migrant crisis, but also because of all the other issues in your portfolio from Covid to homelessness to mental health, you've become a very visible deputy mayor. I would say that aside from the mayor himself, you are the most public facing official on the migrant crisis. The mayor, however, is being criticized as being a micromanager. I'm wondering how you, as one of his five women deputy mayors, feels about that. Do you feel fully empowered to make decisions when it comes to policy and also strategy?

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: I feel… Someone asked me this the other day about my portfolio and the work that I do. I feel so privileged to be serving in New York City at this moment because I think, as you say, I am a lawyer by training. I talked last week about having a doctorate in ministry, I have a history in child welfare. So all that's in my portfolio, I feel competent and ready to serve. I think having a big heart and the ability of loving New York is also really important to me. And so I'm happy to be here with all the challenges that we have to bring that spirit to this work.

I think I have a great boss, I have great colleagues, and it is one of the best and most fulfilling jobs, Liz, that I've ever had in my life, and I am honored to be doing it. I know my mom is watching this all the time, and my children, they are proud of me. My community is proud of me and that just makes me feel really good to be serving at this really critical moment.

Question: So you don't feel micromanaged?

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: I feel joyful and happy to be in this moment even with the challenges that we have because I think I'm prepared to do this and I love my colleagues. I love working here and it is one of the best experiences of my life and my career.

Question: Mayor, what is the total number — or maybe the commissioner can answer this — what is the total number of out of city migrants? Where are they beyond just White Plains and Albany? And what is the cost of being paid to these jurisdictions per migrant? And is the funding indefinite or is there a cutoff? Will it go years in the future?

Commissioner Carrión: Let me start by answering where they are. Other cities other than White Plains in Albany, we're also in Argyle, New York, we're in Newburgh, we're in Poughkeepsie. The lion's share of the migrants are in Albany. And let me just say parenthetically that this is a national problem, a national issue, a national challenge, and a national opportunity to integrate people that are hungry to be here, escaping difficult places and situations all across the world, but particularly, in Latin America. And I think the mayor touched on it. The mayor of Albany touched on it when she said this is not new. This is who we are. About 1 percent of the entire asylum seeker population that has come to, figuratively speaking, the shores of New York, if you will, about 1 percent are outside of New York City right now.

Question: That's 1 percent of 48 or 1 percent of 76?

Commissioner Carrión: About 1 percent of 48, 49,000 people. So they're spread not evenly, but everybody is doing what they can. If every capital of every state in the union would do what Albany, but in particular, what New York City is doing, every major city, if the governor of Texas would go to Austin and Dallas and Houston and San Antonio and care for the people and pay for the services to integrate them into American society and give them a chance at work, at asylum, at refuge, we would be in a far different place. So New York is stepping up. This is the New York way, and we're committed. We're going to remain committed.

I'll give you a visual that was in my mind as I was walking here. If you go to a large American football stadium, it probably accommodates about 76,000 people. And just for a second, picture that and picture a giant pouring the stadium full of 76,000 people into the city of New York and New York saying, "We're going to take care of this. We're going to take care of these human beings, these families with dignity and respect, and we're going to pay for it." And now what we're asking our partners across the state in counties and cities across the 62 counties of New York is to please help us, continue to help us to do this important work.

Question: You're asking for a couple hundred per county? Is that fair? Is that the number [inaudible 00:26:20]?

Commissioner Carrión: I'm not going to put a number on it, but look, if we all do our part, like the mayor, Mayor Roach said, it makes for lighter work.

Question: And the dollar figure, the dollar figure…

Commissioner Carrión: I'm not certain what the dollar figure is..

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: We'll get back to you.

Mayor Roach: We can provide that for you, but just to… We don't get any money. The municipality, we don't have to spend any money and we don't get any money.

Question: But in other words, the hotel or whatever accommodation needs, that's what I'm looking for.


Question: Yes. Thank you. [Inaudible]. As we all know, this immigrant family members in [inaudible]. And maybe you guys are aware of it, maybe not. We see more of them coming in New York City. Maybe it's a little caution when they come down to the African community, but they are part of it. And today, if you go to Harlem, people are kind of scared, the way they see them coming in numbers. And they will tell you that some of them was in Atlanta, some of them was in different state, and they all choose to come to New York City. As we all know, New York City is always a safe haven in a way. 

And with all the difficulties happening right now, expectation from day one, we heard the mayor asking for the federal government to step in, step up, which is not the case there. Our people are asking certain questions, which is, besides what the city's doing, state's are doing, what can the community do? Because in a way, they kind of scared, the way they see the numbers are incoming. Thank you.

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: Betsy, you want to…

MacLean: Yes. Yeah. Well, we are always looking to partner with community based organizations. We know, again, that it doesn't take government to do this, that community based organizations are doing this work all day, every day, in and out, and have served their communities forever and have deep roots in communities. So we are looking in every opportunity possible to partner with community based organizations to learn from community-based organizations so that, again, kind of our eyes and ears on the ground so that we can really start to really adjust our approach. As new issues come up, as new challenges come up, that we're able to adjust and pivot and again, partner with organizations. At the end of the day, it really has to be... Those are the critical links that asylum seekers will make that make a place feel not just like a landing spot but like home. And so that's what we're really looking to do.

Question: So I have two questions. My first question would be for Miss MacLean, Miss MacLean. Okay. You mentioned that the asylum seekers that are outside of New York City upstate, it's not families, it's single adults. So my question to you is, why aren't families included? Because I'm sure there are families that would want to be outside of New York City in a more suburban setting. Why is that not the case? And then kind of education related, and maybe the White Plains Mayor could answer this question, when it comes to the students and funding, if the migrants are relocated, families are relocated to say White Plains or Yonkers or any other county, how would that work exactly with the education funding part of that? And is that perhaps one of the reasons why you are not relocating migrant families outside of New York City?

That's one question. And then my second question is for deputy mayor. I keep on hearing that asylum seekers want them to get work permits, and I understand that, but my other question is, what is the plan B? Because it doesn't look like that's likely to happen because it needs to be a national solution to this. So what is New York City's plan B to this? Because we can't keep saying work permits, in addition to the fact that majority of migrants, super-majority of migrants here still have not applied for asylum. So at some point, we need to know what the plan B is, and then really the question about the families being relocated.

MacLean: Sure.

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: Yeah, you want to start the…

MacLean: Yeah, I'll take the first one. So right now, we have both single adults, but also adult families and we do have a handful of families with children who are under five, not school aged children that are upstate in the program. And it's largely a timing thing, as most people have come in over the last year and we worked hard to enroll children into our public schools. We didn't want to rip them out of public schools once they were enrolled. I think it's something that we'll consider in the future. But as long as the school year, and we have at least a couple weeks left, according to my children, that we'll continue to just send singles adults and adult families.

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: Also, Mona, just to let you know, the state is also working with us to resettle families this summer and they wanted to do that for the very reason that Betsy talked about. We didn't want to take school age children out of school. And about the funding, I actually don't have the answer to that, so I'll let you follow up about how that will work. And did you want to talk about schools in White Plains? I think you had a…

Question: Because with the school districts, I know the City of New York is covering the cost of reimbursing the cost.

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: Yep.

Question: But if you're relocating migrant families with school aged children, then it's that individual school…

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: It's going to be an interesting…

Question: …district, the White Plains school district that's going to incur the additional costs of the students coming in. So that's...

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: We'll get back to you on that.

Question: …That get back to asking that question. And Mr. Mayor would know best how the school district would…

Mayor Roach: So, and the way it works, we're outside of New York City, and most of the state is the school district is a separate governmental entity. They're not under our control. But I'm in constant communication with the superintendent and was from the beginning here. We don't have any school aged children at this time, and we would handle as it comes, but it really comes back to what I was saying, that this is a national issue. And so I think that there should be funding available in those circumstances. It should be available to New York City right now to cover the costs. So I think if people move out to other places, that should also be covered.

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: She had another question about the work authorization. Yeah. I love that you want me to have a plan B for that, but I can't break the law. And I think that if we all step up, I think it's really important on why we really want the federal government to help with this work authorization. We know that some people are working illegally right now and probably getting taken advantage of, so we want to make sure that that doesn't happen. But we're going to keep on paying attention to the law and not break the law. So that's the answer to that.

Question: Hi everybody. Just a quick question. So how often are asylum seekers being sent to other cities? I know that you mentioned it was on a volunteer basis, but is there any way to put quantify that in some way from when that started to where we are now? And are any other cities on deck, let's say? Is there 10 that are going to come online, they're going to be accepting more within the state, anything like that or any other places that are targets for where they might be sent from here on end?

MacLean: Yeah. Yeah, so I'll talk a little bit about kind of to date, we've been sending buses kind of one, probably two or three a week over the last month or so. And what we really are striving to be in close coordination with elected officials and nonprofit organizations before we go up. That hasn't always been possible, but when it is possible, we're certainly doing that. And I think that that remains the same for kind of future cities, is really reaching out. We've been reaching out to elected officials across the state to work in partnership and start to think through where the next places that we can send folks,

Question: Are there any ones that are receptive to this, that haven't come online yet but are working towards that?

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: We're probably not going to share that right now, but we'll make sure that we do what you all said, is to communicate with people and stay in communication and make sure that we work that out.

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