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Transcript: Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Anne Williams-Isom to Hold Briefing on Asylum Seeker Crisis

June 21, 2023

Deputy Mayor Anne Williams-Isom, Health and Human Services: I'm Anne Williams-Isom and I'm the Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services. As we continue our series of briefings on the asylum seeker crisis, this week we are going to discuss the recently announced asylum seeker application help center and our efforts to provide legal services to asylum seekers in the absence of a national strategy. I'm joined today by Judge Hinds-Radix, the Administration's Corporation Council, and Commissioner Manny Castro from the Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs. We know that the federal legal asylum asylum seeker process is complex and can be especially burdensome for non-native English speakers.

Since the beginning of this crisis, in addition to meeting the immediate needs of the asylum seekers like shelter and food, we've been working on standing up legal clinics and strategies to get asylum seekers the information they need to formally apply for asylum. In March, when we announced our Road Forward blueprint, we talked about the importance of scaling up these legal strategies. And yesterday we were happy to announce that we are in the process of doing that. The asylum application center will bring the pro se model where we will have expert immigration lawyers and other pro bono lawyers to do applications assistance to help asylum seekers apply for asylum to a much larger scale, which we think we are uniquely able to do as government, getting help for more people as they need it.

We're incredibly grateful to the private sector partners and nonprofit groups that have come together to help us to create a streamlined supportive operations to offer people seeking asylum the step-by-step guidance that they need to navigate the next steps of their journey. While we are not able to provide full legal services to tens and thousands of individuals, the help center will provide trained navigators, language access, and help people seeking asylum meet their fast approaching deadlines to file needed paperwork with the federal government. But before I turn it over to Commissioner Castro and Judge Radix to offer a few more details on the work happening at the help center, let's share a few of the numbers.

As of June 18th, we have over 98,400 people in our care, including over 48,700 asylum seekers. Over 78,700 asylum seekers have come through our intake centers since last spring. We have opened 174 sites, including 11 humanitarian relief centers, and last week, from June 12th to June 18th, more than 2200 new asylum seekers entered our care. We have consistently been seeing over 2000 people coming through our system over the last few weeks. I'll now turn it to Judge Radix for a few details about the help center.

Sylvia Hinds-Radix, Corporation Counsel, Law Department: Good afternoon, everybody. I'm Sylvia Hinds-Radix, the corporation counsel for the City of New York. And I thank you, deputy mayor, for asking me to join you here today. So as the deputy mayor has discussed at these briefings, the city's response to this unprecedented humanitarian crisis has been very collaborative. We've had collaborative efforts with many parties lending their assistance, including many of our city agencies, nonprofits, community organizations, volunteers, and the faith-based community as well as many others. The Asylum Application Help Center represents another comprehensive measure taken by the city to respond to this humanitarian crisis and will provide much needed assistance to asylum seekers as they forge their path towards self-sufficiency. The federal asylum application process can be a daunting task for new arrivals, and there is a need to assist these individuals in filling out the applications. The deadline for many asylum seekers to complete their applications is fast approaching.

They cannot apply for work authorization until the asylum applications are accepted as complete by the federal government. To all the qualified attorneys and non-attorneys who are thinking of assisting, please apply, join us and help. Your expertise is needed. You will be making a tremendous contribution to the asylum seekers who are seeking a better life and to the City of New York. We're always asking law firms to donate, to give pro bono time, and for associates and paralegals to support this critical effort. I applaud those who are helping in this effort, and I am proud of the contributions made by the law department in facilitating the agreement to bring this excellent effort to fruition.

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: Thank you so much, judge. Commissioner Castro.

Commissioner Manuel Castro, Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs: Thank you so much, Deputy Mayor. Good afternoon. I'm Manuel Castro. I'm the Commissioner for the Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs. I am here to say that I am incredibly proud to be working with my colleagues in city government under the leadership of Deputy Mayor, Anne Williams-Isom, under the leadership of Mayor Eric Adams. Very proud to be in partnership with many wonderful nonprofit organizations, law firms, volunteer groups to launch the Asylum Application Help Center and the Asylum Seekers Legal Assistance Network. This is yet another way New York City is stepping up during this humanitarian crisis in the absence of a national strategy in support of asylum seekers. So just to contextualize the situation, the current federal system does not provide free court appointed legal counsel for asylum seekers to pursue their immigration cases. Instead, they are essentially left on their own to navigate an incredibly complex and many would say broken immigration system.

So the current federal process for the nearly 80,000 asylum seekers who have arrived in New York City over the past year is to, on their own, find legal representation in New York City, a service that could cost tens of thousands of dollars in the private sector. This means that asylum seekers, most of who arrived with nothing but the clothes on their backs, have needed to look for legal support through nonprofit organizations or government funded programs, or to somehow complete and submit these immigration forms on their own. With the federal system in place leaving asylum seekers to fend for themselves, this has resulted in understandably delays in submitting necessary paperwork, prolonging instability in the lives of asylum seekers, and dependency on city shelters and other services. Now, I want to be clear, New York City has from the beginning provided legal services to newly arrived immigrants, while also serving longstanding immigrant New Yorkers. New York City invests more than any municipality in the country in free legal services for our immigrant communities.

We fund most of legal service providers in New York City, which served thousands of newly arrived immigrants and immigrant New Yorkers in the last year despite the unprecedented nature of this humanitarian crisis. The end efforts announced yesterday, which we'll be discussing today, will ensure that thousands more asylum seekers will receive much needed assistance and support in completing and filing their asylum applications. In addition to the Asylum Application Support Center, we will achieve this by establishing an asylum seeker legal assistance network, a funded network of nonprofit organizations that was part of our blueprint presented earlier this year. This will include steady immigration information and orientation sessions for asylum seekers at the Asylum Application Help Center, self-help training on topics such as how to complete an asylum application for asylum seekers and those who are supporting asylum seekers such as frontline workers, advocates, and volunteers, as well as one-on-one screenings, brief advice, and pro se application assistance for asylum seekers.

Services under this network have been piloted since the start of this year and we have already provided thousands of asylum seekers with support. Lastly, I want to also encourage everyone who wishes to be part of this effort to apply to work at an Asylum Seeker Application Center and to plug in to many of the nonprofit organizations that we're supporting through this initiative. We are grateful to all our partners and look forward to this growing effort in the coming weeks and months.

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: Thank you so much, Commissioner Castro. We as a city are making investments and private sector and nonprofit partners are stepping up to join us in what we know is a national crisis. As with our localized decompression strategy, we are acting in the absence of a national coordinated effort. We are doing the same thing with this legal help center. The federal legal process is complex, and we know that with skilled assistance and professionals, we will help to get the asylum seekers what they need to take that next steps towards real independence. If you want to join this effort and help us staff the health center, please visit We have open positions and welcome your help in this important work. We also have volunteer opportunities too, and we encourage people to please visit

Before I open up to questions, I want to reiterate that this humanitarian crisis is a national issue that requires a national response. We all know that. We are leading by example in New York City, but we are once again calling on the federal government to bring forth a coordinated strategy on decompression, on asylum seeker application process, on work authorization and expanding federal financial support for effective cities. If we come together, we can respond to this crisis, but it will take everyone at all levels of government. With that, I'll open it up for questions.

Question: So in the announcement yesterday, I believe it was $5 million that was being put towards legal service providers. I know the comptroller and Council Member Hanif asked for $70 million in this year's budget, the New York Immigration Coalition wanted $10 million. So is the administration going to commit more money to it on top of this $5 million?

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: Should I start? I'll start, Commissioner Castro. I think that we have from the very beginning known that this legal strategy is very important to what we need to do. We've always been thinking about this at the administration in terms of food and shelter at the front door, getting people connected to their applications and a legal strategy, and then really focusing on resettlement. So we think that all parts of this is very important and we're so excited that we have partners in City Council and other places and nonprofits and in the private sector that are working with us to do this. So we're going to keep on looking at the numbers of people that are coming in and applying the strategies that we think this population needs and deserves.

Question: Commissioner, you said that thousands of asylum seekers have been helped by the city or supported. How many have you helped or how many people have officially filed their asylum claims? Because some of these people came over a year ago, they could possibly have missed the one-year deadline upon entering the country. Why is this just being announced now, this specific initiative? Even though I know you guys have been doing some of this help, but why wasn't it started earlier?

Commissioner Castro: Yes, and this relates to the first question as well. New York City invests about $67 million dollars in immigration legal support. Now, New York City collects very limited information, there are rules around this, as to the individual's immigration status and application process or statuses. So we are not collecting information about how many people have applied, when they've applied, and how many more people need to apply. Again, this is information that we have traditionally not collected, and there are limits to what information we can collect. This information could be provided by the federal government, but they themselves are having trouble tracking. They've allowed tens of thousands of asylum seekers into the country, they've paroled them in, but don't necessarily have a mechanism to track where they're going across the country, and how many have successfully submitted their applications. Now, this effort we've established in the absence of a national strategy, which we have been waiting for to provide additional support. $5 million is an initial investment, and we'll see where this takes us.

Question: If the city's not tracking, how are you able to determine that very few people have applied, and are you considering also changing…

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: So I just want to clarify one thing that you said. You said how many people have we helped? We've helped over 78,000 people, through giving them food through giving them shelter, and now this part of the strategy was something that we've always wanted to do, and we think that government is particularly poised to do this because of the amount of people that we can get together. We can say that we need volunteers and help people with their applications. As we do this, Bernadette, we're going to learn more about where people are in the process and then be able to refer them to the services that they need.

Commissioner Castro: And just to add something. I mentioned earlier, we've begun piloting this network of support. We've helped over 5,000 people since the start of the year. Of course, that is a number that we want to increase in the coming weeks and months.

Question: 5,000 you're saying?

Commissioner Castro: With a variety of supports. Some people need pro se assistance, which means that they're representing themselves and submitting applications for themselves so they need legal orientation, information, and some assistance.

Question: My question is also about data transparency. I know that on June 4th, the city sent a more robust report breaking down migrants by the agency that's taking care of them by family type. But I still hear though from Council members and advocates that they'd like even further breakdowns. And one question that is on their minds and also ours is is there any way that the city could begin reporting on the number of children that are in the system as a way of letting council members understand what kinds of services in terms of education and childcare the city should provide?

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: So we think transparency is very important, especially since we all are kind of in this together and so it's very important for us to know where people are, how many single adults, how many families with children. I'll get back to you in terms of can we break that down further? We want to make sure that the numbers are accurate. There's so many different agencies that are taking care of populations now, and so I'll get back to you on that in terms of can we break out the number of children.

Question: Sorry I was late. I got two questions, and if you covered this in the beginning, apologies. But one of the criticisms from the Immigration Coalition on the center you guys announced yesterday was that it wasn't soon enough, and I was wondering if you could maybe talk about what delayed it and what some of the obstacles you guys had to getting it up and running. I mean, people said it's not enough money, et cetera, et cetera, but the timing was also something people pointed to as what they viewed as problematic. So address that.

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: So I really think that this is a all-hands-on-deck moment, and I've been very proud at the way that the administration has responded to this crisis and the fact that we've had over 98,000 people who are in our care and no one is sleeping on the streets and I think we're doing a really good job of getting an understanding of what people need. So I wouldn't necessarily say that it was late or it didn't get up. We announced this in our March plan, that the next steps and the very most important next steps in this crisis would be to see if there was some way that we could slow down the front door of the system, get a decompression strategy so that we could provide some relief to the system, focus on legal strategies while they're here, getting volunteers together, finding the place for it.

We talked about starting a 24 arrival center so that we could keep better data and that we could know where people were going. And then the next step of this is going to be really focusing on resettling people outside of New York City. I say to people all the time, "I don't think of this as a homelessness crisis. I think of this as an immigration crisis." And so we have to find a way to have that long-term view of what's best for people. So that's the way that I would answer that. I'm very proud of the way the administration has addressed this crisis.

Commissioner Castro: And can I…

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: Yes. Manny wants to add. Sorry, I went on too long.

Commissioner Castro: And like I said in my remarks, we've had existing immigration legal programs that were being used to support asylum seekers, newly arrived immigrants. We don't make a distinction between folks who have been here for a while longer term and those who have recently arrived. So many of the asylum seekers that arrived in those earlier months did tap into our legal service providers who we fund across New York City, which is a free service and a service that we provide as a city. And like I said, we invest over $60 million and we're very proud to be the leading city in such efforts.

Part of what we've been saying is that this is yet another responsibility of the federal government as this is a federal issue. Unfortunately, we've needed to step in now and support asylum seekers with their legal needs because the federal government has not done so. And again, we're going to lead and set an example as the deputy mayor has said, but it's not sustainable. We have over a million non-citizens living in New York City. We couldn't possibly provide free legal assistance to everyone that needs it, but as the judge mentioned, asylum seekers are up against the deadline, which is why we're now needing to support them in an emergency crisis.

Question: I've one more, if you don't mind. There's a hearing in the city council today that talked about... There's a bill in particular that aims to apply the right to shelter like at HERRCs, which I think Zach Iscol said was performatory or performative at best, and it could be worse than that. For the court counsel, what do you think of that bill? How do you respond to this idea that that should be applied to HERRCs and why isn't it already?

Judge Radix: I don't have thoughts about that bill and whether it should apply to HERRCs. I know you're talking about the whole Callahan issue. It is currently something that we are in litigation on, and because of that, I'm not going to have a response for you, but I believe that you know our position based on the papers that we have filed with reference to what the city's position is on the right to shelter.

Question: Deputy mayor, three weeks ago I asked you the extent to which people have filed for asylum and you said very few. Commissioner Castro just said not only does he not track it, but it's potentially illegal to track it. How do you harmonize these positions and what was the basis for your statement that very few had applied?

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: I think when we spoke three weeks ago, I told you that what we were doing was knocking on people's doors to ask them have they applied and filled out applications for any services or any things that are available. We took that data and we found that not that many people have applied for any of those services. That gave us a little bit of a window in terms of the scope of what we needed to do so that we could say... I think at that time it was about, I wrote down the number, 7,700 households that we knocked on their doors to see whether people were interested in work opportunities upstate, to see if they had filled that applications. So I think that's where those two things come together, that from the data that we collected in the survey that we did with families, it looked like very few people had applied.

But we're going to get a lot more information now, which is why I'm very excited about the help center because then we'll be able to see who of those 7,700 families. We're going to come to the Red Cross. They'll be there Monday through Fridays, nine to five. We'll be able to have the supervising attorneys that are there and also the asylum assistance and we'll get a lot more information about who has done what. And then if they need more help, we'll be able to refer them to the help that they need. So I'm very excited about this.

Question: What statute prohibits data collection, commissioner, about who's seeking and who isn't seeking asylum?

Commissioner Castro: Well, this is the…

Judge Radix: I think more so it is what the city's obligation was. The city's obligation was to shelter. The city didn't have an obligation to provide legal representation and therefore that was not an approach that we were taking because it's not the obligation of the city to provide legal representation for the folks who are coming in.

Question: There's no statute that prohibits that data collection, right?

Judge Radix: No.

Question: It may not be the prerogative of the city, but there's no statute that says we cannot collect…

Judge Radix: We'll get back to you.


Commissioner Castro: The Asylum Seeker Legal Support Network, we have been working with them and we have served over 5,000 people since the start of this year.

Question: Since the start of this…

Commissioner Castro: Yes.

Question: In January?

Commissioner Castro: Yes. So this is the network that I mentioned.


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