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

June 28, 2023

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. And joining me today for this asylum seeker crisis briefing is Commissioner Manny Castro, the commissioner of the Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs, and I'm also joined by Hildalyn Colon Hernandez, the deputy director of New Immigrant Community Empowerment, or NICE, as we like to call it.

Last week I spoke about the city's expanded actions to support people navigating the complex asylum seeker application process. But you all know that we've been doing much more than that. We've been providing other critical services like food, like shelter, like healthcare, and a range of other services.

One of the ways that we've been able to do this is by partnering with community-based organizations to create a network of satellite sites known as navigation centers in all five boroughs. As the mayor sometimes says, "You must go close to the issue in order to really find the solutions," and that's what having these partnerships does for us.

So, today, I'm excited to announce that Mayor Adams, Commissioner Castro and the administration have extended the contracts of 10 of these existing navigation sites and are adding an 11th one as well, a total investment of $2.3 million towards this very good work. Organizations that are part of this network include AID FOR AIDS, Catholic Charities Neighborhood Services in Brooklyn, Catholic Charities Neighborhood Services in Queens, Catholic Charities in Staten Island, Mexican Coalition, International Child Program, La Comida, Mercy Center, Mixteca Organization, New Immigrant Community Empowerment, NICE, who's here with us today, and Catholic Charities Community Services Archdiocese of New York in St. Teresa's.

Thank you to each and every one of these community-based organizations and their teams who have been working incredibly hard over the last year and who have been committed to joining the city in this very important work. We all are facing a humanitarian crisis right here in the five boroughs and we're working to respond with the support and these service providers are critical in helping us to bring those services to individual and families and integrate into communities.

Additionally, thank you to all of our partners in the private sector, including the law firms we discussed last week and the partners elsewhere joining us in that citywide effort that we announced last week. Before I turn it over to Commissioner Castro and to Hildalyn Colon Hernandez from NICE, let me share some of the developments since we spoke last week. We now have a total of over a hundred thousand people in our care between asylum seekers and longtime unhoused New Yorkers. And with over 50,000 asylum seekers currently in our care at this point, we now have more people seeking US asylum than longtime unhoused New Yorkers in our shelter system. Let me say that one more time. And with over 50,000 asylum seekers currently in our care, at this point, we now have more people in the city's care that are seeking asylum than longtime unhoused New Yorkers in our shelter system.

These are sobering numbers, I know, and an even more sobering fact, showing both what we have done, but that this is still unsustainable and how much we need our federal and our state partners to help us. Additionally, since the spring of 2022, a total of more than 81,200 asylum seekers have come through our intake system. To respond to this influx, we have opened 176 sites, including 11 humanitarian relief and response centers. And yesterday we announced that we opened a 12th humanitarian relief site. And last week, from June 19th to June 25th, more than 2,500 new asylum seekers entered our care. So that is last week, 2,500 new asylum seekers came into our care. With those facts and with that information, I now would like to turn it over to Commissioner Castro to say a few words.

Commissioner Manuel Castro, Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs: Thank you, deputy mayor. As New Yorkers know, early on in the humanitarian crisis, New York City took immediate steps to meet this unprecedented moment to open the first of its kind and the first of the nation Asylum Seeker Navigation Center to support our recently arrived migrants. We did this in partnership with Catholic Charities and opened our main navigation site at the Red Cross Building in Midtown Manhattan, and we also contracted with community-based organizations across the five boroughs to serve as satellite sites.

To date, the Asylum Seeker Resource Navigation Center has supported more than 31,000 individuals since last September. Our main site works closely across city government agencies and offices to provide our newest New Yorkers with everything from case management, legal orientation, mental health services, enrollment to schools, IDNYC, and much more. During this time, our nonprofit community-based satellite sites went above and beyond to serve asylum seekers, individuals and families in their neighborhoods and in person. These included services such as job readiness trainings like OSHA and SST classes, immigrant rights workshops, comprehensive case management to connect individuals and families with city services, legal orientations, and much more.

I myself had the incredible opportunity to visit and spend time at these sites and meet the staff, the volunteers, and the asylum seekers that are taking advantage of these services. I am proud to be here today to announce that we will be contracting with community-based organizations to establish these 11 community-based navigation sites and continue to offer critical support to our newest New Yorkers. I look forward to continuing to work with these community organizations, for my staff and our teams to support their work on the ground. And as always, I am thankful for their staff's work and also the hundreds of city employees that are doing so much for our newest New Yorkers. Thank you so much.

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: Thank you, Commissioner Manny. And I tell you this all the time, but thank you so much for your leadership and for your compassion and integrity as we are trying to go through this crisis. Now I'd like to turn it over to Hildalyn to say a few words.

Hildalyn Colon Hernandez, Deputy Director, New Immigrant Community Empowerment: Good afternoon. My name is Hildalyn Colon and I'm the deputy director of NICE. From day one, NICE had been one of the satellite centers for the city, welcoming immigrants from across different nations. We, NICE, welcomes and empowers people, approximately 1,000 people a month. And during that person that actually walked through our doors, they receive information about city resources, about workforce development, and training. We answer questions that range from everything you can think of. How do I take the train? How do I go actually take a train to go to my immigration court? How do I obtain food? How do I can start ESL and training classes? They're actually looking for resources to how do they can start their lives. And they're very eager to do it every day. They come with the perseverance of actually making that through.

Having this navigation center has been a game changer for this asylum seekers and for the city as we welcome them to our city. And actually we help them to begin that journey of how they can insert themselves in and also contribute to New York City as much as they can and as they want to move forward.

We want to thank MOIA and the deputy commissioner and the city's trust to actually extending this opportunity to keep serving our community and to do it with great honor. I also want to take one opportunity to also thank the staff that is on the front lines that I continue day in, day out, kind of like addressing this crisis. And I also want to highlight how we can work basically as partners and as a group and as a community. Thank you.

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: We couldn't do this without you. And I remember meeting your folks and you at the original navigation center with your bright orange shirts on and how important it was. And when people see your faces and you're there, it really makes a difference to them. So thank you so much for you and your staff for the work that you're doing. As you have seen over these many weeks with these briefings, this city is making investments. Investments in helping people to navigate this federal asylum seeker process, helping people voluntarily relocate outside the five boroughs with our own decompression strategy, and today, with this announcement of the extension of these contracts.

As the mayor has said earlier in the week, we are responding as best we can, better than as best we can in some ways, while weighing so many factors. And it hasn't been easy. You see from today's numbers that we have reached a tipping point. We now have more asylum seekers in our care than longtime New Yorkers from when we first came in and who are in our existing DHS system. We will continue to do our part. I might say we're doing more than our part. But this is a national humanitarian crisis and we need sustained and profound support from the federal government in the form of financial aid and in the form of a national coordination. With that, I'll take some questions.

Question: Hi. Deputy Mayor, Mariela Salgado from Univision. I was here in the last briefing. You did talk about helping asylum seekers reach their appointments so they can actually apply for asylum because we are being told that a great majority of them have not done that. And we understand that there's so much other things that you're doing for them, but the bottom line is that we don't think the permit is going to come from the federal arena and this is the only chance they have.

So the question would be, these new contracts that we now have extended that you mentioned, how would they participate on that equation when it comes to the legal proceedings, helping them? Have you decided, "Oh my god, with this, we're going to be able to help 30,000 of them" because we don't know how many. We need all the lawyers and even the assistant lawyers and student lawyers and we're still not going to be able to do it. So how does the city have this?

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: Yeah, so you're making a really good point, which is the extent of the things that the city is doing and how we're going far beyond to make sure that we get people what they need. These satellite sites will continue to do the work that the commissioner talked about in terms of connecting people, the good work that Hildalyn talked about, just the information that they need, helping them to get through the city.

What we announced last week was our help center where we really are, we've kicked it off last week. We're seeing attorneys, but also assistants who don't necessarily have to be attorneys to be able to help people to do their applications. We're going to do a sprint, we're going to go at it hard, and we're going to get as many people as possible in that system so that we can get people on the road to work authorization and on the road to the life that they really need.

Question: So they will not have attorneys from those organizations?

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: I don't know if they have attorneys at the site. Sometimes they do, but I just wanted you to know that those are two separate efforts and that sometimes they do. Anybody want to add? Are there attorneys there?

Commissioner Castro: These sites won't have attorneys. Oh. I'm going to share some words in Spanish. [Speaks in Spanish.]

Hernandez: Can I add something in Spanish, if it's okay? I know you want it in Spanish. [Speaks in Spanish.]

Question: A follow-up to that question, I'm wondering… That new application center site, how many asylum seekers have actually used it? I know it's based on appointment. How many have gone through since you announced it? And then I want to know what the staffing level is there, how many lawyers or people helping? And then, also, do they help them all the way to the end until they finish out the entire process?

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: So we're going to get back to you with the exact numbers because we're just in a soft launch right now and it's a pilot, and so we know that there definitely have been a few that have been going there, but we know that the need is great. We're still looking for volunteers so we can see what the staffing model will be based on the appointments that come in. And so, Kelly, as we develop that, we'll get you more information in the coming weeks to see how that is really going.

And it's not… Remember, it's not full legal representation, so they won't be taking them through the whole process. It's being able to get people connected to the beginning part of this application. So we want to be very careful about that. We're not doing legal representation. There are organizations that are doing that and we'll refer people to that when they need it.

Question: Hi deputy mayor, I wanted to ask you, I know as we see more and more asylum seekers coming into the city, my colleagues wrote about sexual harassment of migrant women at a Sunset Park shelter. Can you talk about what steps the city has taken to adequately oversee the emergency contracts in the rush to find migrants housing? And if you know of any other instances of this launch, has this launched a further investigation?

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: I think the city is obviously very concerned about safety and care, as we can see that with housing and taking care of over a hundred thousand people. So we make sure that there's security at all of the sites, and we make sure that people know who to contact if they're having any problems.

So I haven't heard about any extensive things of that sort, but I think it's so important. This is why we really, it is a city cannot be asked to solve a national problem and I think we are doing the best that we can, keeping everybody safe and providing them with the services that they need, but we really need a larger solution so that people can get to a better settled conclusion for what they want in their lives.

Question: Do you think the city is adequately checking… Is there a larger network in place for oversight of these shelters, who's working there? I know these are sort of emergency contracts, so I don't know what that oversight is like.

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: Well, when you say emergency contracts, for us safety and care is the most important thing. So we make sure that there's the appropriate staffing there, that there's appropriate security there because the safety of the migrants is really the most important thing to us, which I think you can see by the fact that we have been caring for over 50,000 of them right now and that 81,000 of them have come into our care. So we take this very, very seriously and we make sure that we have the appropriate staffing that we need.

People are stretched though, and I think a couple of weeks ago I talked about wanting to make sure that we can get that support so that we can continue to do the high quality work and give the excellent care that we know people deserve.

Question: [Inaudible]. I would like to know, we've been hearing since three months ago or more that it's a national crisis. Is there any answer for the federal government or it's just no answer at all, they denied to help in this crisis because you guys going above and beyond? You always say that there is no help. There is answer or there is no answer?

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: So I would say that if there was an answer, I would tell you there was an answer. I think we've shown what is possible. I keep saying to people what we're doing is not rocket science. We're bringing people in, we're giving them food and shelter, we're making sure that they have medical care, we're getting kids connected to school.

I think that if there was a national coordination of this, then the burden wouldn't be so on New York City. And so, we are hoping that the federal government gives us the help so that we can decompress folks like have folks all over the country so that we have the financial support that we need and that we can get people connected to work.

Question: I'm Javier Castano from QueensLatino. I'd like to know, out of the more than 100,000 undocumented people who have come here, how many of those have really applied for political asylum? And my next question is, are you expecting another wave of immigrants to come into the city?

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: So, the question is, I don't know exactly how many have applied for asylum. And when you say, do I expect another wave, I want to remind people that last week we got 2,500 new asylum seekers. So the wave hasn't stopped for us. We are still in the middle of this wave. And so, is it going to get more, is it going to get less? I have no idea because we are just dealing with it in terms of what comes to the front door and doing the best that we can as people come to the front door.

I know we're at a tipping point. I know we're at a breaking point and my heart breaks when I see children coming into our arrival center and sitting there and being exhausted and wondering and hoping that we have enough space for them. So I think we are in the middle of a large wave, even though we are showing and we're doing a good job, it's very, very, very difficult to sustain what we're doing at this level right now.

Question: My question is trying to resolve if we keep calling them political asylum seekers.

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: Yeah.

Question: Is that true?

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: So we're not the ones that are letting them in here as asylum seekers. That's the border, lets them into the country as asylum seekers and then they will have to go and file their paperwork and go before the courts to see whether or not they're going to be given asylum. So I really can't answer that question for you.

Question: Deputy mayor, quickly. You said this is a national effort. I'm just thinking the media, what can we do? Normally we create QR codes so people can scan when they see our stories and help them with any information, any story. And as you know, people that watch Univision or other Hispanic networks, we have a very close relationship.

So I guess the question would be in those centers that you have created, have you done anything creative to invite people who volunteer to help them fill out the paperwork? Is there a number we can give or a link we can share that if you want to help in New York City and you want to be part of the process or even those centers, have they considered people from other states because they might be able to do it virtually.

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: Manny, you want to?

Question: It's been done before with other issues with undocumented minors.

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: Yep.

Question: So I was just wondering…

Commissioner Castro: I think I saw it pop up in the screen. We published links and phone numbers where people can call in to both apply for the roles that are available to work at the asylum application help center and also to volunteer and for their organizations to also provide assistance. We'll circulate those numbers and those links. I think it's important. And thank you for offering to support.

And deputy mayor, if I may, I always take the opportunity whenever this issue comes up that was raised by Katie, for our immigrant communities, regardless of your immigration status, if you believe you have been a victim of a crime, please come forward, call 911 and emergency services. You will receive support regardless of your immigration status.

My office, and I know offices across city government work really hard to build trust in the immigrant communities. It's important for you to come forward if you believe you've been a victim of a crime and are seeking support. Thank you.

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