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Transcript: Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Anne Williams-Isom Holds Briefing on Asylum Seeker Response

August 23, 2023

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Deputy Mayor Anne Williams-Isom, Health and Human Services: Good afternoon. I'm Anne Williams-Isom, deputy mayor for Health and Human Services, and I'm glad to be back this week for our asylum seeker briefing. I'm joined today by Dr. Ted Long from Health + Hospitals and Commissioner Iscol, our commissioner for New York City Emergency Management. As you all have seen in recent days, we continue to work to meet the needs and enlist greater support from our state and federal partners. For months, we've been calling on the state and the federal government to do more in this effort and we are glad to see some movement in using Floyd Bennett Field as an emergency shelter site.

We're still working out the details with the federal and state governments, but we're grateful to Governor Hochul for her partnership in advocating for this site and for her commitment to helping to pay for it. We know that there are complexities of unlocking sites under state and federal jurisdiction. And as the mayor said in the statement yesterday, unless we are able to get sustained and coordinated state and federal support, work authorization and a decompression strategy will be forced to be playing this whack-a-mole racing to keep opening relief centers as asylum seekers keep arriving by the thousands, it's simply unsustainable.

We have made progress in recent weeks with state supported sites opening at Creedmoor in Queens and Randall's Island with state government funding both sites. As the mayor has said in recent weeks though, we're looking at roughly $12 billion price tag over three years absent more support from our state and federal partners. We look forward to continuing to work together with partners at all levels of government to address this issue, but that is what is going to be required. Let me now turn it over to Dr. Long to talk about Randall's Island.

Dr. Ted Long, Senior Vice President, Ambulatory Care, New York City Health + Hospitals: Thank you, deputy mayor. Our new sites at Creedmoor and Randall's, which together have the capacity for us to help 4,000 adults each day, show what we can accomplish when New York City and New York State work together. To give some specific updates, at Creedmoor, which opened a little bit over a week ago, we currently have over 800 adults staying there. At Randall's Island, which opened just this past Sunday. We have 350 adults staying there. Now an important point I wanted to make is that these two new sites, while they're only for adults, are critical in supporting us being able to appropriately house children and families.

The reason for that is we currently have hotels with adults in them that we are transitioning to these new sites so that we can then dedicate the hotels to children with families. That's important because children, especially young children, have been through intense trauma in their journey here, and they need the safety, security, and privacy like a hotel room to begin their recovery. It's also important because it shows that in New York City, we've exhausted all of the existing options that we have and we're now having to create new options in parks and parking lots. I also wanted to say that for our new sites, for example, Randall's, they have a mission.

The mission of our new sites is to establish goals for our asylum seekers early on and then do everything in our power to help them to achieve their goals. That's what it'll take to enable them to complete their journeys with us. So on day one for an adult arriving at Randall's, you'll go through intake. We'll screen you for communicable diseases. We'll give you your 60-day notice, and then we'll immediately pair you with a caseworker to establish your specific goals and determine with you what we can do to help you to achieve those goals. In the short amount of time since we've opened these two new sites, we've already started to see it work.

We had one young man that came in. He told us his goal was to reach his brother. With our help, not only were we able to reach his brother, but his brother then came to our site. We saw the asylum seeker staying with us and his brother make eye contact, lock arms and hug, and that day his exit plan was achieved. Our mission for him was also accomplished that day. Another common example is that adults staying with us at Randall's and Creedmor are oftentimes the first people in their families to have escaped their countries of origin. They're coming up here and when we ask them, what are your goals, they tell us the same thing every time.

Their goals are to make enough money as quickly as possible so that they can pay for the rest of their family that they had to leave behind in the countries they're coming from to come up here and be reunited with them. Our mission for them is to give them the tools to succeed. OSHA trainings, learning to speak English, IDs through IDNYC. But that's not enough. They need to be authorized to work so that they can work quickly to make the money that they need to protect and be reunited with their families. That's why at this point in the crisis, as the deputy mayor said, and as the mayor has said, we need help.

We need the federal government to have a decompression strategy so that we in New York City aren't bearing a disproportionate share of what is a global crisis. We need the resources to do the amazing work that we've been able to do to help our asylum seekers each day. And for the adult men and women at our sites like Creedmoor and Randall's that are here and just want to work so that they can protect their families and bring them to the safety of the US. They must be authorized to work so they could be reunited with their families, with their children. They could then leave our system and begin to build a better life in our country. Thank you.

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: Thanks, Dr. Long. You said so much there, but the thing that really stays with me is that Creedmor was opened last week and we already have 800 people that are there.

Dr. Long: Correct.

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: I think New Yorkers are understanding that that's not sustainable, and even with the good work that we're doing, I don't know that we're going to really be able to keep up. So thank you for all the work that you and your staff are doing. Commissioner Iscol, you want to talk to us a little bit about what more support we might need?

Commissioner Zach Iscol, New York City Emergency Management: Sure. Absolutely. So first off, thank you for all being here. It's always great to be with the Deputy Mayor and Dr. Long, but we do spend a lot of time with each other these days.

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: Little too much.

Commissioner Iscol: So we've made clear and we are appreciative of the support that we're getting from New York State, but in particular we do need help from the federal government. As has been said before, this is a national crisis. In fact, as Dr. Long just said, it's a global crisis. And I think when you look at the functions of emergency management, the way that emergency management is supposed to function in terms of the ability of a local jurisdiction to lean on the state and federal partners for support through things like the Stafford Act.

And in addition to that, when you look at just sort of the history of past force migration incidents in this country, going back to World War II. Whether it was European refugees after World War II, Vietnamese in the seventies, Cubans in '79-'80, Soviet Jews, Haitians. In each of those cases, the federal government led a significant process where they provided for people's immediate humanitarian needs. They screened out folks that should not be here for some reason, they provided medical care to those who needed it, and then they helped resettle people across the country. They helped expedite work authorizations, they helped people find their sponsors.

And when the federal government has acted in that way, it hasn't been charity. It's been an investment. And if you look at the contributions made by each of those communities to this country, it's substantial. And I think right now, when you look at over a hundred thousand people that have come through the city's care, nearly 60,000 still in our care, including nearly 20,000 kids, that's more people than fit in Yankee Stadium, more kids than would fit in Madison Square Garden. This is a incredible burden to place on a city. Although I do know many of our partners across the country are also facing this crisis. And so while we are continuing to have conversations on places like Floyd Bennett Field, we are looking for more substantial support and help.

And I think the mayor has made clear going back to the fall, some of those things that we need from a real decompression strategy, work authorizations, funding. But I think that this is something that needs to start taking priority as a national crisis, not just a crisis for the cities and jurisdictions like New York that are left to shoulder it.

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: Thank you, Commissioner Iscol. You make such a good point, which is that there is a blueprint here that we could be following to really see our way to a real solution. And I think that's so important. People say to me, how could it still be a crisis? And I think it's only a crisis if it stays being led and on the backs of a locality and not really by state or federal government. So thank you for those points so much. Before we go to on topic questions, let me just share some of the latest numbers. As of August 20th, we have over 110,900 people in our care, including over 59,300 asylum seekers. Over 104,400 asylum seekers have come through our intake system since the spring of 2022.

We have opened 206 sites, including 15 humanitarian relief centers. And last week, from August 14th to August 20th, more than 3,100 new asylum seekers entered our care. I think that might be the most that I've seen in the past couple of weeks. So that is 3,100 new asylum seekers entered our care last week. I was on a call today in my office and I was talking to some colleagues and what they saw behind me was a poster that I had up from a press conference that we did in April. And when you look at these numbers, I think we are almost double the amount of people that are cared, four months from April to August.

We're almost exactly double the amount that are in our care right now. We've opened up 206 sites since April in four months, and I think we're at 15 now. We were at eight. And someone said, behind me, when was that from? Was that from last year or whatever? It was four months ago. I think it is clear to everyone. We can talk about the differences in what we should have been doing earlier or later or particular sites, but this is not sustainable. I think New Yorkers understand that. We understand that we... I'm proud of the work that we have been able to do, but if in another four months — I think we're going to be in 2024 in four months, right, we'll be in a new year — we're going to double these numbers again. That doesn't make sense.

And I think we need to do something different and we need to have a different strategy here. Yes, every site and every dollar helps. And the $20 million that we got from the state for case management will help us with the limited expansion of those services, though not the full expansion we wanted. And we're proud of all we've been able to do to keep a roof off of people's heads. Women and men and children who have come here, come through hell to get to this country to get everything that's promised them.

But we need sustainable, long-term solutions that we can get to really get to manage a steady state. Solutions like worth authorization to allow people to provide for themselves and to leave our shelter system. Solutions like a statewide and national decompression strategy. And decompression strategy just means to help people to be settled in other places other than just within New York City. That has to be standalone arriving and not just have New York City be in charge of that. And these new sites that our partners provide are helpful. But in the end of the day, sites are a band-aid for a crisis that demands surgery. And Dr. Long will tell you that surgery takes a team. With that, I will open it the floor up for questions.

Question: For the deputy mayor, you just said that we need a different strategy here. And we reported yesterday that there's this proposal, a couple of advocacy groups are demanding that the city expand housing vouchers to include undocumented immigrants. And I think there's some questions over does the city have the ability to do that legally. Would the state have to get involved, how exactly that would work mechanically? Is that a potential solution the administration is open to? What are some of the potential trip wires to enacting that if it is?

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: I did see that, and I'm looking forward to having that conversation with the advocates to see what they are putting on the table as a solution. But this is what I think, Michael, even if I was to get 50,000 people out of the system right now, if I'm still getting 3,100 a week, I'm not sure that we catch up that way. I think this idea about a decompression strategy, making sure that people can work. And really to the commissioner's point, who should be running this immigration issue right now? Should it be the homelessness system in New York City? I don't think that makes sense. And so I think we are open to all of the solutions, but they feel like smaller type of solutions if we don't find a way to really figure out what's happening at the front door.

Question: Deputy mayor, you said earlier that you want migrants… Or Dr. Long said that migrants ought to work. Until a migrant's legal status is resolved and he or she is authorized to work, is your advice for a migrant to work illegally or not to work?

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: So I'm not going to give migrants advice, but what I would say is that I think having work authorization will make it much easier for us to help resettle migrants to other jurisdictions. Many who right now are hesitant because they don't want to have a group of people that are in their towns or in their communities that can't work. That makes sense to me, and I think that if we could get work authorization, that would help the resettlement process. And right now I'm looking for solutions that are big solutions to a very big national problem.

Commissioner Iscol: Can I add one thing to that?

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: Sure.

Commissioner Iscol: Sorry, just one thing I'd add to that is… So it's no secret that a lot of the migrants, asylum seekers, folks in our care are working. They're working in the informal economy. They're working jobs as delivery workers. By having work authorizations, there's a lot of misperceptions around who migrates during force migrations. A lot of times people think it's the poorest of the poor. It's usually not. It's usually people who are professionals, people that were in the middle class, people with real trades and skills, and we're seeing that.

And part of the problem is, yes, there are jobs in the informal economy that people are working and can do, but if they have work authorization, that opens up a universe of workforce training, of more professional opportunities, of jobs that are not available for them in the informal economy that could be real net contributors to an economy, payroll, taxes, et cetera.

Question: If a caseworker is asked by a migrant should I work legally or not, what are your caseworkers telling migrants?

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: I don't think our caseworkers are getting that question. Our caseworkers are talking to people... I'm just going to tell you, sorry, I'm going to answer what I thought... When people are talking to their caseworkers, I think they're talking about do you have anybody that you can stay with? What did you come here to do? Where would you like to resettle? What more can we help you with? We want to help you with an ID card. Those are the things that I've heard. I have never heard anybody who's probably nervous about being in a situation, ask someone who they think represents the government, whether or not they should work illegally. I haven't experienced that. Have you all experienced that?

Dr. Long: No.

Question: That's how [inaudible]. They should say, can I work? What would you say?

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: But that's not the question you asked. You asked us would we give people advice to work illegally, and I'm telling you that...

Dr. Long: I could tell you the facts on the ground. So it's exactly as the deputy mayor said. So what we do, what casework is, we ask how can we help you? And what people are asking us or they want certain tools in order to be able to work. Those tools specifically can be, as I said in my remarks, OSHA training, needing ID through IDNYC to do a variety of different things or beginning to learn to speak English, things like that. That's what they're telling us they need. They also can ask us for help with the work authorization forms, and that's why we have the application center, but that's what people are telling us that they need.

And again, as we mentioned previously, when we've had these sit down conversations after we started to do the 60-day notices... Particularly, your question's been about in the past, 65 percent of the people that we're talking to have told us if we can do one of the things that I just said, then they would have the tools that they need in order to successfully leave our city system. So our focus is on giving people what they want, and those are the specifics of what they're telling us they need.

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: And I think it makes common sense, and the mayor always says there's nothing more anti-American than not allowing people to work, especially when there's open jobs, there's places around this country that need that. I want us to have a bigger conversation about what these solutions are here.

Question: A few, just, data questions. So you mentioned 20,000 kids. Is that the most recent number of the 60k? Is that now the number of children? Because that's up from...

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: 18,000, I think was the number...

Commissioner Iscol: I said close to 20,000, but I don't...

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: So we'll get that for you and we'll be able to know that soon because kids will be back in school.

Question: Do we have an update on the number of 60 day notices that…

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: I think it's about 4,500.

Dr. Long: More than 4,500.

Question: And how do you get an appointment at this resource center? It's clear how lawyers can sign up. I have heard many people waiting at the Roosevelt Hotel, spend hours there.

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: You mean at the legal clinic?

Question: Well, they're trying to get an appointment at the legal clinic, but it's not clear to me how people are being referred to that legal clinic. There's no address online.

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: Do either one of you know specifically, I think the caseworkers and that we've been signing up people. Go ahead.

Dr. Long: We can make referrals for people, but we also are proactively from the city standpoint, reaching out to people in particular families to make them appointments in the legal clinic. At the Roosevelt Hotel, which of course is our arrival center, we have a variety of things we do there, but most of the case management, which is a longer term longitudinal activity, is done at our sites. So that's what we're starting to do more and more of, as the deputy mayor said, is we're setting up those relationships now so that we can move forward over a period of time to help people to take the next step forward.

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: And early on, we were knocking on doors… Sorry, go ahead. I'm sorry.

Question: If you haven't been asked at your resource center or respite center or HERRC, do you want to go to this legal center? There's no way into the door.

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: I'm not sure. Let's find out because I know that we have 11 navigation centers around the city, and I know the navigation centers are also referring people. I also know community-based organizations know about it. So I think it's a variety of ways.

Dr. Long: MOIA has their hotline too. So there's a variety of ways to get connected.

Question: One last thing. In your memo to the state, you asked for permission to waive the 60 day — or to send out 60 day notices within the DHS system. Can you tell me about that? Has the state responded and does that sort of open the door for a complete erosion of the right to shelter?

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: Oh my goodness. I don't want to talk about the complete erosion of the right to shelter because I keep on saying that I think that we have been doing a great job of preserving the right to shelter. We don't know that it necessarily applies in the way that it has been applied 40 years ago. They're going back to court today so I would rather not talk about what's going to happen and what that looks like. But as you know, there is the DHS system, there's the HERRC system, there's the emergency section, and there's HPD. So there's certain things that we have to do differently for people who are in that DHS system. That's why we just wanted to make it clear that for the asylum seekers that are in that system, we wanted the 60 days to apply to them.

Question: [Inaudible.]

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: Correct.

Question: So you were speaking about moving of the families with children into hotels, or at least that being the goal. Is there specific places, maybe Manhattan, the Bronx that maybe are better equipped to handle these kids going to school? And are you coordinating that? And how many kids do we have expecting to go to schools?

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: So we are going to have... I'll let you talk about the specifics. We're going to have... The DOE is constantly working on enrollment and which schools and where should the young people be going to school? So I suspect that in the next two weeks ago, we'll probably have somebody here at the DOE and focus on going back to school. I don't know that there's a particular borough where we try to put children. I think we are just putting them in the places where we have available. I also want to… Deputy Mayor Fabien always tells me to make this point. It's not good growing up in a hotel room.

It's okay, but that's not ultimately what we want. We really want these children to be able to be in a place where they can have a backyard, where they can have a big kitchen, where they can do the things that they need. And so this idea of this is a great plan to put families in hotel rooms. It's what we need to do as we're waiting for the federal government and the state government to help us resettle people across the country.

Dr. Long: To a couple more details. I think you actually covered all that points.

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: Sorry.

Dr. Long: Great.

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: You can reiterate.

Dr. Long: The best place for children and their families to stay is the place we have available that can offer them privacy, security, and can help them to recover from the really strenuous and traumatic journey that they've been through. Each morning when we wake up, we have meetings. Commissioner Iscol and I talk every single day, seven days a week. And today was no different. We had 50 families with children that had arrived at the arrival center that we did not have placement for. Some days it's above a hundred. Some days we have so many families with children that arrive overnights.

There have been days where it's above 200. The hardest part of our jobs right now, and this is the day to day, is finding where we can safely house these families with children that have been through this trauma that night. It's very hard, but we've succeeded 100 percent of the time. But in order to keep doing that, that's why when we have hotels today that have adults in them, we are transitioning those adults into our new sites, Randall's and Creedmor. So then when those hotels have been emptied, we can re-outfit them to be appropriate for families with children with the appropriate services. Which gets at the second part of your question. How are we enrolling kids in school? What does that process look like?

So as the school year is kicking back into gear here, and the same is true last year. At all of our humanitarian centers, which we have some of the larger hotels, we have DOE representatives on site. They'll first look where the nearest school is, but then beyond that, they'll look at where there might be appropriate options for the child to be enrolled in school. I'll let DOE explain more of their process, but I will say they've been nothing short of outstanding and incredibly impactful partners because they've a hundred percent of the time placed students in school.

And one of my favorite stories doing this work now for almost a year is, I've said this before, if you want one of the most moving moments in New York City, go outside of the Row Hotel or the Stewart Hotel at 7 a.m. before a school day. You'll see students that are coming out of that hotel getting onto school buses with smiles on their faces. Those students I saw enter the hotels with the experience of trauma, depression, anxiety on their faces when they first were coming to us. We've changed their lives and that's why this work is so important.

Question: So my question to you is this. The city and the state and the Legal Aid Society are in court today. I wonder if you think that the right to shelter should be extended statewide and if the governor should issue an executive order so that more localities would start accepting asylum seekers and take some of the burden off New York City.

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: So I think, Marcia, that is all going to play out in court and we'll know a little bit more soon. I think it's no secret that we have said that we think that Callahan needs to be looked at to make sure that this is the circumstance in which it needs to be applied. I think something has to happen with the front door or else we're going to be seeing in this sort of revolving situation that we're in right now. And whether or not, I do think... Also, we've been very public about saying that we need placements outside of New York City. I think that's very important for us to see our way through this.

Question: Some of the requests that the city made to the state as part of the Callahan case and the letter that was sent earlier this month as part of that case. We saw that the request included the city seeking dozens of waivers to a number of state codes and regulations around shelter. And some of these were really specific, so things like access to towels and toilet paper, that sites have access to health services. And we were wondering if you guys could comment on why the city is seeking such a broad list of waivers and if those waivers would apply only specifically to sites that are housing asylum seekers or if this is a DHS wide exception that you're looking for.

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: So again, I don't want to get into the specifics of what's happening in court right now, but I think from, as you all would see when we talked about the 10 a.m. rule or there were different rules that we just didn't think should apply right now given that we were in a crisis. And I think the idea is to give us the most flexibility that we can so that we're able to place people as quickly as we can and get them what they need. And so I think that was the intention behind that.

Question: [Inaudible] was urgent. Can you tell me how the headcount of migrants, asylum seekers is conducted? The population total? Is it the people who come through the intake center at the Roosevelt Hotel and no other means.

Dr. Long: So great question. So the arrival center is the single point of entry intended for all asylum seekers coming into New York City. So that's where the vast majority of people will come in and register. So one of the numbers we have are the number of asylum seekers that have entered the arrival center, registered, then gone through our process where we screen you for communicable diseases, offer to vaccinate you for MMR, varicella, things like that. And begin to have the case management discussion of what your goals are and whether we can help you to achieve them that day or move you forward.

One important note is that not everybody that comes through the door of the arrival center ends up entering our city system. In fact, one out of every four people enters the front door of the arrival center within 24 hours will leave the arrival center either resettling in New York City with our help or with our help being reticketed to a different place. So before the arrival center, most people were coming into our city system. The arrival center has given us the opportunity among those that are entering and registering with us to have an immediate intervention that's effective at the initial point of entry.

Beyond that, from the arrival center, we place people either in DHS, in our respite sites run by NYCEM at our H + H HERRCs. And then we have the headcount census is if you're in one of those sites and you've been placed, the overall net census there.

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: Can I say one last thing? I feel like I've got a lot stored up from the week. So Dr. Long gave us this beautiful picture of young children who are happy and smiling and have their books and they're going to school. I want you to think about when they're coming home from school and they're coming home into Broadway where people don't want them riding bikes or hanging outside or having any place to play. It's not a good... We're not trying to just create places where there's thousands of hotels and children living and growing up in hotels. That's not the goal here. We want families to be able to be resettled in places where they can start to build community, where they can have friends, where they can be with their teachers, where they can have play dates.

This is an immigration issue. This is not a homelessness issue. That should be at the door of the DHS system and we're going back and forth talking about waivers and all these other kinds of things. We have a housing crisis here in New York City. So even if I gave out thousands and thousands of vouchers, where are people going to get settled here in New York City? We've been having these conversations. I'm happy to have this briefing, but I'd like to have more realistic conversations about what is possible. 100,000 people, we have done such a great job. We are doing a great job. We're going to continue. But the solutions to this do not lie within New York City.

It lies within the state and the federal government. And I just want to be able to say that when we want to have these beautiful pictures of families and what we're able to do, all of that is true, but we need more support. Thank you, all.

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