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

October 4, 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 I'm joined at this week's briefing with Chief of Staff Camille Joseph Varlack, Chief Counsel Lisa Zornberg, and Asylum Seeker Application Health Center Executive Director Masha Gindler.

From the outset today I want to reiterate what we're seeing on a daily basis. We have been responding to this humanitarian crisis for more than a year now, and in recent days we are seeing a significant surge in arrivals. It is a very frustrating moment for all New Yorkers as we have been responding to this crisis managing the inflow, and here we are again seeing spikes in arrival numbers.

We have called on the federal government to provide additional support in the form of financial assistance, allowing work authorization for more asylum seekers, a coordinated decompression strategy to relieve the pressure on New York City and the other cities around the country, and declaring this a federal emergency to unlock additional tools to help us respond.

I'll now turn it over to the chief of staff to provide an update on the surge and what our teams are seeing. Camille?

Camille Joseph Varlack, Chief of Staff to the Mayor: Thank you, deputy mayor. So, I just want to build a little bit on what the deputy mayor said about the surge, and I know we touched on it a little bit yesterday. Over the past few months, we've seen approximately 300 to 400 people arriving every day, and with this new surge we're seeing upwards of 600 people a day showing up.

We mentioned yesterday that we had six to eight buses that were expected to land yesterday, we additionally are expecting more buses today. And in addition — and I want to make sure that we underscore this — so these buses are on top of the hundreds of people that are coming into New York City in all of the other ways: on regular commercial buses, planes, trains and cars to New York City.

Last week, Texas Governor Abbott centralized the dispatch, command ,and control functions of the deployment of buses through the Texas division of emergency management, and he has significantly ramped up the number of buses that are being sent not just to New York City but other cities as well. While before we may have received a few hours' notice that buses were coming through back channels and different organizations even including information on the manifest numbers of how many people are going to be on those buses, this change means that we no longer get even a scant heads up.

And so without this information, it makes it increasingly difficult for us to calculate on a day to day basis what our capacity is and our ability to respond is even more challenged. To show you the impact here, the number of chartered best buses is almost tripled over the last couple of weeks. During the week of September 11th, we received approximately 10 chartered buses, during the week of September 25th we received 27. This equates to hundreds more asylum seekers arriving to New York City every day.

We are once again, as we have regularly said, managing all of this significant ambiguity and uncertainty doing the best that we can, and there is a huge team of volunteers, but more importantly, New York City employees who are managing this crisis every day. We are not receiving the cooperation or the information that we need from our counterparts across the country, and while our teams continue to respond 24/7, as we have said previously, this is not sustainable.

As the deputy mayor mentioned last week, this is also on top of the city of El Paso resuming their busing operations in light of the surge that they are receiving at the border. We continue to push our state and federal counterparts to provide the support that we need to highlight the round the clock work that our teams are doing to manage this national crisis — I would actually say it's an international crisis — and to receive the relief that the city needs for a more sustainable response. We absolutely appreciate the actions by Governor Hochul to support our case management efforts — we talked about this earlier this week — as well as the White House's recent action on Temporary Protected Status for Venezuelans. And we look forward to our continued partnership on this issue.

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: Thank you, chief of staff. And you highlighted it, so I also wanted to say it again. We're so proud to announce that partnership that we have and the additional support that we're getting, $38 million from Governor Hochul and the state to support the efforts to help migrants in our care get on a path to work.

With the expansion of eligibility for Temporary Protected Status — what you'll hear us call TPS — that happened yesterday. This new funding will now allow us to build on the incredible work of the Asylum Seeker Application Help Center that has already helped complete 5,000 applications.  This funding will help us scale our efforts in three major ways: first, we'll use this to open additional Application Help Center satellite sites across the city, something that many advocates have been asking for.

Second, we'll be launching roving teams within the city's emergency shelter sites to help asylum seekers apply on the spot for TPS and work authorization; and thirdly, we'll be scheduling those who enter the shelter system and are eligible for TPS for appointments to immediately apply upon entering the city's care. All of these three strategies have the same goal in mind: helping people connect to work; and ultimately, move out from the shelter and build their own lives as quickly as possible.

As we work to scale these efforts, we also continue to call on the federal government to approve pending work authorizations so they don't get hung up in the long bureaucratic system slowing people's ability down to independently support themselves and their families. Ultimately, the American dream doesn't work if people can't work.

You know that people seeking asylum want to work, and they made it here to the city for that reason. We hear it over and over again. The first thing that they tell us is that they want to work. The partnership with the state here is so crucial because we know that this is truly a national issue and everyone has to play their role. So, thank you again, governor and her team; and with that, let me tell you some of the latest numbers.

As of October 1st, we have over 116,700 people in our care including over 63,000 asylum seekers. Over 122,700 asylum seekers have come through our intake system since the spring of 2022. We have opened 211 sites, including 17 humanitarian relief centers. And last week— from September 25th to October 1st    more than 3,700 new asylum seekers entered our care, which is hard to believe. I think it might have been one of the biggest weeks that we have had or definitely approaching it: 3,700 new people coming into our care.

Before I open up for questions, you all know that the mayor is traveling today to Latin America to see some of the issues up close and to advocate for stronger Southern border solutions working with partners in Mexico, Ecuador and the region. We have said it from the beginning but it bears repeating: this is a global humanitarian crisis, and once it hits the United States, it's a national crisis that requires a national response. I'm not sure that this administration can say it any clearer. With that, I'll take some questions.

Question: Yes. Could you say a little bit more about what you expect to happen with the $38 million an assistance for the legal applications, like do you have a sense of how many applications that could support filing or how many lawyers that could provide for...

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: Masha, why don't you walk us through it?

Masha Gindler, Executive Director, New York City Asylum Application Help Center: Yes. So, the money will be split between case management and expanding the footprint of the Asylum Help Center. Our goal is to do hundreds of TPS appointments per day in November, and our goal is to really make outreach to identify, screen and make appointments for all eligible Venezuelans by the end of the year.

Question: I'll just ask a follow up, too. Do you have a sense at this point, having done some of the surveying and going back and asking people, what percent or number of the people who are currently in your care or have come through the city are actually eligible and likely candidates to get asylum or any of the other protections to allow them to remain in the country.

Varlack: The assessment that we have is still ongoing. When that's done, I think we'll share some numbers. But you know, we filed over 5,000 asylum applications so far, and that's for asylum. And for TPS, the eligibility is a lot more clear cut, right?

You don't have to… And so we believe that there's a large number of Venezuelans that would be eligible anecdotally since we started doing this yesterday at the help center. Most of the Venezuelans that have come by are eligible and interested and are now in the process of filing for TPS, meaning identifying their documents and preparing for that.

Question: Yes, so this is a question about the court letter in the Callahan case and so this would be for counsel. Looking at the conditions at which this request would kick in there's a sentence at the end that talks about excluding, quote, any times during which a state of emergency related to housing is in effect. It's on the bottom of Page 5. And I was a little confused as to what that means. If you could just sort of like generally explain the formula for when the suspension of single adult shelter protections would kick in.

Lisa Zornberg, Chief Counsel to the Mayor and City Hall: Well, thank you for the question. Let me just start out by noting that when Callahan, when the consent decree was put in place in 1981, it wasn't law, it was a settlement agreement mutually agreed to by the parties and then ordered by the court. And just for a moment of perspective, in contrast to what the deputy mayor was talking about in terms of numbers.

You know, if you go back into the archives of newspaper reporting from 1981 on the immediate impact of the Callahan decree back when it was entered — I'm looking at an archive of newspaper reporting — it was reported that the immediate effect was for the city to find 125 beds right away. And where was it reported that the city would find those beds? Upstate in the Catskills. It's just a stunning contrast to the numbers of what New York City is dealing with on a daily basis now.

And so the letter that was submitted yesterday to the court, and there will be anticipated motion practice to follow, which will spell out many of the issues you're talking about, how will formulas work, what exact… What relief are we exactly seeking. The main, there are two main points to the city's anticipated motion. Point number one, sensible relief from a decree entered over 40 years ago that was never intended to apply to the humanitarian crisis that we're confronting in the present day.

And the second main point of our letter is, restore New York City to equal footing with the 57 other counties of New York State so that New York City, notwithstanding our gargantuan efforts, as a legal matter restore us on to the same exact footing so that the requirements that we must follow during this humanitarian crisis are exactly the same as those applicable to every other place in New York State.

Question: Hi. Quick question. So, when you talk about relief in the court hearing that you're talking about, what is the end goal here? If you could just be specific. And I know you mentioned the newspaper reports from back then, but if this were to apply today, how would the city use that relief? Would they just say, okay, well, we've maxed out our beds, we've maxed out our space, so you know, you guys are going to have to find another way.

Like, what is the strategy going forward? And is there any data of anybody that you've gone through the process and has maybe applied for work an has gotten out of the system successfully and is kind of on their own? Does any of those stats exist?

Zornberg: So, I'll just address the legal component and then if others want to talk about operational. Legally, I would say that the letter that was filed yesterday with the court represents an important step. I don't… It doesn't articulate necessarily a legal end goal, it makes clear that at this particular juncture New York City is not seeking to terminate the Callahan decree altogether; rather, it's trying to meet the emergencies of the moment by seeking to modify… Or rather, terminate, modify or suspend. Modify or temporarily suspend the decree in a way that bring sensible relief, because from a legal perspective it is just not sustainable for this consent decree from 40 plus years ago to be imposing requirements and the constant threat of lawsuit as New York City needs flexibility to navigate through a humanitarian crisis.

So, I don't… I can't speak to a legal end game, what I can speak to very forcefully is the desire to get immediate relief to meet what is just common sense and that will put New York City on equal footing with the rest of the state right now.

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: So, I think I'm answering a question when I say, you know, we don't talk about this often, but with 122,000 people coming but only— only? 63,000 being here, it means that many have left the system. And we know that many people are working, probably many...some, you know, not in the way they should be. Others have joined family members or are with friends.

And so part of our case management is to help people think about what that next step would be for them, help them with their paperwork and help them to move along. We talk about this, I don't think there's anyone else in the country that's giving 30 days, 60 days as much as we are. Most of what you'll see on the border is people get 24 hours, 72 hours. So, we're trying to really use that time to get people safely on their feet.

Question: What you just mentioned, actually, the 30 day shelter notices have been in effect now for a couple weeks, I believe. Some Councilmembers are pushing back against that and helping to block it. Does that policy, the 30 days, does that conflict with the Callahan decree? And then just broadly, like why is it necessary to do that 30 day notices.

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: Maybe I'll start. And I think we have from the very beginning trying to be as innovative as we can with opening up over 200 sites and 17 humanitarian centers. We know that we were...really difficult in terms of finding spaces. So, what we wanted to do is we really want to focus on exit strategies; and really, again, for this population of folks that really didn't come here to be in a social safety net or a DHS system, a homelessness system. And what we're finding is if we can get people their IDs, if we can get people reticketed they actually would rather move on than live in a congregate setting. Many of the families, again, it's not a panacea to raise your child in a hotel room. And so it was 1 of our strategies on the 30 and 60 days in order to make room for folks on the front end.

And Jeff, you know, during the surge we are very, very, very concerned about families with children, and the mayor has always been clear to us that that really should be the priority, is really making sure that we're taking care of families with children. So, we are balancing all of those things together to make some impossible decisions.

Varlack: I think I would just add to that that the combination of the time limit with the really aggressive case management that we're doing, it helps people to figure out what their next steps might be.

Question: Two questions. The first is, in May, Mayor Adams had said that about 50 percent of hotel rooms in the city were occupied by migrants. What is the updated percentage? The second question is for Ms. Zornberg. Assuming you prevail and the standard you outlined in the letter that you filed yesterday with the court is put into place, would TPS folks, whether they have a pending application or whether it's been granted be treated any differently for the purposes of the right to shelter than a native New Yorker? I know OTDA regulations require that they're not be [inaudible].

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: Hotel first? I don't know if you know the percentage?

Varlack: No, I don't know the percentage. We can get that to you, yes.

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: But I do want to just say is that we're also looking at the cost of some of the hotels. When it gets to be high season, they go up. I think right now we have a couple of leases and our contract is...

Varlack: Exactly.

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: …are coming down and people want even more. So, there's situations where people are really using the situation in order to try to get more money from us, and we're trying to be very careful with our issue around personnel sites and how much money we are spending.

Question: Is it getting cheaper or more expensive?

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: More expensive.

Varlack: More expensive.

Question: When it's getting colder it's more...

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom:  Well, because people know that we're desperate.

Varlack: And so they're raising the price on the hotels when the hotel contracts come up for renewal.

Question: Meaning that the hotels are raising the price.

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: Correct.

Question: Got it, got it.

Zornberg: Just to your question, I'm going to stick as I need to very closely to what's in the public record and what the city has filed in its letter, and I'll just point out that the letter does not outline any difference in treatment of anyone. It outlines a general approach for modifying or temporarily suspending the decree.

Question: That would apply to migrants or apply to traditional homeless population?

Zornberg: I'll stick to the response I gave.

Question: Yes. With Governor Abbott ramping up the number of migrants being sent here and across the country as well, is there communication between the two administrations; and if so, what are they like?

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: Meaning, do we have communication with the State of Texas?

Question: Yes.

Varlack: We've been given a telephone number for essentially their bus information line, and so we call that number as regularly as we can to just get a sense of how many buses may be coming. They don't really give us a lot of information. But I am certainly in touch with the offices of several other cities, particularly Chicago, where we're just sort of trying to coordinate and let them know, share information about what we know, what we're expecting, what we're seeing as well as just continued conversations about best practices as we work through the crisis.

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: And we have the blessing of some of the NGOs who try to also give us a heads up when they're coming. If you can imagine sending a bus at any time at three o'clock in the morning with families and children in it, it just, it feels cruel in a way that it doesn't need to be. So, we're just not clear why that's happening.

Question: Yes, just a couple of clarifying questions and then a larger question… 

Sure, I'll try. Can someone sort of explain what the change has been in inflow and outflow from the shelter system since the imposition of the 30  and 60 day rules. Two, do you guys have a count of how many buses are actually coming from Texas as a percentage? So, you said 27 total that showed up, how many of them had Texas plates?

And then three, the legal filing. The underlying premise of the rent stabilization law in the city is that there's a housing market. So, what exactly is the trigger for this for, has the city basically written a legal standard that would abrogate Callahan forever.

Varlack: So, I'll start with I think the first two questions that you asked. In terms of the bus plates, I'm not sure. We just know on average how many buses we're getting and they're coming from Texas. Again, the vast majority, many of the people that have been coming are coming in a variety of different ways, and they come directly to the Roosevelt. We don't always see how they're getting here, so we don't necessarily have a record of how many came in on a plane, et cetera.

But with respect to the uptick in buses, we have a pretty good sense of that, and so we know that there's been a significant uptick. I don't even remember how many we're expecting today, maybe it's eight.

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: I think so.

Varlack: Yes.

Question: And they're all from Texas.

Varlack: Yes.

Question: [Inaudible.]

Varlack: Yes.

Question: These are all Abbott buses.

Varlack: Yes.

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: Umm, I feel like you asked me about 30 day and 60 day notices. Did I make that up?

Question: No, I did.

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: Okay.

Question: So how has it changed the inflow and the outflow, it looks like the shelter population's sort of stable… 

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: It is, the rate of increase has stabilized, right? And before this influx, that was very kind of encouraging. So, we have… The exact numbers, we've… About 13,500 people have received 60 day notices and about 2,100 people have received 30 day notices. But what I will… We'll get you the exact numbers. I would say that we've seen about 1,500 to 2,000 people leaving a week, and again, with the numbers that we get, that's why you're seeing the rate of increase slow down a little bit.

Varlack: Yes.

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: But if we continue to get more and more through the front door, we can't even really see our exit strategies bear fruit because we're getting sort of the amount of people that come through the front door.

Zornberg: To your last question, you noted that New York City already has housing availability issues. What I would say in response is that it's the city's view included in the letter that we filed with the court yesterday that the Callahan decree was never intended to require the city to build and finance an endless supply of housing for, you know, and let alone in the midst of a humanitarian crisis. And so that is why we've taken the first step to seek sensible relief that puts New York City back on equal footing with the rest of the state.

Question: But if the trigger is housing… 


...if the trigger is a housing emergency...

[Crosstalk] can you square, like how, we've been in a housing emergency then for 50 years.


Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: And we'll have more time to talk about it once we see what the relief is. It's okay.

Question: Okay. So, my question has to do with this provision in the language you guys submitted regarding when Right to Shelter is suspended. So, it says that… It basically tied to the daily number of single adults seeking shelter. that being at least 50 percent greater than the daily number of single adults seeking shelter before the declared state of emergency. So, before the declared current state of emergency, what was the percentage that put it over the limit?

Zornberg: Thank you for the question. I'm not able to give you a precise answer now. What I can tell you is that if the relief that is outlined… The form of relief outlined in the letter were to be imposed or granted today New York City would meet it. I mean, that much I can say, that we would, under that formula we would meet it.

And again, the idea really here is that the city has not moved at this juncture to terminate the decree, it is looking for sensible relief. We also reserve rights to seek any other form of temporary relief that we think is appropriate if we're granted the court's permission to move forward with motion practice.

So, we're looking for sensible relief to acknowledge that this is a humanitarian crisis, that Callahan, its onerous requirements have become outmoded to the crisis at hand and that we need to be put back on equal footing with the rest of the state under the state regime for shelter.

Question: I just want to follow up on what was asked just now. I'm wondering, you know, before we started receiving the influx of asylum seekers, you know, the city already had a record number of people in shelter. So I'm learning how do you address people who are concerned that the changes that you are requesting can, you know, eventually once the crisis is resolved or slows down, that those changes can be used to sort of prevent New Yorkers who are already here from accessing housing.

And then my second question is, you know, there's been some concern about whether this will eventually affect families. I think the target now with single adults. But what do you say, how will you prevent these changes from also allowing the city not to house families with children.

Zornberg: First, let me just be clear that the relief that's addressed in the letter that was filed pertains only to single adults, so it does not address families with children. And we should be clear about that. And then in terms of, I think the question was would things roll back to the way they were before this crisis if the crisis comes...if and when the crisis comes to an end.

And what I would say, again, without going beyond what's in our letter is that we have sought temporary relief to meet the needs of today and this present crisis, we have not sought a permanent change or termination of the Callahan decree.

Question: Thanks. Okay. My first question is, on the 412 people that were awaiting placement yesterday, are those single adults, any families? What is the number up to as of today? And then I'm wondering about the $38 million in legal aid. Is any of that going towards the asylum seeker… Or, towards the TPS and work authorization applications? Because I know those fees are like $500. So is that, any of that money going to help the migrants, what those fees that are associated with those applications.

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: Masha, why don't you start?

Gindler: No problem. So, we're exploring that. At the moment what we're doing is filing fee waivers for all applicants. They're all eligible for fee waivers because they're living in shelter and we can use that to waive the fee. The con to that is that it's a little bit more of an onerous process, but that price tag for work authorization should not keep any of our clients from filing. We're going to work through that.

Deputy Mayor Williams-Isom: The first question was about the amount of people that are we're seeing at the Roosevelt and are there majority families with children, or what does that look like.

Varlack: So, as I sit here I'm not sure exactly what the numbers are today. I know we had approximately 412 yesterday. I don't know if our buses have actually arrived, so we're sort of monitoring all of that. We mentioned yesterday, you know, there is a likelihood that we are going to see an increase in lines. There's just a huge volume of folks that are coming into New York City.

And again, the unpredictability of when the buses are going to arrive makes it challenging. But we are running a 24/7 operation, so we will continue to do the best that we can. And we can get you specifics on sort of where the numbers land at least at a certain point today.

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