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What Advocates and Electeds Say Mayor Adams Should Be Doing Differently About the Asylum-Seeker Crisis

Mayor Adams and others tour a HERRC (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

As the migrant asylum-seeker crisis continues to escalate, and another surge of arrivals has begun after a federal pandemic-era border policy expired last week, Mayor Eric Adams is taking increasingly desperate steps to ease the impact on New York City.

While virtually everyone agrees that the federal and state governments should do more to help the city, critics say there are still several concrete measures the mayor has failed to enact that could have immediate beneficial results, including the humane treatment of people fleeing their home countries to create new lives in the United States.     

Elected officials, advocates, and nonprofit groups have grown progressively more dismayed and outraged at the mayor’s response to the migrant crisis, which has seen more than 67,000 asylum-seekers arrive in the city over the last year, according to City Hall. About 41,500 are in the city’s care in shelters, which are now home to a record 80,278 individuals in sum.

“[W]e have been facing one of the single most significant humanitarian crises in recent memory, with more than 67,000 people seeking asylum coming through our system since last year,” said Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Anne Williams-Isom, at a press briefing on Wednesday. The number of migrants, she pointed out, is “larger than the entire population of the city of Utica, New York” and “would fill Madison Square Garden three times.”

Williams-Isom made an urgent plea for financial and logistical support from the state and federal governments, and a long-term policy solution on immigration, while stressing that the administration would “keep open lines of communication” with all elected officials, stakeholders and everyday New Yorkers.

“We only ask that in return we get a good faith effort for help. We've seen too many criticisms couched in half truth,” she said. “We've got to do this together for the benefit of all New Yorkers…If you don't like what we're doing, I can understand. We can have a difference of opinions, but we're asking for constructive, real suggestions, not idle talking points.”

Various critics have questioned Mayor Adams' operational approach, which has included several misguided moves, what they’ve called his anti-immigrant rhetoric about the crisis, and ways in which he has lashed out at fellow Democrats whose help he needs — while Republicans have said he's been too welcoming of migrants. Advocates and Democrats want to see the mayor not only lower the temperature of his remarks about how the city is “being destroyed by the migrant crisis” and his criticism of President Biden, City Council members, and others, but also communicate far better with local officials as he opens shelters and takes other steps.

They have called on him to extend right-to-shelter protections, invest in immigrant legal services, cut red tape for housing rental vouchers, and other steps they say could help everyone involved and even the city’s bottom line, which has been the mayor’s main focus.

The Democratic mayor has enacted cuts to city agencies and proposed more as his administration estimated a $4.3 billion cost of sheltering and providing services to migrants for the current and next fiscal years, though that number has been questioned as an inflated projection by some. The city has only received about $30.5 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), though hundreds of millions more is projected.

And the state has appropriated $1 billion in its recently-passed budget, which includes $767 million to reimburse 29% of the city’s shelter costs for migrants (in line with its share of other shelter costs), $162 million for operational and logistical support from the New York State National Guard, $137 million for health care for migrants, a $25 million resettlement fund, $10 million in legal assistance, and more.

Desperate Moves, Pushback, and Help
Last week, Adams signed an executive order suspending parts of the city’s right-to-shelter law, which mandates that the city provides a bed to any person who needs one. The order suspended portions of the law that require timely placement of families with children, require families to be placed in private rather than congregate settings, and certain eviction prevention protections.

The executive order comes shortly on the heels of the administration’s decision to bus hundreds of migrants to hotels in Orange and Rockland Counties, which was met with swift local opposition. Rockland County Executive Ed Day, a Republican, declared a state of emergency to prevent migrants from being brought to and sheltered in the county while Orange County officials filed two separate lawsuits in state Supreme Court over the plan, winning a temporary restraining order on Monday.  

The Adams administration has also housed migrants in a school gym in Coney Island, and is preparing to use several others for that purpose, though after outcry the city reversed course at least temporarily. “The city should not be using schools for intake and shelter,” said Murad Awawdeh, executive director of New York Immigration Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy group. “We don't want to disrupt students’ school environment. And the city owns at least a million square feet of space across the city and we need to be prioritizing those spaces.”

According to a Politico New York report, the mayor also considered potentially sheltering migrants in a shuttered correctional facility in Dutchess County and the Daily News reported that he may use a shuttered jail facility on Rikers Island, something Adams did not deny on Wednesday as he told reporters that everything is on the table, prompting another wave of outcry. 

“Cutting migrants off from resources and support and handing them over to jail facilities is not safety,” said Eileen Maher, a leader with VOCAL-NY’s Civil Rights Union who was formerly detained on Rikers, in a statement. “This is just another attempt from Adams to use the carceral system to disappear people and it's unacceptable. Rikers must be ‘off the table.’”

In one bit of news welcomed by advocates, the mayor on Monday used his executive authority to suspend the required Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) for siting and building homeless shelters, which he previously did for the Humanitarian Emergency Response and Relief Centers (HERRCs) set up in response to the migrant influx. Besides shelters, the city has opened 150 emergency sites for migrants, many of which are hotels, and 8 HERRCs.

While the mayor did release a blueprint in March to deal with the ongoing crisis, including by creating a new Office of Asylum Seeker Operations, the plan was immediately questioned as inadequate and misguided, including the question of why a new office was necessary beyond the existing Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs.

The City Council has presented several solutions over the course of months. In September, 34 Council members wrote to U.S. Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand asking them for help with expedited work authorization for migrants. In October, the Council identified 10 large hotels for use as HERRCs, a suggestion that the administration opposed at the time but eventually ended up using some of those proposed sites.

In December, the Council put out a full report outlining short-term measures to address migrants’ needs before and when they arrive and long-term policies for housing, education, health care, food security and more. The Council also launched a public-private partnership in March to provide funding to community-based groups that are assisting migrants. 

“New York City will always be a welcoming and safe harbor for people seeking asylum, who deserve to be treated with care, dignity, and compassion. Unfortunately, our City continues to shoulder the significant bulk and cost of this humanitarian response, which is unfair and unsustainable without the necessary funding from all levels of government,” said Council Speaker Adrienne Adams and Council Finance Chair Justin Brannan, in a statement earlier this month after the city received FEMA’s initial round of funding. “Despite the City’s $350 million request, FEMA's initial grant provides a paltry $30.5 million, which is not anywhere close to enough to cover the cost of assistance for asylum seekers. New York City deserves much more support to continue providing services for more than 60,000 asylum seekers. The Council remains strongly committed to helping all those who seek refuge, and we look forward to working with our partners to secure this important additional funding.”

The state and federal governments have appeared largely indifferent to the city’s challenges for most of the past year. There has been no coordinated strategy among the federal, state, and local governments. As Politico New York reported, Democratic leaders believe that Governor Kathy Hochul, a fellow Democrat and staunch Adams ally, has been missing from the conversation – though she did write a May 12 letter to President Joe Biden pleading for assistance, saw to the $1 billion for the city in the state budget deal reached early this month, and was in Washington D.C. on Wednesday to push for more federal help on the issue.

And while President Joe Biden, a Democrat, has taken some measures to address the ongoing crisis as well as the surge from the lifting of pandemic-era Title 42, which allowed for more expulsion of asylum-seeking migrants on public health grounds, in the divided Congress there has been almost no movement on immigration reform or related legislation. Congress appropriated $800 million in December for the migrant crisis with a significant amount expected to be allocated to New York City, but very little of that has flowed to the city yet through FEMA for unclear reasons.

“We're at this point where we've been doing this for a year now, and really haven't had very much traction on a lot of the different areas that we need to,” said Awawdeh. “The simplest thing we can do and the first thing we need to do is actually invest in getting people out of emergency shelter and into permanent housing.”

Even as the mayor continues to plead for aid from the federal government, expedited work permits for migrants, and a different operational approach at the border to help spread the influx of asylum-seekers around the country, critics have offered solutions, both short- and long-term, to address the overall crisis.

Extend Right to Shelter Standards and Invest in Immigration Legal Services
Last week, City Comptroller Brad Lander and Council Member Shahana Hanif, who chairs the Council’s immigration committee, wrote a letter to the mayor, calling on him to invest an additional $70 million in the city budget for immigration legal services. That would include $10 million to scale up pro se legal clinics that help immigrants apply for asylum, work authorization, and Temporary Protected Status; and $60 million to provide legal representation to those in immigration courts, where there is a backlog of 127,000 cases. 

The mayor’s office did not respond to an inquiry about the funding recommendation.

Those funds, Lander and Hanif said, could help expand the city’s existing programs for immigrants including ActionNYC, the Immigrant Opportunity Initiative (IOI), and the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project (NYIFUP). And they said the city should work with law schools and law firms to enroll volunteers who can provide legal assistance to migrants, and enlist the help of nonprofit and religious organizations for outreach and translation services.  

They urged the administration to take an “all hands” approach to the crisis by expanding direct outreach to asylum seekers in the HERRCs and DHS shelter system and to create systems for data collection, case prioritization, and follow-up contact. 

“With a dedicated all-hands outreach effort and an investment of $70 million for legal services, the City can significantly reduce the shelter length of stay, redeploy existing shelter space for people newly in need or newly arrived, reduce the number of people otherwise in the shelter system, and save significantly on the costs of operating shelters,” Lander and Hanif wrote. “As immigrants have for generations, these new arrivals have the potential to contribute greatly to NYC’s economic and cultural vitality. Their success, and their contributions to NYC, depend on taking the next step now to help them establish new lives here.”

The letter was sent just prior to a City Council budget hearing where Hanif questioned officials from the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs and was left dissatisfied with their testimony. Though she agreed that the federal government has left the city to fend for itself, “a lack of federal support does not excuse some of the ways in which the City is failing to meet the needs of asylum seekers,” she said, in a statement after the hearing. She noted that the city has disbursed no new funds for asylum seeker legal services this year and that there still seems to be no long-term plan. 

Hanif also urged the passage of her bill, Intro. 942, which would require that emergency congregate housing, including the HERRCs, abide by the minimum standards required under the right-to-shelter law.

Free Up Shelter Capacity by Eliminating 90-Day Rule for Housing Vouchers
The migrant crisis has placed a particular strain on the city’s shelter system, with the daily shelter population ballooning to nearly 80,000 adults and children. According to city estimates from early May, that included about 37,500 asylum-seekers. 

The city requires that families with children spend 90-days in a shelter before they can apply for the CityFHEPS program, which provides a rental assistance voucher to help families find permanent housing. An analysis released Monday by Win, the city’s largest shelter and services provider for families with children, found that repealing that 90-day rule could save the city tens of thousands of dollars per homeless family with children. The organization is one of several that have argued for easing access to housing vouchers

"For decades, the 90-Day Rule has arbitrarily kept New Yorkers in shelter far longer than they should be — but right now, the City has a chance to end this illogical barrier,” said Christine Quinn, President & CEO of Win, in a statement. “Repealing this rule could save the City up to $27,990 per family with children, while helping them leave shelter sooner. It’s the definition of a win-win.” 

The mayor’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the 90-day rule for this story, and has not taken a position in prior reporting by other outlets on the subject. “The administration is deeply grateful to the New Yorkers who have experienced homelessness and helped us develop our blueprint for housing and homelessness,” the mayor’s office told City & State in a statement in February. “Just a few months ago, we announced a host of CityFHEPS reforms to cut red tape, reduce administrative burdens, and move more New Yorkers out of shelter and into affordable housing as quickly as possible, and we are doing that everyday.” 

Quinn, a former City Council Speaker, noted that eliminating the rule would free up shelter capacity while easing pressure on the city budget. “There is no good reason to keep this rule in place — but we think City Hall will agree there are plenty of reasons to repeal it,” she said. 

Though the mayor could unilaterally get rid of the regulation, there is also an effort before the City Council to do so. Council Member Diana Ayala, a Bronx Democrat, has sponsored legislation that would eliminate the need for a family to stay in a shelter at all before they can apply for a housing voucher.

“Repealing the 90-day rule is not only good for the city financially, it’s the right thing to do,” Ayala said in a statement. “Families entering shelter should not have to wait 90 days to begin applying for vouchers that take months to process. If we intend to solve the bottlenecks within our shelter system, then we must take a look at all the policies in place that are contributing to that bottleneck, including the 90-day rule.”

Renovate Private and City-Owned Vacant Apartments 
As a means to address the homelessness and housing crisis, elected officials and housing advocates have been urging the administration to invest in renovating vacant apartments owned by the city and also to provide incentives to private landlords to carry out similar fixes in dilapidated units that they own. Those solutions could, by extension, also assist in tackling the migrant crisis as they provide an avenue for people living in shelters to transition to permanent homes. 

Open New York, a pro-housing group, conducted a survey and found over 200 vacant rent-stabilized units in buildings that the city either owns or subsidizes, according to a Gothamist report. The group is pushing the administration to get those apartments back in rotation by funding repairs. 

The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), the public housing agency, also has thousands of vacant apartments that elected officials and advocates say could be used to quickly provide housing to those in shelter if they are fixed and leased.

The mayor did take one step last month to coax private landlords into bringing rent-stabilized homes back on the market by launching a $10 million program that will provide $25,000 each to renovate 400 “chronically vacant” rent-stabilized units and then connect those apartments with families receiving CityFHEPS vouchers. However, housing advocates and landlords have both said the program is a drop in the bucket considering what they say are tens of thousands of rent-stabilized units that lie vacant across the city. 

Lease Apartments on the Market for Homeless Families
Brooklyn Borough President Antonio Reynoso, a Democrat, has criticized the real estate industry for failing to support the city’s efforts, called out suburban lawmakers for their refusal to permit more housing development, and blasted the Biden administration’s relative inaction on a crisis that cuts across multiple states and cities.

“While Mayor Adams is doing the wrong thing in rolling back Right-to-Shelter, we must be careful to call even more loudly on those who are doing nothing at all: the real estate community that sits on thousands of vacant apartments while families sleep in the streets; our neighbors in the suburbs who hide behind racist zoning policies that prevent new affordable housing from being built; and the Biden administration that refuses to step up with meaningful aid despite immigration being a federal issue,” Reynoso said in part in a statement on Friday. 

On Wednesday, Reynoso proposed three legal options for the governor, mayor, and City Council that would simultaneously confront the housing and homelessness crisis to reduce pressure on the city’s shelter system. 

Under his proposal the Council would pass a law adding the migrant crisis to the list of emergencies in the city’s Administrative Code, the mayoral administration would lease apartments for homeless families while landlords would be required to make it a priority to rent to the city at market-rate, and landlords would be prohibited from refusing to rent to the city when an emergency has been declared. 

Additionally, Reynoso proposed that the mayor declare an emergency over the homelessness crisis and seek more assistance for it from the state.

State Action
Advocates have praised the governor and Legislature for allocating about $73 million in the recently approved $229 billion state budget for legal assistance and services for immigrants. But they have also criticized the failure of various pieces of legislation that could aid immigrants more broadly and help the newly-arrived asylum-seekers. The top relevant priority for advocates is the passage of the Access to Representation Act (ARA), which would ensure the right to legal representation in immigration cases. 

“It is imperative to use a portion of these additional funds to build the long-term infrastructure that the Access to Representation Act would provide,” said Shayna Kessler, state advocacy manager for the Vera Institute of Justice’s Advancing Universal Representation initiative, in a statement referencing the $73 million allocation. “The ARA guarantees in state law the right to legal representation in these complex immigration cases and ensures long-term stability for these life-saving services. It is the right thing to do, and we will redouble our efforts to ensure the bill is passed this year.”

Borough President Reynoso urged the governor to offer the city the use of state personnel and facilities, while suspending local laws that municipalities such as Rockland County have used to block migrants from being housed in their jurisdiction, as well as those that counties have used to block new affordable housing creation. 

In an interview with NY1 in Washington D.C. on Wednesday, Hochul said the state is working with the city to identify sites to welcome migrants, including potentially SUNY campuses and shuttered psychiatric facilities. “The city has done an incredible job trying to find places to house them, but they are at capacity.” Hochul said. “So we’re helping [Adams] find places that will be welcoming.”

Federal Action 
Mayor Adams has pressed President Biden to not just provide funding but to take several executive actions on the migrant crisis. Last month, he called on the Department of Homeland Security to re-designate TPS for migrants from Venezuela, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Sudan, South Sudan, and Cameroon, to expand access to humanitarian parole, and to increase the number of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officers, or reassign existing ones, to reduce application processing times. Those measures would help migrants obtain expedited work authorization. 

“The president of the United States can give us the ability to allow people to work. This is in the lap of the executive branch of the United States of America, and that's what we are calling for,” Adams said at the time.

Adams has often cast himself as standing alone on the migrant crisis, critiquing fellow Democrats, including Biden, and others for what he sees as lackluster support in lobbying the federal government for aid. While the mayor has been right that federal and state financial aid has been slow to materialize, he has falsely claimed that Biden has no southern border policy and that City Council members and others have not helped lobby for federal and state support.

Besides the proposals the Council issued, Speaker Adams also advocated for more support from the state in her budget testimony in Albany in February. On April 7, after the city submitted its application for FEMA funding on March 29, the speaker and Council Member Brannan wrote a letter to President Biden in support of the request. 

Last month, in an effort Adams did acknowledge, Public Advocate Jumaane Williams and members of New York’s Congressional delegation stood outside the U.S. Capitol with immigration activists and proposed a series of solutions, echoing demands that the mayor has also made of the federal government. 

“For almost a year, New York City has been a focal point of the ongoing challenge of aiding asylum seekers – but this issue did not originate when the first bus arrived at Port Authority,” they said in a joint statement. “It is rooted in decades of inaction toward reforming our immigration infrastructure and agencies’ inability to adapt to the needs of people arriving in our country.”

“New York City, a city of immigrants, needs aid in meeting the current crisis, and at the same time, we must implement real, achievable, sustainable changes to our federal systems of immigration to help ensure that people coming to our country for its opportunities do not find themselves arriving in a new crisis of our own inertia.,” they added.

Williams and the congressional representatives called for:

– Issuing new Temporary Protected Status (TPS) designations, redesignations, and extensions to immigrants.

– Passage of the Asylum Seeker Work Authorization Act to reduce the waiting period for work authorizations from 180 days to 30 days.

– Passage of The New Way Forward Act to significantly reform the immigration system and its interactions with the criminal legal system that disproportionately hurt immigrants of color.

– Ending all contracts with private immigration detention centers, repealing mandatory detention, ending family detention, and banning solitary confinement.

– Passage of the New Deal for New Americans Act to ease the naturalization process and address obstacles to employment and language barriers.

– Expanding eligibility for DACA recipients and undocumented immigrants to Medicaid, CHIP, and the Affordable Care Act’s health insurance exchanges, while ensuring that access does not affect their ability to apply for citizenship under the public charge rule.

– Creating a pathway to permanent residency and citizenship for Dreamers (including DACA recipients), those with Temporary Protected Status and those covered by Deferred Enforced Departure.

– Passage of the Renewing Immigration Provisions of the Immigration Act of 1929 to expand pathways to permanent residency for eligible immigrants who have lived in the U.S. for at least seven years.

– Clearing family and employment-based backlogs, recapturing unused visas, eliminating lengthy wait times for reentry, and increasing per-country visa caps.

– Broad immigration court reform, increased funding for legal assistance, reduced immigration court backlogs, expanded training for immigration judges, and more.

– Expedited processing of Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) applications to allow those without Social Security numbers to file taxes.

– Expanded funding for language accessibility.

Williams, a Democrat, has been critical of the mayor, particularly in the wake of his executive order partially suspending right-to-shelter. “The mayor attempting to weaken those rights now—in a moment of immense need for so many asylum seekers—is a misguided and harmful action in the face of the real, urgent challenge exacerbated by a lack of decisive and timely state and federal action,” the public advocate said in a statement. 

But he hasn’t reserved his criticism only for Adams. “Denying rights and resources to people arriving in desperate need and fervent hope will not replace action needed from the President, who has failed to provide sufficient federal funding or a national response, or the Governor, who has failed to support the city, and therefore the state, by coordinating with other municipalities,” Williams said. “Instead, this action will only harm our newest, aspiring and long-term New Yorkers and shift, not solve, the crisis. While it is clear that the current situation is unsafe and unsustainable, we need Democratic leaders on all levels of government to focus on getting the support needed to uphold the right to shelter, not undercut it.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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