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City Braces for New Wave of Asylum-Seekers as Title 42 Expires

‘We need your help,’ begged an urgent city email seeking space for migrants, the latest indication the Adams administration is hitting the panic button.

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A temporary shelter on Randall’s Island for single men, Oct. 18, 2022.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

On Tuesday afternoon an urgent email went out from the Mayor’s Office of Contract Services to vendors it regularly works with. 

“We need your help!” the email begins. “The City is also looking for emergency sites such as gyms or dorms that are available quickly and that could be used by the City temporarily to provide immediate relief to asylum seekers.”

The email said the city is seeking spaces with open layouts and a minimum of 10,000 square feet with bathrooms. “Preferably showers (but we can figure out showers if need be),” the email reads.

The plea is the latest indication that Mayor Eric Adams’ administration is casting an increasingly wide net in an effort to prepare for the looming expiration of Title 42. That’s the federal doctrine in effect during the COVID-19 emergency that allowed U.S. Customs and Border Patrol to quickly turn people crossing the southern border without proper documentation back to Mexico — something border patrol did more than 2.8 million times since the rule was enacted in March 2020. 

With the doctrine’s expiration at midnight Thursday, New York state officials are preparing for the arrival of “several thousand additional people seeking shelter each week,” according to an emergency order declared by Gov. Kathy Hochul on Tuesday.

By Wednesday evening, the Adams administration had taken another dramatic step — crafting an executive order to suspend certain provisions of the city’s decades-old right to shelter that guarantees certain minimum standards for all people who shelter in New York City. 

“This is not a decision taken lightly and we will make every effort to get asylum seekers into shelter as quickly as possible as we have done since day one,” Fabien Levy, a spokesperson for Adams said. 

Levy said the executive order would suspend certain provisions of the law that require bathrooms, kitchens and a refrigerator, and the requirement that the city maintain a 24 hour a day intake center. Gothamist first reported the city was moving to suspend some provisions of the right to shelter law.

In recent days, the Adams administration has been scrambling to identify new locations where arriving migrants can stay temporarily, attempting to commandeer hotels in Rockland and Orange counties. But a judge granted the town of Orangetown in Rockland a restraining order late Tuesday.

City officials have also been calling around to major landlords, business leaders and the Port Authority, and requesting that city agencies identify vacant space, The New York Times reported. 

And on Sunday, City Hall sent out a memo to municipal workers, asking for volunteers to work 12-hour shifts to help receive busloads of new arrivals, Gothamist reported.

A subsequent email, sent Wednesday to nonprofit providers from the NYC Department for the Aging, sought more volunteers to greet arrivals and help with “triaging urgent medical needs.”

Surges Expected and Unexpected

Adama Bah, an immigrant advocate who’s welcomed arrivals at the Port Authority alongside volunteers from groups including Artists Athletes Activists and Team TLC since last August, said she and her comrades are as prepared as they can be for whatever comes next. 

”I don’t want to anticipate anger, fear, or anything. Whatever happens happens,” Bah said. “This is people, this is their lives.”

Bah spoke to THE CITY from a McDonalds near the Port Authority on Tuesday afternoon, as she ordered asylum-seekers Ubers from area airports, while juggling multiple phones.

“I just know that there’s people who need us and we need to help them,” she said. “That’s all I know.”

Power Malu, an organizer with the Artists Athletes Activists group who’s been helping for months at Port Authority and elsewhere to coordinate donations and support, said he had mixed feelings about what the coming days might bring. 

“People are a little bit anxious about what’s going to happen,” Malu said. “But even with Title 42 in place, we still had hundreds of migrants coming in weekly into New York City. So we have to be paying attention to what’s really going on and not get caught up in the political rhetoric.”

Even ahead of the official expiration, the number of migrants arriving in New York City already surged in recent days, catching the Adams administration off guard. That’s what Manuel Castro, commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, said at a City Council budget hearing on Wednesday morning. 

“We knew we would see a surge after Title 42 was lifted this Friday but it happened sooner,” Castro said. In the last week, 1,578 new asylum-seekers have arrived in New York City, according to state officials.

New Use for Old Police Academy

As the city scrambled to find places for the newcomers to sleep, migrant families with children were sent to sleep in the gymnasium of the former police academy on East 20th Street in Manhattan, the Daily News reported. That raised red flags for homeless-rights advocates who warn of the danger of housing children in congregate settings. 

“The old Police Academy was the most viable option,” Castro testified Wednesday, adding that all children have since been moved out of the facility. 

“This was the best location we were able to find to set up cots and bring people from the airport,” Castro said, noting the gymnasium was better than the alternative: “They’ll end up in the streets by Port Authority and that’s what we’re trying to avoid.

“We’re looking for space anywhere we can find [it],” he said. “We need more space.”

Joshua Goldfein, a homeless-rights lawyer with The Legal Aid Society, said Adams administration officials have communicated they’re preparing for a scenario where they could receive as many as 1,500 new arrivals each day, up from around 200 people a day in recent months. 

“That seems like a lot. That would be totally unimaginable. It also seems like a lot of people to transport here,” Goldfein said. “They are preparing as if that is something that could happen.”

Fabien Levy, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office, said they don’t know how many people might arrive each day.

“That’s a question for border cities/states and the activists coordinating for asylum seekers to arrive,” Levy wrote in an email. “We have not gotten a heads-up on how many asylum seekers will come here.”

Making History

All told, the city has opened up 122 emergency centers and eight so-called emergency relief centers to accommodate around 37,500 asylum-seekers over the past year, according to Kate Smart, a spokesperson for the Adams administration. 

Their arrival has catapulted the number of people living in city shelters to historic highs — 85,000 people through the end of April — according to a monthly report released by city Comptroller Brad Lander on Tuesday. 

Meanwhile, people are spending a longer amount of time in shelters. According to the latest Mayor’s Management Report, the average stay in city shelters was 509 days for adults, up 26 days from the prior fiscal year. Families with children stayed an average of 534 days in shelters, 14 days longer than in the prior year. 

Advocates like Goldfein are urging city officials to put a renewed focus on moving people out of shelters into permanent housing, to relieve some of the backlog. 

“How are we getting people out?” he said. “What’s the longer-term plan?”

At the Port Authority on Wednesday, one bus of migrants had arrived by midday, and other people showed up via various means. Wilmer Chavez, a 29-year-old Venezuelan, was there hoping he might get some help with legal questions he had about seeking asylum. He arrived by plane from Texas over the weekend.

“For my part, I’m very grateful for all that’s been offered here. To be given a roof has been a blessing,” Chavez told THE CITY in Spanish. “I’m not looking for a handout. You gotta work and sweat.”

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