As Monroe County this week accepts its second contingent of asylum seekers, it is so far managing to accommodate the refugees with far less disruption than the city that is sending busloads of migrants here.
Local officials say the systems in place to accommodate the asylum seekers coming from New York City are working admirably.
The relative ease with which Monroe County has dealt with the influx of refugees to some degree could be a matter of scale.
Seventy-seven asylum seekers arrived Aug. 12. This week, the county announced that an additional 51 are on their way. Like the initial group, they will initially be housed at the downtown Holiday Inn on State Street. How many more New York City might send here and at what pace is not clear.
The 128 asylum seekers Monroe County is dealing with so far are barely a drop in the ocean of refugees that New York City has struggled to accommodate since they began to arrive there from Texas late last year as part of a push engineered by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.
In a news conference last month, New York City Mayor Eric Adams officially declared the Big Apple full. As of mid-July, he said, New York City had seen 90,000 asylum seekers arrive.
“Unlike Texas, said Adams, “where Gov. Abbott is ordering troopers to push migrant children into the Rio Grande and deny asylum seekers drinking water, our city has continued to respond with humanity and compassion. We gave them a place to sleep, we gave them food. We ensure that the children were in our school system and incorporated into our school system.”
As of mid-July, Adams said, New York City was full. At that point, with its shelters and other temporary accommodations full, he added, the city had sent some 30,000 of the initial 90,000 “someplace.” Those so dismissed, said Adams were either staying with family or “doing what’s needed to continue to participate in the American Dream.”
In an Aug. 26 Atlantic article, staff writer Annie Lowrey had a dimmer view of the Big Apple’s hospitality.
“New arrivals filled the shelters,” Lowrey wrote. “And when the shelters ran out of beds, the city scrambled to set up new ones in scores of other sites, including hotels, offices, an airport warehouse, and a series of parking lots. But even that was not enough. Migrants are still intermittently sleeping on the streets; others are crowding into substandard, informal housing.”
The “someplace” Adams referred to vaguely as a destination for asylum seekers who have left the Big Apple’s direct care includes Monroe and other upstate counties.
In May, anticipating an inflow as Texas stepped up its program of asylum seeker relocation and New York City’s refugee problems mounted, Monroe County Executive Adam Bello began talks with the Adams administration that resulted in a request to area hotels for proposals to accommodate asylum seekers.
Only the State Street Holiday Inn has responded.
Bello says that since May he has been in close contact with New York City officials including Adams. At least for now, Bello assures, New York City is footing the bills Monroe County is running up to accommodate asylum seekers who are sent here.
“We are coordinating with New York City,” Bello said two weeks ago in an Aug. 13 news conference announcing the arrival of the first asylum seekers. New York City is required by state law to fund shelter, food and accommodations needed for the asylum seekers it sends Upstate and is getting state money to do so, Bello said.
Transfers from New York City to Monroe County and other upstate destinations are being handled by a private contractor hired by the Adams administration, the New York City-based medical-transportation company DocGo.
New York City has received more than $1.5 billion in state aid to help ease its financial burden in accommodating asylum seekers. Gov. Kathy Hochul recently announced an additional $20 million to help expedite the casework-filing process for asylum seekers.
State Sen. Jeremy Cooney, a Democrat whose district includes the State Street Holiday Inn, calls the state money a temporary backstop. Without an influx of federal dollars to help offset dollars the state is spending to deal with asylum seekers, such outlays will blow a Texas-sized hole in the state’s 2023-24 budget, Cooney warns.
Cooney, along with Bello, echoes a point Hochul herself stressed in an Aug. 24 letter to President Joe Biden: that without federal aid to offset the costs of absorbing asylum seekers, states’ and local municipalities’ budgets would buckle.
While New York City is required by state law and its own laws to pay for relocating asylum seekers, Bello said on Aug. 13, “there has got to be a greater coordination and response and responsibility (taken) by the federal government.
“Think about how this happened,” Bello said. “You have people seeking asylum that come across the border. They’re seeking asylum. They’re down in border states. You saw this play out in the state of Texas. There’s too many people there for them to offer the type of services they need. They’re moving people, relocating them all over the country in a disorganized way. They’re ending up in New York City and now New York City is becoming overwhelmed by the number of people there and because of that lack of coordination they are now relocating people to where they can relocate them.
“This is in my view an abject failure of the federal government to provide coordination, to get this done in a way that is responsible for both the country and the states and localities as well as the asylum seekers.”
Rep. Joe Morelle in a recent statement called for “the president and Homeland Security Secretary (Alejandro) Mayorkas to establish easy work requirements and use every tool at their disposal to expedite the issuance of employment authorization documents” for asylum seekers. He also is urging the Biden administration to step up with additional aid.
“Doing so would ease the burden placed on human service resources while providing a boost to local and small businesses at a time when our community is in urgent need of workers to fill thousands of job openings,” says Morelle, a Democrat who represents Monroe County.
Whether and to what extent the Biden administration might respond to such exhortations is not clear.
Meanwhile, the Holiday Inn continues to welcome other guests. The 128 asylum seekers here or on their way already account for more than half of the 217-room hostelry’s available space. What additional accommodations might be found is not clear.
DocGo is scouring Monroe County and other upstate communities in a search for more accommodations for asylum seekers, Bello said on Aug. 13. The company and county officials did not respond to a request this week for information on efforts to find further accommodations.
In the meantime, DocGo, which has been paying for the keep of asylum seekers it has transported here, is so far working “very well” with the coalition of local nonprofits helping to settle asylum seekers in their new surroundings, says Ashley Campbell, United Way of Greater Rochester and the Finger Lakes chief impact officer.
Campbell is serving as the United Way’s point person on the ground, duties that she says have her personally bringing to the Holiday Inn diapers and other supplies needed by asylum seekers.
More than half the asylum seekers arriving in Monroe County are school age and younger children, notes Cooney.
“We have a team that is meeting with families to make sure that they are getting what is needed,” assured Rochester City School District Superintendent Carmine Peluso at Bello’s Aug. 13 news conference.
RCSD would streamline enrollment for asylum seekers’ children and, if need be, would hire additional English as a Second Language teachers, Peluso promised.
Local nonprofits cooperating to manage the influx include the Western New York Coalition of Farmworker Serving Agencies, which is playing a central coordinating role in the effort. Also playing a role in helping to resettle the largely Hispanic asylum-seeker contingent is the Ibero American Action League.
“Personally, for me, these are our tias, our abuelas, our cousins,” Ibero American president and CEO Angelica Perez-Delgado said on Aug. 13, using the Spanish words for aunts and grandmothers. “It brought a lot of memories about our own immigration story and the suffering of our people.
“But one thing that brought comfort to my heart is that I stand with some very strong community partners who have done this before. This is not the first time that this community has welcomed a large influx of people. We’ve done this before. We did with Hurricane Maria.”
Campbell says the nonprofit coalition managing the asylum seekers’ entry to Monroe County has “been able to create a welcoming space within the hotel” where the relocated refugees are at this time “living their lives and adapting to living in a hotel.”
In welcoming asylum seekers, echoes United Way CEO Jaime Saunders, so far “we are serving as a model.”
The coalition’s efforts are still at an early and formative stage, Campbell cautions. And though she is hopeful of seeing the nonprofit coalition managing the influx of asylum seekers to continue to work effectively, Campbell concedes that a point could be reached when Monroe County simply lacks the resources to do so effectively.
When that point might be reached and what might happen if it occurs is not clear to her, Campbell says.
In the meantime, says Saunders, the United Way has added a link on its website to facilitate donations and a link connecting to Ibero American.
Area residents have been generous beyond her expectations, says Saunders, but more is needed and will continue to be needed in the near, medium and long term.
Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected].