Mayor Eric Adams’ administration has embarked on a decompression strategy to free up space in the city’s local shelters by sending immigrants to other New York State localities. In Albany, where more than 230 migrants were relocated in recent weeks, community-based organizations say they are already stretched thin.

Daniel Parra

Asylum seekers lining up to board the bus for Albany from a shelter in Queens on Wednesday, May 31.

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The names of the 16 asylum seekers were written on small pieces of paper, scrunched into paper balls, and put into a bag. The owner of the industrial laundromat shook the bag and pulled out eight names—those would become his new employees.

Those vying for the gigs had decided that luck would be the best way to choose which of them would be selected to work. The group had walked several miles to get to the job interview—the latest leg in a longer journey from their home countries that included crossing the southern border, being transported to New York City and then sent by bus to Colonie, a town in Albany County adjacent to the state capital.

“It was a raffle,” J., whose name was among those in the bag, said in Spanish. “Five got the day shift, three the night shift.”

J., who preferred not to reveal his name for fear of retaliation, was one of the asylum seekers transported on the first bus to Albany County from New York City late last month, as Mayor Eric Adams’ administration embarks on a decompression strategy to free up space in local shelters by sending migrants in the city’s care to other parts of the state.

But the idea was not welcomed in several municipalities, which issued emergency executive orders to block local hotels from housing immigrants, prompting the Adams administration last week to sue 30 upstate counties that barred new arrivals. 

So far, Newburgh, Albany, Yonkers, and White Plains and Poughkeepsie have received buses sent by the city. Albany alone has welcomed more than 230 asylum seekers so far, including 18 people bussed there Friday evening.

But community-based organizations in Albany that work on the ground to provide asylum seekers with access to food pantries, legal help, medical care, transportation and other services are sounding the alarm, saying they are already spread thin and can no longer operate without funding.

“New York State continues to evaluate our request to provide local non-profits with more funding to help support their efforts to assist asylum seekers who have relocated to the City of Albany,” said the Albany mayor’s Chief of Staff, David Galin.

One of the areas where the lack of resources is critical is legal aid. “We definitely have exceeded a comfortable limit; all the groups, especially the legal work team,” said Angela Castrillo-Vilches, manager of member engagement in the Capital Region for the New York Immigration Coalition (NYIC).

Sara Rogerson, director of the Justice Center at Albany Law School and director of the Immigration Law Clinic, which conducted the initial screening of the relocated asylum seekers, said their work has been complicated by not only lack of funding but access to information about immigrants’ legal situations.

“New York City is not providing basic details,” Rogerson said over the phone, explaining that her group has had to collect information such as full name, country of origin, age, gender, date of birth, and language spoken before even diving into the complexities of individual cases. “We have to start from scratch.”

The Immigrant Advocates Response Collaborative, one of the organizations assessing the immigration legal needs of the 200 or so asylum seekers in Newburgh, reports the same problem.

“That’s why it is taking us so long,” Rogerson added, estimating that will take months to assess all the immigrants’ cases without additional funding, counting on less than a dozen lawyers who know how to carry out the asylum process. They will prioritize cases that need a prompt response, she said.

While New York City pays for room and food for relocated asylum seekers, finding pro bono attorneys with immigration expertise remains a challenge, and access to legal representation  is not guaranteed in immigration court proceedings in New York State.

Advocates have pushed  for passage of the Access to Representation Act, which would give low-income immigrants facing deportation (and other legal proceedings related to deportation defense) or detention in New York guaranteed legal help in immigration proceedings, with funding from the state.

Last week, the federal government allocated nearly $105 million for asylum seekers in New York City, on top of $30 million it provided in May. That’s still well short of what local elected officials say they need to manage the crisis, which Mayor Adams has claimed will cost the city more than $4 billion by the end of the next fiscal year.

“We need additional support, including federal lands to use as shelter sites and federal funding to humanely care for these individuals,” Gov. Kathy Hochul said in a statement after a meeting with federal officials last week. “Most importantly, I stressed the need for federal action to expedite asylum applications and work authorization requests for individuals to allow them to quickly integrate into our economy and our society.”

Location, location, location

The hundreds of immigrants who have been transported from the city to Albany have been placed in three hotels: the first buses arrived at the Sure Stay Best Western on Wolf Road in Colonie, while others arrived at the Ramada Inn on Albany’s Watervliet Avenue and the Holiday Inn Express Downtown.

However, those at the Colonie hotel are having a harder time finding work and have few public transportation options compared to those staying at the other two hotels, according to the Albany community-based organizations and some asylum seekers City Limits spoke to.

Despite being only a few miles outside the perimeter of the capital, the job options available to people without a car are limited, explained Columbia County Sanctuary Movement Co-Executive Director Ivy Hest, one of the organizations assisting migrants there.

Of the 24 who arrived on the first bus to Colonie, eight have found stable employment, while the rest go out to walk in search of opportunities, asking if they need help in every place they find.

In the days after the first buses arrived, Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy said in a statement that “90 percent of asylum seekers in Albany County are employed in less than a week,” citing “communications” with New York City and the vendor it has contracted with to provide services to asylum seekers, called DocGo.

But Albany community-based organizations and some asylum seekers themselves disputed that figure. When asked for further information, neither the Albany County Executive’s office nor the Albany Mayor’s office provided details, referring questions to the Adams administration, which also did not provide details on the employment claim.

“DocGo provided an early snapshot regarding the initial group of asylum seekers who arrived in Albany County on May 28,” said a spokesperson from DocGo. “DocGo does not have current reports on employment figures.” 

Carolina Martinez, a woman from Venezuela who was bussed from the Astoria respite center to Albany’s Ramada Inn earlier this month, said that while several of those staying there have gotten jobs, many of them in construction, about 10 people have not.

“It’s not 90 percent,” Hest said about the percentage of newly arrived immigrants who are working, “but is not 0 percent either.”

The hotel in Colonie has arranged a bus route that starts at the hotel, passes by a church, a library, a supermarket, and a soccer field, and returns. And while asylum seekers are grateful for food and a roof over their heads, the lack of work “has frustrated us, distressed us,” J. said, explaining that the only ones at his hotel who have found work so far were those selected for jobs in the laundry.

City officials, affected immigrants, and advocates have implored the federal government to expedite asylum-seeker work authorization. Applicants have to first file their asylum claims and aren’t eligible for a work permit until 180 days after—a timeline also subject to processing backlogs.

The lack of work authorization forces asylum seekers to take off-the-books jobs, making them more vulnerable to workplace violations. “Our concern is exploitation and trafficking,” said Hest, who has been leading the community integration strategy of asylum seekers in all three Albany hotels.

One person recently asked if a restaurant job for $12 an hour was a good job, Hest recounted; the legal minimum wage in New York counties north of Westchester is $14.20 an hour.

“They need work authorization, [it] is a problem,” Hest said.