Nonprofits and Activists Play Outsized Role in Asylum Seeker Care

Five buses carrying up to 240 asylum seekers from the Texas-Mexico border arrived at Port Authority Bus Terminal one Friday morning in early September. New York City’s volunteers were ready, and the local government was ready – for volunteers to take the lead.

A line of medics, legal professionals, food providers and translators waited as the arrivals disembarked, along with New Yorkers holding clothes, phones and loaded MetroCards. And while some of these services, like legal and emergency medical care, are provided and paid for by New York City agencies, many of them are not.

Nonprofits and activists are doing this work with grassroots funding efforts and one-off donations, said Adama Bah, an independent immigration advocate. “My volunteers, we have over 30, they are doing this for free,” she said.

Starting on August 5, buses filled with asylum seekers from Latin America have arrived at Port Authority Bus Terminal. Their arrival followed Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s order to send asylum seekers to New York. Approximately 11,000 asylum seekers have arrived since August and that number continues to increase daily. The growing number of asylum seekers has led to Mayor Eric Adams to declare New York City in a State of Emergency on Oct. 7. 

New York City is a “sanctuary city” that limits its cooperation with federal agencies that focus on immigration law enforcement, but the new arrivals are proving difficult for city resources to cover. Abbot called the move an effort to publicize a border crisis, but critics have called it a political stunt. The city is paying for legal services, some transportation, and medical care administered onsite at a triage center set up at Port Authority. Nonprofits, community-based organizations and individual activists said they are left to pay for many of the other services and for the support that asylum seekers need after they leave the terminal.

“There is no follow up or intake,” said Bah. “We are literally just getting them off the buses, feeding them, and treating them as cattle, putting them on buses and just sending them to the shelter.”

But some city officials are around to help. Manuel Castro, Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, was the first city representative at Port Authority, said Bah. He has been present weekly since early August to greet the new arrivals. “He’s the only commissioner that’s making sure things are running smoothly,” she said.

Shaina Coronel, the director of communications for the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, said that with the help of intercity agencies, they provide services at Port Authority that include “EMTs, as well as doctors who provide immediate medical attention,” adding that there are “at least one or two bi-lingual lawyers onsite to answer very simple questions” for the asylum seekers. Coronel added that they are using city transport vans and also Metropolitan Transportation Authority buses to take asylum seekers to designated intake shelters.

TLC NYC, the local chapter of Granny’s Respond, a grassroots organization that helps asylum seekers, has been at Port Authority since the first bus arrived in August, wrote Ilze Theilman, the director. The asylum seekers arrived “in physical distress, dehydrated, famished, and exhausted,” wrote Thielman, adding that many asylum seekers were not traveling to New York but were put on the buses anyway. They need further assistance to get to their final destinations. 

One TLC NYC volunteer was dispatched to purchase new bus tickets for those that needed to keep traveling to places where they have family and friends. Coronel said that TLC NYC has since become instrumental in what is called the “re-ticketing” process. TLC NYC pays for the bus tickets out of their own budget. 

But the volunteers are assisting in more serious emergencies too.

That first day, the city had not started providing medical care, wrote Thielman, recalling when one passenger, a 12-year-old girl with diabetes, who had not had insulin in four days. Luckily, one of the volunteers was a nurse and was able to assess her condition, take her to Bellevue Hospital and stay with her until she received medical attention.

When it came to food, community-based organizations provided most of the provisions available to those coming off the buses, wrote Thielman. She and Bah began reaching out to other organizations for help when they saw how great the needs were.

Matt Jozwiak, executive director of ReThink Food NYC, a nonprofit organization with a budget in the tens of millions that provides meals for food insecure populations, received a call from his office alerting him that 50,000 asylum seekers might be arriving. He quickly needed to determine if his group could feed them all.

ReThink Food has so far spent approximately $8,500 on meals and $1,500 on transportation and operating costs, said Jozwiak, adding that everything has come out of their own fundraising efforts.

As of late September, Coronel said no funding was available to the organizations. “Volunteer groups have been doing this since way before we got involved. This is the work that they have been doing,” she said.

But Coronel said requests for proposals are now posted on the city’s website and their twitter feeds. These proposals, known as RFPs, allow organizations to bid for paid contracts with the city to provide specific services. Some contracts have been awarded while others are still pending. 

Joswiak submitted a proposal to provide 600 meals per week for one year but some volunteers and nonprofits chose not to apply.

TLC NYC does not have the ability to fulfill multi-million dollar orders, said Thielman. She added that it is hard for an organization like hers to compete with groups like the Red Cross for contracts. The Red Cross was awarded a contract to house a new intake center at their headquarters on West 49th Street. Catholic Charities of New York was awarded the contract to operate the intake center. 

Grassroots organizer Power Malu, who also volunteers at Port Authority, said he isn’t able to submit a request for proposal for housing, mental health or food because RFPs are for organizations that have much greater capacity to consistently fulfill large orders. 

Malu, who is the founder of Over Throw NYC, a community focused boxing gym, spends most of his days helping asylum seekers who are now in the shelter system. Malu volunteers as a driver and provider of hot meals. He has also given out his phone number to them so he can serve as a point person for questions. He said it’s the nonprofits and community organizers who will see this immigration crisis through.

“We are still doing the work and we will continue to do the work,” said Malu. “Who is going to pick up the pieces? The grassroots organizations that really care.”