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Asylum Seekers Face Freezing Cold, Housing Insecurity in NYC, Chicago and Beyond

Immigration rights activists discuss how migrants have been scapegoated by leaders who have failed to provide services.

As nine Democratic governors join together to call on President Biden and Congress to address the humanitarian crisis faced by migrants, we look at conditions faced by tens of thousands of asylum seekers in New York City and Chicago. Many arrived over the last year on buses from Texas as part of Republican Governor Greg Abbott’s anti-immigrant efforts. We hear from a migrant staying in a tent shelter at a former airport site in New York City where they face below-freezing temperatures and a lack of medical services, and we speak with immigration rights activists. Murad Awawdeh, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, and Oscar Chacón, executive director of Alianza Americas, discuss how immigrants have been treated as scapegoats by leaders who have failed to provide services and reform the immigration system. “Migrants are simply making these failures in our society very visible,” says Chacón.

TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: As nine Democratic governors, led by New York’s Governor Kathy Hochul, have joined together to call on President Biden and Congress to address the humanitarian crisis faced by migrants, we begin today’s show in New York City looking at the conditions endured by tens of thousands of asylum seekers who have arrived here over the last year, many on buses from Texas as part of Republican Governor Greg Abbott’s anti-immigrant efforts.

On Sunday, a 3-month-old girl staying in a migrant shelter with her family in Queens died after suffering a heart attack. This comes amidst an ongoing housing crisis for migrants and asylum seekers in the city, that’s left many scrambling for a safe place to live after New York City Mayor Eric Adams imposed a 60-day limit for families to stay in shelters, 30 days for single men. Around 2,000 migrant men, women and children staying in a remote tent facility built at a former airport called Floyd Bennett Field have faced below-freezing temperatures for days.

Democracy Now! went there Saturday and spoke to Fabiola Mendieta-Cuapio, a Brooklyn resident, immigrant justice activist, organizing essential needs and resources.

FABIOLA MENDIETA-CUAPIO: The conditions inside are not the best conditions for families. You know, we’ve been receiving complaints about people getting sick, because it’s cold. They put the heat — they have heat inside. But still, you know, it’s just in the area, is — the area is cold, isolated.

I feel like one of the biggest needs right now is not just clothes and food. You know, sometimes people just need to get access or information about the school district, where to go if they need medical insurance. I know the city has been working with some families, but also I think language access is a huge need inside. We find out a lot of the families don’t get served because they don’t speak Spanish. People assume that because they look like me, they speak Spanish. It’s not the case. We also have a lot of Indigenous families inside these tents. We have families from around the world who speak, you know, other languages. And I think the language barrier prevents for these families to get the services they need. Another big ask that they have is mental health services. You know, people are really traumatized.

AMY GOODMAN: That was immigrant justice activist Fabiola Mendieta-Cuapio, speaking with Democracy Now!’s Tami Woronoff.

Democracy Now! producer María Taracena spoke to an asylum seeker and single mother from Ecuador who’s been staying at the Floyd Bennett Field tent camp with her two young daughters since late December. She said her partner had died as they crossed the treacherous Darién jungle between Colombia and Panama en route to the United States. And she said she fled Ecuador after receiving threats from a gang and surviving years of domestic violence. She asked we hide her identity for safety.

ASYLUM SEEKER: [translated] I left Ecuador on August 4th. It took me five months to get here. On my journey to the United States, I was robbed. I was even left without shoes. In Mexico, my 6-year-old daughter was almost kidnapped. I’m grateful to the people who helped me get my daughter back. I didn’t have any money to eat. I slept in the streets with my daughters in the cold.

Now I’m here in New York with my two daughters. They’re both going to school. I haven’t been able to look for work, because it’s very difficult to go drop them off at school and then come back all the way here and then go back out again to pick them up. It takes me all day. I need help to go out and look for a job so that I can start having some stability with my daughters and move on. I am alone here. I don’t know anyone. …

I’ve worked very hard ever since I was a little girl. People who know me would tell me that I am very hard-working, that I am a fighter who has always taken care of her children. …

One of my daughters is 6, and the other is 11 years old. I had to take one of them to the hospital recently because she was burning with fever. I got really scared.

MARÍA TARACENA: Can you please share or describe what the conditions are inside this tent facility? How long have you been here for? And could you describe just how isolated it is? It’s about 20 degrees. It’s freezing today. What is it like to be sleeping and to be inside the facility?

ASYLUM SEEKER: [translated] To be honest, I don’t think I can complain. We’re in this tent where we don’t have a bed, but at least we have cots to sleep. If not, we’d be sleeping in the street. We don’t have a way to wash our clothes. The food is not great, but at least it’s a warm meal.

AMY GOODMAN: Democracy Now! producer María Inés Taracena, speaking with an asylum seeker and mother from Ecuador. She said after arriving in New York, she asked the father of one of her daughters to please send her money for school supplies and other urgent needs, but was scammed. She was scammed by a woman she thought was willing to help her.

ASYLUM SEEKER: [translated] Because I don’t have a phone number in the United States or a passport, this woman told me to use her information so that my daughter’s father could send the money. … She withdrew the money, and I begged her to please bring it to me, but she never did.

AMY GOODMAN: She described, as she cried, enduring years of domestic violence from her father and several partners in Ecuador, and spoke about her first husband and the father of her older children, who are still in Ecuador.

ASYLUM SEEKER: [translated] The father of one of my children beat me. He’d humiliate me and force me to sleep outside in the cold. Before I left him, he tried to stab me and said he’d kill me. I was just 12 years old when I was given to him, and he was 23 years old. I suffered a lot. I barely even grew up with my mom and dad. My father was also very evil towards me. … I’ve asked for help here and asked to be able to speak to a psychologist, because the truth is that sometimes I’ve wanted to die.

AMY GOODMAN: For more on the humanitarian crisis endured by asylum seekers in New York and Chicago, we’re joined by two guests. In Albany, New York, Murad Awawdeh is with us, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition and NYIC Action. His Albany Times Union op-ed is headlined “An opportunity for New York to lead on immigration policy.” And in Chicago, Oscar Chacón is executive director of Alianza Americas, an immigrant rights group addressing the arrival of thousands of migrants to Chicago, as well.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! We’re going to begin with Murad in the capital of New York state, in Albany. Can you talk about what we just saw, these conversations, what’s happening out not only in Queens, but the death of the 3-month-old, what’s happening to asylum seekers here, and what you feel needs to be done?

MURAD AWAWDEH: Well, thank you for having me on your show today. It’s a pleasure always to be in your company.

It’s incredibly unfortunate that we continue to find ourselves in this kind of emergent rapid response moment, when we’ve been welcoming folks not just for the past 18 months, but as a city of immigrants, a state of immigrants, a state that’s been built by every wave of immigration. Our state and our city has been unprepared and continue to stay in this rapid response moment instead of actually putting together plans to actually integrate people better. That’s why we’re in Albany today. We’re fighting for our state legislative platform, which is to really invest in immigration legal services, expanding housing voucher access, as well as language justice.

What’s happening in New York City with Mayor Eric Adams is not the ramifications of a migrant crisis. I don’t think we have a migrant crisis. I think we have a crisis of leadership in this moment. And every instance of action that this mayor has taken over the past 18 months has not been something that is based in compassion and humanity, as we’ve been known in New York City to do, but more so as building more barriers and actually making it harder for people to become self-sufficient.

The more we support people, the better they are able to stand up on their own, without having to be pushed out and evicted from shelters and having to be reintaked. Even before they put their 30- and 60-day rule in place, what we were seeing is that a good majority of singles were getting out within 30 to 45 days. And this is just putting another burden and another bureaucratic hurdle in their way to actually standing up on their own feet.

And we’ve been dealing with an affordability crisis, not just in New York, but across this country, for years. And we are not seeing any action being taken on that from the federal level, nor our state, nor our city. So this is an opportunity for every level of government to step up and lead, and also lead in the arena they can have power over.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Murad, I wanted to ask you — you mentioned that you don’t believe that there is a crisis with the arrival of these asylum seekers. Most people are not aware that New York City, in the two years after the pandemic started, lost nearly 500,000 residents who left the city. So you would think that all those people leaving means there are empty apartments, there are empty office buildings. Why has it been so hard for the city to find housing for these asylum seekers?

MURAD AWAWDEH: You know, that’s a great question. And we actually lost over 400,000 people since the pandemic. We’ve had a huge amount of people leaving the state, and specifically working-class people leaving the state of New York, because of the affordability crisis. We have apartments that are being hoarded. We have over 40,000 apartments that are rent-stabilized being hoarded. We have several thousand city-owned apartments that are owned and operated by the HPD. We have NYCHA, which are public housing units that are available. So this is not an issue of is there availability. Yeah, we should always be building more affordable housing, but in this moment we have enough housing to house everyone who’s currently living in our homeless shelters, as well as our — those who need supportive housing. We have an enormous amount of supportive housing that’s available.

This is an administration that continues to fumble the ball and continues to fail at actually leading. You know, they’ve put in measures that actually don’t help anyone in the city of New York, such as hiring freezes. Now we’re seeing the mayor blame and scapegoat migrants and immigrants and saying that he has to make these massive budget cuts, when we know that he actually stored an enormous amount of surplus money in the rainy day fund and the reserves within the city. And just recently, you know, through our advocacy and our efforts, the governor just announced that she’s dedicating over $2.4 billion to the city, and yet he continues to push his austerity measures. This is someone who came in with the austere lens and continues to push that to this day. Even with receiving the resources he needs to ensure that there are no cuts, he continues to champion cutting more social services, essential services, and pretty much harming New Yorkers in the way in which we have been living in New York.

And this is our golden opportunity. We have a huge population coming in, like they always do every year, and we need this population. We need the workforce. And we need to continue building our city and our state. And that has only been done by every wave of immigration over the past two centuries here.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’d like to bring Oscar Chacón in from Alianza Americas. Oscar, Chicago has received about 34,000 asylum seekers in the city from buses and planes sent by Texas in the last year and a half. There are lots of reports that many employers in the Chicago area are actually creating more divisions even among the undocumented community by hiring Venezuelans off the books and getting rid of Mexican and Guatemalan and other undocumented workers. Could you talk about that process, how that’s affected the communities involved?

OSCAR CHACÓN: Well, I think it’s important to understand that at the core of this problem is the fact that we have millions of people, longtime residents of Chicago and many other cities across the nation, without the status, without the ability to work legally in the U.S. And that is a situation that is taken advantage of by employers who just want to squeeze workers even more. This is something that happens constantly, not only in the context of this particular crisis. But it is often the case that people that employers consider are going to be more docile and more willing to work for less get employed.

And this is important also to look from the perspective of how we normally debate about immigrants in the U.S. who are here without authorization and working, because we tend to blame them, but we never look at the employers. And the fact is, there is clearly a reason behind why these people are employed the way they are employed. And it is because employers want to do maximum profit. But we never actually look at the employer angle from this. We tend to just blame immigrants.

At the end of all, we need to understand that we have a major failure of leadership, just as Murad was pointing a few minutes ago, from the federal to the state to the city-level governments. And it is not a crisis that began over the last couple of years. This is a crisis that has been, in many ways, brewing for decades. We have created the conditions that makes easy at this point in time to blame, to scapegoat newly arrived asylum seekers as if they were the ones that cause the realities that we are seeing. The fact is, we are a society that doesn’t really care about people’s well-being. And that’s what’s playing out in the context of people arriving desperately seeking support and protection.

AMY GOODMAN: Oscar Chacón, can you talk about how both New York and Chicago are dealing with the migrant crisis? And when I say that, I’m not talking about crisis caused by migrants. For example, Chicago is suing the bus companies — or, the bus companies are suing Chicago for not letting the buses that the governors in the South are sending north, and New York is suing the bus companies. Is this a diversion? What do you think needs to happen?

OSCAR CHACÓN: Well, I think it’s important to understand that, in many ways, this is a perfect storm, not from the perspective of immigrants causing it, but a perfect storm in the sense that migrants are unveiling a reality that has been put in place, as I mentioned before, over decades. And essentially, we are still failing to really deal with the root causes of the problem. We hardly ever speak about the simple question of why are these people coming.

I think cities like Chicago and New York, in many ways, not so much in terms of governmental leadership, but in terms of civil society organizations, community-based organizations, really stepping up and trying to help in the best way they can. But the reality is, we have a big failure in terms of not counting with the right set of policies in place to be able to be helpful. So, bus companies, in the end, are just trying to make money out of this situation. I think cities like New York, in particular, are very easy moving into blaming immigrants as if they were the ones that cause these difficulties. The reality is, again, we have a big crisis in terms of not having been really cared about providing people housing, conditions that are adequate, that are dignified, not providing people access to healthcare, including mental healthcare. And again, migrants are simply making these failures in our society very visible. The easiest thing to do is to blame immigrants. But in reality, it is the compounding effect of decades of neglect when it comes to a public policy that really puts at the center of everything the well-being of populations.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Oscar, I wanted to ask you — this summer, the Democratic National Convention will be in Chicago. The eyes of the political world will be on this city. Your sense of what immigrant rights groups around the country are preparing for when that convention comes to Chicago?

OSCAR CHACÓN: Well, I think that the preparation, it’s hardly happening, from the perspective of people being too busy trying to deal with the immediate realities of what people often see as a crisis, which I completely disagree it is. But the bottom line is, it’s important to understand the reason why Chicago will probably become increasingly important in terms of Republican governors, such as Abbott in Texas, sending more people into Chicago is precisely because the goal of these people are to create more chaos, to create more divisions, and to use this context of conflict and difficulties as a backdrop to the Democratic Party convention coming up in Chicago. In the end, it is important to highlight, people that are motivated by white supremacy, by xenophobia, are basically trying to use migrants as a way of, again, expanding the perception of a crisis and using it electorally to try to minimize the chances of Democrats succeeding in keeping the White House in their hands coming next year.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Murad, you’re in Albany. That’s where the New York state governor sits, where the Legislature is. Talking about what you feel could be the single most important way — in Washington, the Democrats and Republicans, from Biden to Trump before him, can you evaluate what they’ve done and what they need to do?

MURAD AWAWDEH: Well, [inaudible] on immigration reform, and real immigration reform that’s going to help people, historic immigrants as well as newcomers, making sure that people have a pathway to legalization, but also making sure that our processes to come into the United States are significantly more equitable, humane and efficient. That’s the piece that we’re missing here in this moment.

And as we’re speaking right now, the Senate and President Biden have been negotiating a border deal in exchange for, you know, Ukraine military aid. And our community is being held hostage by the most extremist congressional class we’ve ever had, in this moment where the Biden administration is ready to give up our community’s rights to continue to support foreign aid. And if he wants to do that, by all means, do that, but separate these issues from each other.

And we’re looking at potentially losing immigrant rights in this country, and also the president losing executive order on humanitarian parole and other powers that he can help, as he has done in the past when we have situations like when Afghanistan fell, when Ukrainians were coming into the United States. He used his executive authority to actually provide humanitarian parole. He hasn’t done it very expansively as he has in other areas, but what we do know is when you create more legal pathways for people to come into the United States, they use them. And we currently just don’t have those systems in place right now.

And instead of actually being solutions-oriented, from President Biden down to Congress, they’re just looking to have a scapegoat in this moment, as my brother Oscar mentioned. And this is not — our community should not be the issue. They’re trying to find a different villain in this story, and they are the villains, because they have not addressed the concerns of Americans and all who call the U.S. home for the past couple decades. And instead of actually resolving the issues people have been facing, they continue to look for other ways to lash out and look for someone to say this is their — it’s their fault we are in this place, but it’s not. They are the ones in power. They have the tools and the power to deliver the solutions we all need.

AMY GOODMAN: Murad Awawdeh, I want to thank you so much for being with us, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, and Oscar Chacón, executive director of Alianza Americas.

Next up, the acclaimed Chinese artist Ai Weiwei joins us after his exhibit was canceled in London when he criticized Israel’s assault on Gaza. He also has a new graphic novel. Stay with us.

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