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Welcoming the Stranger: An Interview With New York Immigration Coalition’s Murad Awawdeh

“The buses are not letting up. They are coming with more vigor. Initially it was a bus or two, then it rose to three, and now NYC receives six or nine buses a day coming directly from Texas.”

As thousand of migrant asylum seekers arrive on buses in New York City from the U.S. southern border -- many sent without their consent by Republican governors in Texas and Florida who are playing politics with people's lives -- community activists have led efforts to welcome them with dignity and to push city, state and local officials to mobilize more than the minimal resources offered so far.  Yesterday, the City announced it was relocating a sprawling relief center it has assembled in an Orchard Beach parking lot to Randall's Island and The New York Post ran a headline about a Hells Kitchen public school "overwhelmed with 100 migrant kids."  Meanwhile, the buses keep coming.  The Indypendent spoke to Murad Awawdh, who grew up in Sunset Park as the son of Palestinian immigrants and is now executive director on the New York Immigration Coalition, about the ongoing work to welcome the new arrivals and how this fits in with their long-term goals.

THE INDYPENDENT: How has the New York Immigration Coalition been involved in greeting migrants, asylum seekers and refugees arriving on buses at Port Authority and establishing the “Welcoming New York” campaign?  

Murad Awawdeh: First and foremost, I want to give a huge shout out to folks on the ground who are doing the work day in, day out, not just at Port Authority Bus Terminal but also with many other buses coming to New York City. The ones coming to Port Authority are mostly coming directly from Texas but there are others coming from Washington, D.C. and other areas. I give a huge shout out to Artists, Athletes and Activists led by Power Malu, Team TLC NYC led by Ilze Thielmann, Adama Bah, and all the amazing volunteers who are doing this work sometimes 18-20 hours a day. I want to make sure they get the praise they deserve

The New York Immigration Coalition started to engage with people from the Southern border back in the spring when folks just started arriving at our office because authorities said this is where they should go for shelter and services. We quickly realized immigration officials who were processing folks were actually listing the New York Immigration Coalition as the home address of individuals coming or being sent to New York. So once we started to connect the dots, we said: “There is something off here.” There were conversations with other organizations who said they’d been receiving significantly more than us. 

Then we had a meeting with the City and said we think a lot more folks are going to be coming here and that the city should expand emergency shelter immediately to support additional folks who are coming in, as well as create a welcome center and fund expanded emergency legal services and support organizations on the ground who are going to need to support folks who are coming in. As you know, New York City and New York State have welcomed immigrants for centuries, from Europeans to African and Asians folks, to those from the Middle East and across the world. We want to be sure to continue to uplift our welcoming reputation, and the work we’ve historically done.

Shortly thereafter, buses started coming directly from Texas. We welcomed dozens of buses from the Southern border at Port Authority, and provided them with dignity and care packages. So, the work is ever-continuing. We’ve launched a Welcoming New York Campaign to demand perhaps the most outlandish thing we could have ever asked for: a cross government , coordinated response. We want the federal, state and local government to be working together to ensure all migrants and asylum seekers coming in are welcomed with dignity and respect.  

Mayor Eric Adams announced, via press release, that the City plans to open what he called “humanitarian relief centers” as well as its shelter system to house arriving migrant asylum seekers. City Councilmember Alexa Avilés visited migrants at a shelter in her district and told The Indy: “We have a long way to go.” Your take?

The only relief center announced so far [at the time of this interview] is the Orchard Beach parking lot relief center. We flagged our concerns when the announcement was made, since no one asked us beforehand what we thought about it. This does not seem tenable and has the potential to create more harm than good in this moment. Orchard Beach is incredibly far from mass transit. It is also a flood zone that was recently flooded! 

We want to make sure people have access to support and services, but saying people will be there for 24-96 hours is a little concerning. The initial intent was for it to be temporary, but if it becomes permanent de fcto shelter, this would be against our Right to Shelter Law in New York City.

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We’ve asked what these relief centers will do, how they will operate and for a chance to give feedback that is taken into account. We are asking the City for a short, medium and long-term plan. The buses are not letting up. They are coming with more vigor. Initially it was a bus or two, then it rose to three, and now NYC receives six or nine buses a day coming directly from Texas. This does not include others making their journey on their own. So we are seeing an increased amount of folks coming up here and we have not really addressed how we are going to ensure folks are given dignified shelter.

In addition to shelter, most migrant asylum seekers need help navigating their cases. How could the Access to Representation Act ensure they get legal assistance? 

Regardless of immigration status, everyone should have counsel, and a right to counsel, when they are going through immigration proceedings. The Access to Representation Act was introduced by New York Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz and State Senator Brad Hoylman and grew out of work by the New York Immigration Coalition, the Vera Institute and the Immigrant Advocates Response Collaborative. lt would literally ensure that whoever needs an immigration attorney receives one, and contribute to the long-term solution of building out access to lawyers.

How have members of the New York Immigration Coalition been impacted by welcoming the city’s newest arrivals, and what are you working on next?

Membership in the NYIC includes over 200 organizations across New York state, and for the past three years we have been focused on many things: fighting for immigration legalization at the federal level and also expanding rights and services at the state and local level; for the expansion of rights and services for our communities here in New York City, and also combatting Covid-19 and making sure our community has access to Personal Protective Equipment like masks, and is able to get vaccines. Folks had really stretched their capacity in recent years because the need has been so great. Now, again we are stretching our capacity. So we really need New York City and the state to step up and provide resources to support these organizations so they are able to continue doing the amazing work they are doing with service delivery as well as being providers across the board.

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