Non-Profits and Activists Play Outsized Role in Asylum Seeker Care



A triage center for asylum seekers at Port Authority Bus Terminal. Photo by Kevin Lind

Five buses with at least 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 them to take the lead.

A line of medics, legal professionals, food providers and translators stood by waiting, along with people holding clothes, cell phones and MetroCards. And while some of these services are provided and paid for by New York City agencies, many of them are not.

Non-profits and activists are doing this work without financial support, said Adama Bah, an independent immigration advocate. “My volunteers, we have over 30, they are doing this for free,” she said.

Since August 5, buses filled with asylum seekers have arrived at Port Authority Bus Terminal, after Texas Governor Greg Abbott—in what he calls an effort to publicize a border crisis and critics have called a political stunt—sent approximately 11,000 refugees to New York. The city is paying for legal services, some transportation, and medical care administered onsite at a triage center set up at Port Authority. And while the efforts of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs have been seen as benevolent, non-profits, community-based organizations and individual activists said they are left to pay for many of the services and for the support 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 representatives are around to help. Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs Manuel Castro 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 are providing 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 MTA buses in order to facilitate asylum seekers getting 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, said Ilze Theilman, the director.

The asylum seekers arrived “in physical distress, dehydrated, famished, and exhausted,” said Thielman, adding that many asylum seekers are arriving at the wrong destinations and need to continue traveling.

One 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 become instrumental in what is called the “re-ticketing” process.

Port Authority Sign

The triage center at Port Authority, closed to the public, is located in the north terminal on the ground level.

But the volunteers are assisting in serious emergencies too.

That first day, the city had not started providing medical care, said Theilman, recalling when one passenger, a 12-year-old girl with diabetes had not had insulin in four days. Luckily, one of the volunteers was a nurse and was able to triage the girl and stayed with her until she received the care she needed.

When it came to food, community-based organizations provided everything, said Theilman. She and Bah  began reaching out to other organizations for help immediately when they saw how great the needs were.

Matt Jozwiak, executive director of ReThink Food NYC, a nonprofit providing 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.

“We are New York City. We are built on this. It is in our blood to welcome waves of people,” said Jozwiak.

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

Coronel said no funding would be available to the organizations as of yet. “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, These proposals, known as RFPs, allow organizations to bid for paid contracts with the city to provide specific services. An award date has not been announced.

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

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 the capacity to 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. Having given out his phone number to them, Malu volunteers as a driver, a hot meal provider and pinpoint person to answer their many 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.”